Executive Director Duane DeFreese chats with fifth-generation commercial fisherman Charlie Sembler about how the Indian River Lagoon has changed since he was young, his time in the Florida Legislature, and practical advice for educating elected officials and the general public on how to help the IRL return to health.

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[Audio transcription via Rev.com]

Episode Speakers:

Duane DeFreese, PhD., Executive Director, Indian River Lagoon Council

Charlie Sember, IRL Commercial Fisherman, Former Florida State Representative 

Duane DeFreese: Hi, I am Duane DeFreese, executive director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Welcome to our One Lagoon, One Voice podcast. 

Each week, myself or one of my staff members will host leaders in the community, scientists along the lagoon, people who know a lot about the system, to talk about some of the problems, and most importantly, some of the solutions to solve the Indian River Lagoon’s health and make sure it’s great for future generations. 

If you enjoy hearing us talk about the Lagoon, like and subscribe to this podcast. So, let’s get the show started, and let’s talk a little lagoon.

Duane DeFreese: Thank you for joining us today. We’re really excited about our One Lagoon, One Voice podcast, and today we’ve got a very special guest. We have Charlie Sembler, and if you’re living anywhere around the Sebastian area and you hear the name Sembler, you’ll know that this family goes back generations. We’re going to have a conversation really about Charlie’s view of the Indian River Lagoon, not only through his eyes as a former commercial fisherman, actually a current commercial fisherman, but also a former representative of Florida and the House of Representatives. We’re going to have a great conversation about looking back at the lagoon through his eyes of his father and grandfather, but also talking about our current situation, the role of aquaculture, the future of commercial fishing, and we’ll get some really cool insights from Charlie’s life because he is lived his life on the lagoon.

So Charlie, thanks for joining us. I hope we didn’t take you away from the boat and the water, but really appreciate you spending some time with us today.

Charlie Sembler: Thanks for having us. I always have time for you, Duane, always. Y’all do a great job and wherever I can help spread the word a little bit, be glad to.

Duane DeFreese: Well, fantastic. You and I have talked a lot over the years, I can’t even remember when we first met, but it’s, I think, back when you were first elected to the House and have had conversations both related with water quality, lagoon issues, and what I’d like to do is to start by seeing the lagoon through your father’s and your grandfather’s eyes. Do you have some recollections you’d like to share with our audience about what that lagoon looked like when you guys were out there fishing?

Charlie Sembler: Well, if you want to start out in the very beginning, it’s going to be in the year 1901, my great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather who I was named after, Charles William Sembler, was just a youngster, a teenager at the time. He would record notes and had a journal where he would write about places such as the Banana River and he would talk about how the Banana River was just such an anomaly within the Indian River. He would go on to describe in great detail spotted sea trout, blue crabs, shrimp, oysters, anything with an exoskeleton, just how rich the waters were in the Banana River and the diversity of the wildlife that you had back then. Now mind you, you got to remember there was no Cape Canaveral then. There was no Crawlerway. The only thing that hit the Cape at that point in time was a lighthouse. That was it. There was nothing else.

When you look at that period of time and then you fast-forward through the decades through World War I, through the Great Depression, World War II, you really went from an agrarian type of Indian River Lagoon Basin where it was farming, fishing, ranching to the industrial kind of revolution, and then you had the high-tech back then the Cape coming online with the Air Force tracking stations and things like that. It just seems like every 20, 30 years the Indian River kind of gets reinvented, if you will. But the one thing that has been constant is the biggest mark difference between our family’s history and what we’re looking at now is just the sheer numbers of people, because there’s a lot of paving, a lot of concrete, a lot of steel, a lot of rooftops.

That is the one constant that we have very little control over because everybody wants to live here and have a piece of it. Most of the old days, if you will, and post World War II was probably like the heydays. You had families that for the first time had conditioned air, they called it conditioned air or bought air, wasn’t air-conditioned. The family station wagon, kind of that modern post World War II area during the ’50s and the ’60s. That was really when I would say the Indian River really got its first exposure nationwide, predominantly through Field & Stream magazines and the articles that became really popular, writing specifically about the fin fishery in the Indian River, that was really one of the beginnings when it was “discovered”, if you will, during those periods of time.

Duane DeFreese: At my young age, I remember Field & Stream, that was kind of the connection to the outdoors. Even though I grew up in New York, we were hunting and we were fishing, and my dad, who was from Indiana, came off a farm, wanted to make sure we knew the outdoors. When you go back to your great-great-grandfather through your kind of family tree, it was all wild capture back in those days. There was nobody farming fish or clams in aquaculture. It’s really aquaculture today. A lot of what we’re doing is on land in tanks, but back in the day it was all wild harvest, wasn’t it?

Charlie Sembler: Back in the day, it was all wild harvest and it was really a combination of two things. There was subsistence farming and fishing, and then anything extra from the farming and fishing went towards making a living. Trading goods, dry goods, fresh meat, fresh fish and supplies and the commerce and how that happened, and most of it back then, it started with steamships. We were right there on the tail end of the steamships, and then when the railroad came along, Henry Flagler’s railroad, that just opened up the whole east coast. But even at that, this was prior to any refrigeration, most of the fish were salted or either smoked and packed in barrels. You had things such as turtles that were shipped live. It really was kind of the tail end, if you will, of what folks refer to as the hunter-gatherer kind of century, the 1800s and then the early 1900s.

You got up every morning and basically it was an eat what you kill system. You had to go to work and you had to provide for your family that day, and that meant you better be catching something, farming something, making something happen.

Duane DeFreese: When did you start fishing yourself as a young kid?

Charlie Sembler: That I can remember was really kind of the late ’60s, early ’70s when things were still … I refer to it still as “the good old days”. You didn’t have the population explosion that you had that really kind of started in the late ’80s and the ’90s. But predominantly everything back then, especially through the late ’60s, the ’70s and the early part of the ’80s, the Indian River, if you look at the little fishing towns or villages from Oak Hill, Titusville, Melbourne, Palm Bay Area, but in particular, Grant, Valkaria, Micco, Sebastian, those were really the anchor fishing, small town fishing communities. 

You had hundreds of families that lived in these different communities that caught everything from finfish to shellfish to shrimp, oysters. In some places like the Cape and Sebastian, you had offshore fisheries that were developing, both pelagic species, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, but also bottom fish as well, grouper and snapper.

During that period of time, there was no GPS. GPS didn’t exist. There were no cell phones. When we started as young boys, what we used to call dead reckon and dead reckon was where you would triangulate and you would line up either a tree or someone’s home or something on the land and you would take a triangulation and basically triangulate that to pick a point either in the river or offshore of the beach to be able to find your particular spot. It was usually a broken bottom piece of reef or something like that. 

Then we were taught by my grandfather. We had a watch, you had a compass, you had a fathom line, and if your tachometer was working on the boat, you would try to keep it on a certain tachometer. When you broke the inlet and you left the inlet headed east, paying attention was drilled in you from the time you were five or six years old because paying attention would keep you alive and you weren’t dependent on 911 or a phone, or if they say let’s just google it, I mean you were on your own.

That’s probably the biggest difference that I see now from the way we grew up and learned how compared to what you have today.

Duane DeFreese: So that fathom line, I think our audience probably doesn’t know what that is, but basically it’s a rope with a weight and you’re tossing it to see how deep the water is. It’s not like you’re reading electronic gauges.

Charlie Sembler: That’s right. You have a knot tied in at every six feet, a fathom. So you would have your watch if you were going so many minutes east and a dew heading on your compass, so many minutes east, and you looked at your tachometer, if it was working, but a lot of times you’d have to attune your ear and know how fast you were going by the sound of your engine and you could literally kind of find your way. I mean, it was as primitive as it got, but today everybody has a smartphone and in almost every smartphone you have everything at your disposal. I mean, the amount of information, GPS, coordinates, storage, plotting, I mean you can just do incredible things today as compared to back then. If we would’ve seen something like that back then, we probably would’ve thrown it overboard thinking it was a trick or a joke. But that’s how far things have come.

Duane DeFreese: No question. I want to go back to the fisheries because I came to Florida in ’78, but actually visited when I was a young kid. My dad loved coming down to Florida, so I remember seeing the Indian River Lagoon and the massive amount of citrus in the ’60s and just since I lived here, so ’78 to now, the fisheries have changed dramatically. So when we’re looking back at your early commercial fishing career, and especially your fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, you guys were basically fishing what the lagoon gave you, and then you’d market … you were targeting when you could, but if you happen to get into a bunch of Spanish mackerel offshore, that’s what you were bringing to the fish houses. So you were reacting to the opportunities more than specializing on certain targeted fish. Is that right?

Charlie Sembler: That’s correct. Everything really in those days it was very much seasonal, almost like anything in agriculture. But fishing in particular, it was very much seasonal. The ones you had, you had roe mullet season, you had kingfish and mackerel would migrate down the coast in the later fall, early part of the early winter. The thing about the Indian River and in this area, there was always something to fish or to catch or to harvest year round. There was that much of a biomass of different fisheries, shellfish, both inshore, offshore. There was always something, as long as you were willing to work hard, there was always an opportunity there for you to go and make a weekly paycheck. 

The difference is back then everything was done manually, extreme, hard, manual labor. You didn’t have modern hydraulics like you do now. You didn’t have the electronics like you do now. You didn’t have the outboard engines in the larger outboard engines where they have outboard engines now that you can get to some of those old fishing grounds in 15 minutes. In the old days, that was an hour and 20 hour and 30 minute trip.

So all of that technology, as good as it was and made life easier, it all came at a cost. Because if you’re more efficient and then you get more people in the fishery, it’s a finite resource and everybody’s competing for what’s there. It was a double-edged sword and as people continued to move to Florida, the recreational fishery developed bigger and stronger and obviously that’s another huge user group that you inserted into all the harvesting that was going on. So it’s nothing new to Florida, it’s going to continue to be an issue. You’ve got just a limited resource and you’ve got thousand people a day moving to Florida and everybody wants to be on the water and everybody wants to catch a fish.

It’s going to continue to be a challenge how do you try to stay equal or stay ahead of the demand, and the only way that you’re going to be able to do that is not depend on natural fisheries, but you’re going to have to start depending on how can we enhance stocks, clams, oysters, not only for water purification and natural biological filtration, but what can we do as far as providing substrate and habitat and restore habitat in some of these places like it used to be. You can broaden that footprint, if you will, of finfish in particular where they’ve got the habitat and they’ve got the place that they can stay here and they can raise here.

There’s no easy answer to it, but there are definitely things out there that can be done in addition to everything else that’s being done. Muck removal, the sea grass replanting program, the clams and oysters and the replanting of that, all those things are kind of well underway, but there’s a big void and a big place for finfish restoration and habitat was structured that that still needs to be looked at pretty hard and really taken to the next level.

Duane DeFreese: No, I’ve seen that in Rhode Island. When I was in school at University of Rhode Island, I don’t remember seeing an oyster fishery. It was clams, scallops, mussels dragging offshore. Once they cleaned up those southern coastal ponds, University of Rhode Island started growing oysters and now you go up there and they’ve got a different variety for almost every coastal pond. You got a Stonington variety and you can do a whole restaurant run trying different oysters. You think we have that possibility? I mean, is that something we can get to here where we’ve got … and you and I are sitting in the old schoolhouse in Sebastian, less than a quarter of a mile from where your working waterfront was and where the Sembler fish houses were. Can we get back to those working waterfronts using both our technologies and all the work and money we’re spending cleaning up the water and taking care of the plumbing problems on land? Are you optimistic about the future?

Charlie Sembler: Well, I think there’s definitely some potential, but farming even on the uplands is hard enough. Farming in the Indian River in that aquatic environment changes everything and it changes in the snap of a finger from day to day. If you’re not dealing with hypersaline conditions, you’re not dealing with oyster drills, sponge borers, excessive red fish, black drum, all sorts of predators that you have to be able to deal with, all the things that are thrown at you on an aquaculture farm, very, very few, if any, are complications that you have brought on yourself from being a poor farmer. But for those young folks that are there, about 50% of being a successful farmer is just observation. Being able to look at something, being able to look at the water, know when things are changing. In other words, staying ahead of the problem when you see something developing. That’s not like I’m just going to take a spin out to the shellfish beds and look at them once a week or once every two weeks.

I mean, it’s like farming, like dairy farming, it’s day in and day out and day in and day out and no days off, wet, cold, no matter what it is. I tell you that to tell you just that in itself is going to limit the amount of people that want to participate in something like that, because you’ve really got to like outside and want to be in some miserable conditions to be a farmer. But I think in addition to that, the one untapped place that I think that has the most potential that I see at this point is to take those farming principles that we and others have developed over the last couple of decades and fine tune them and be able to start to use those and transfer some of those basic principles over into how can we create habitat and how can we create manmade structures and how can we take things out of the waste stream, like clean rubble and things like that, and how can we do that to basically mimic using those best management practices that are all based on farming and do demonstration projects and be able to do sub-structure projects where the application is a little different than the outcome because you’re creating something that’s going to be permanent.

Not that you’re harvesting any off of it, but what you’re doing is you’re creating that the building blocks, if you will, from the zooplankton right on up through the food chain for porpoises that are going to run game fish and trout and things like that in some of these areas. The reason I say that is that allows the farmer … because most farmers don’t just do one crop, they do multiple crops and everything is seasonal, but that would allow those folks to keep a foot in it, if you will, to be able to maintain their farm, but also supplement their income where they could start doing more restoration work. Most of that’s going to be done for either cities and counties and government water management districts, things like that, where you’re starting to develop more of these public private little partnerships and allowing those people to stay on water. That may just be the edge that they need to be able to stay in farming.

Even like our farm, there’s years when we go backwards. All the other interests that we have supplement that for a lot of years. That I think is the biggest place where there’s potential, untapped potential, that you can take these folks that are on the water and really be putting them and maximizing their efforts where they could be doing different types of farming. Although principles are the same, the outcomes are a little bit different.

Duane DeFreese: No, I think that’s an incredible opportunity, not just for the Indian River Lagoon, but the whole state of Florida. We have so much water, so much potential in this history of domestic commercial fishing for food. I mean, I grew up where you go out clamming and you bring them back and you’re farming locally, eating locally, and I hope to get back to that as we get our water quality better. What are you farming right now? I know you’ve got the Sembler dock right here in Sebastian. What are your crops right at the moment?

Charlie Sembler: Well, it’s primarily clams and oysters and we have a couple of younger folks that are farmers down there, and one of them who’s a young lady who works harder than any man I’ve ever seen, she’s just incredible. She’s a great hard worker and she farms oysters and she’s done very well, but also she has times when a lot of them die and she goes through that cycle of farming, like “What in the world am I going to do?” I tell her, I said, “Nicolette”, I said “That’s farming.” I said, “You keep planting and you keep planting and you keep planting.” 

I know that it seems like it’s putting good money after bad, but that is the nature of the farming business. Clams in particular, our shellfish beds are located about two and a half miles southwest of Sebastian inland. There’s things that we go through just like everybody else when we don’t have a lot of rainfall and you get hyper saline conditions, and then sometimes you get excess rainfall and you have too much kind of fresh water.

That’s the whole thing based on this Indian River. I know folks in Brevard County and Banana River have had discussions, and even in Vero Beach they’ve had discussions on breaching the barrier island and let’s take some of that ocean water and create flushing, if you will, or see if we can’t dilute down some of the bad water in the Indian River. But the issue with that is the Indian River is an estuary, and by definition that is the right combination and the boundaries of the right amount of salt and the right amount of fresh that mix. Well, you can breach that barrier island and you can pump water, but it will forever change and make that more of a high saline marine ecosystem than it will traditionally be what we all know as the Indian River, Banana River like in the North Vero area.

There’s things that could be done, but there’s also things that probably will never be undone, if you will, just because of the amount of money that would take and the political scene that you would have to go through to be able to achieve some of those things. I think that’s why it’s important when I talk with folks and I visit with them, I said, “You need to pick something that’s achievable,” and when I say achievable, it may take a decade or two and all good things are going to take effort like that, but as far as to have restoration and you want to open a 1945 Field & Stream magazine and you point to the article about they did on the Indian River, Banana River and say, “That’s what we want it to look like,” that’s not realistic. There’s not enough money that you can print to get to that point. The hydrological changes and the hydrodynamics that the causeways have caused and other things like that are really going to be forever mean. Those things are not going to change more than likely.

Duane DeFreese: It’s not just water flow, it’s also larval migration. I have a good friend over on Sarasota Bay, Dr. Dave Tamasco, he calls those causeway corners dust collectors because he says the water is always bad, especially summertime, super shallow, super hot, and you just don’t get good flow patterns unless the wind’s blowing. To give you an idea, we actually ran some numbers on causeway bridge crossings on the whole system. It’s over 30. Brevard has got some of the longest causeways with some of the shortest bridge spans, it’s not just the water flow, it’s the patterns. Sea grass has to go to seed and those seeds get moved around and if you can’t get into a corner, you’re not going to have recruitment for seagrasses when they want to expand. I wish we knew more about those impacts to small fish, the larval forms, because my guess is the impacts were way more than what we know and what we think, but we just weren’t studying it, the levels, 15, 20 years ago to know the condition before and the condition after.

I want to turn the corner a little bit because you told me a story a couple weeks ago, and I remember looking at the old pictures of the big stringers of fish back in the early 1900s, and I had in my mind what I thought productivity was for the Indian River Lagoon with finfish. But do you recall, you told me a story about how many fish you fileted in your commercial fishing career? Share that with our listeners because that to me is really an example of how prolific and productive this system was not only with shellfish, but also finfish.

Charlie Sembler: Back as a young fella, that’s one thing about growing up in a farming and fishing family is no job is beneath you. I think that the parents and grandparents and the elders took great joy when they could assign you the nastiest, hardest job that there is. I was the oldest of the brothers and the boys, so obviously I got to go first. We would have, back in the day, all of the fish that came in the Indian River and came through our fish house, everything was gutted. You had air freight, but you didn’t have the modern air freight and refrigeration like you do today. You can order something today at two o’clock and tomorrow morning at nine o’clock it’s sitting at your front door. That wasn’t always the case. We had to put it on the trucks, which took three to four days to get to New York where the primary market was in the northeast, so everything had to be gutted, and that was one of my first jobs.

My father would pull up a fish box, he’d turn it over, put a piece of plywood on it, and I’d stand there at the gutting table. He would put a glove on my left hand, I was right-handed, and he said, “Now, pay attention.” Probably violated I don’t know how many child labor laws at that point in time, but that’s what farming families did and children did. I mean, I literally have gutted in my time and cleaned and dressed and headed in the whole nine yards over the years probably into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Every morning in the fish house as the fishermen would bring them in and they could be coming from Pineda to the Cape to South and Fort Pierce, there was hundreds of fishermen that fished for my family at one time, all small net fishermen and hooking liners, but gutting everything, I mean, there was basically the morning ritual.

Duane DeFreese: So basically we got a system that’s changed dramatically from when you were young and working the water.

Charlie Sembler: Completely and totally.

Duane DeFreese: I’m going to turn a little bit because I got to ask this question. You ran for elected office, a House seat in the Florida House of Representatives when you were in your 20s, right?

Charlie Sembler: Yes, sir. I was appointed at 21 years old by Governor Martinez to the Sebastian Inlet Commission, ran for reelection and won. Then I was 24 years old and Dale Patchett, the legislator that had represented the Indian River area for 14 years, came to me. I’ll never forget, we were unloading kingfish, we were right in the middle of kingfish season, and he said, “I want to talk to you.” He said, “I want you to think about doing this.” Now, I’m 24 years old, farming, fishing on the water, manners probably and decorum was not high on the list when you grew up around a fish house without thinking about it. But that’s one thing about being young, because I got married in the fall at 24 and then all of a sudden the next year, Beth and I said, “Well, we’re going to run for legislature.”

I was 25 when I was elected, and it seems like two lifetimes ago. It was a long time ago. But back then this whole place was different. The Indian River was different. We didn’t have the deluge of new folks that we have now. Now I sit here at 58 years old, I’m old, I’m worn out, I don’t have the patience that I used to, and that’s why I’ll never make a good school teacher. All the good school teachers out there that their patients are just … it’s so important doing the job that you do and others do about … there’s so many new people coming in here and you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to spend the time with them, you’ve got to try to get them up to speed and get them to be allies of yours, to sustain the level of effort that so many folks along the Indian River have spent the last…

Well, really until about 2010, 2011, when really everything collapsed. That level and intensity of effort from tens of thousands of people has gotten us where we are today with record numbers of appropriations from the Florida legislature, record numbers of interest and partnerships and cost sharing. That is what did it, that is what got it to that level, and that’s what it’s going to take to continue to move into the next decade or two to be able to finish up on some of the things that you’ve been working on that will make a difference. It’s going to take a while, but it will make a difference.

Duane DeFreese: Charlie, what do you think is achievable? Where should we target and focus the next step?

Charlie Sembler: Well, I think a couple things come to mind. Number one is that obviously the gold standard and the one thing that really is the nucleus, if you will, it keeps all of Indian River, it’s a good barometer, it gauges health, is seagrasses. I know there’s several companies that are in seagrass planting programs and they’re trying different places, they’re trying different technologies. That, more than anything else, is the gold standard that provides habitat for a whole different array of animals and plants and plankton and zooplankton and everything in between. But I would tell you the most achievable goal that I think when you look at return on investment, in other words, if you look at what can we do, for lack of a better term, that the simplicity of it is the genius of it? I think the one area, like we mentioned before, that has the biggest potential hands down where there’s no delayed gratification on seeing it come to fruition is starting to put in substrate and to be able to do substrate projects.

The grass is going to take decades to recover, even if you started today and nothing went wrong. The clams and oysters through the artificial seeding programs is going to be a year in and year out type of endeavor. That’s going to be all based on appropriation. But when you put a piece of substrate in the bottom on day one, within 24 hours, you’ve taken a blank, if you will, a piece of substrate, and you’ve put it in there, within 24 hours, day one, you’ve started recruiting organisms to that particular substrate.

The good thing about doing substrate like that is if it’s done in the right site selection areas where you stay away from the high energy areas, if you do the areas where you have the best chance of the most diverse amount of biological types of organisms attaching themself, it’s literally a mini reef is what it is, but attaching themself to it, and then you have the food chain from, like I say, from the smallest zooplankton, to game fish to oysters, to muscles, barnacles, sea squirts, you have everything from plankton size organisms on up through the largest game fish type of porpoise or shovelnose sharks or black tips using it, I think that that, like I say, more than anything else, that has the best potential to see immediate results, instant gratification, very cost-effective, and very, very importantly, that the public can see it.

In other words, you go down and you take a GoPro of some of these live structures that you’ve put in there where you’ve got just all these different organisms that have taken up residence, if you will, and you’ve got some video and tape that you can do, and you could literally do hundreds of these sites, but something you could show the public where they say, “Here was the effort, here’s the dollars that it took to put it together and here’s the results and here’s the timeframe in which the results were proven and put forward.”

Duane DeFreese: It’s not an unnatural thing we’re talking about because if you look back at the old late 1800, early 1900 photographs, a lot of the lagoon shorelines were coquina outcrops and well, you’d see these fingers sticking all the way into the lagoon with almost beaches that were just solid coquina fragments. A lot of that got mined for construction and roads and so that was kind of the beginning of the change in the land water connection. Really what you’re talking about is kind of recreating something we had naturally before and lost back in the day.

Charlie Sembler: Yes, yes.

Duane DeFreese: Many of our listeners may not realize, Charlie, that you’re also an artist and you’ve got a lot of your art pieces along Sebastian Drive, particularly one of my favorites is your tribute to our armed service members. For anybody’s down here visiting in Sebastian, make sure you take a look for these statues and pieces of artwork along the drive. So tell me, how long have you been doing art?

Charlie Sembler: Well, it was kind of by default. When you grew up in our family, you had to be the fixer and welder and plumber and electrician on everything that broke down at the fish house, so that was kind of one of my jobs. One thing kind of led to another, and I’d try to work in primarily stainless steel, obviously because it’s an assault environment, and started making these little sea creatures, if you will, and then mermaids and then sea horses and then moray eels and one thing led to another and it kind of took on a life of its own. I’ve gotten Christmas cards and postcards and things like that from people I don’t even know from all of the United States that have taken pictures with it and sometimes during the holidays we’ll dress it up with lights and kind of make it kind of festive and nice, and it’s one of those little kind of relief valves, if you will, that I did just to kind of decompress.

As I got to doing more and more of it, then it kind of turned into not so much of a hobby, but more I had to keep up with it and people wanted to see new things. But that’s kind of how it started and it’s just really that extra thing that kind of gets you through the hard days when you can just focus on that.

Duane DeFreese: No, I think that’s great. I’m going to use a clam joke. As we wrap up, any pearls of wisdom? You’ve seen the Indian River Lagoon literally from the water’s edge. I don’t know any waterman that I’ve met in Florida that has got more experience, real life experience on the lagoon. You did, what was it, 10 years in the Florida legislature?

Charlie Sembler: 10 years, yes, sir.

Duane DeFreese: Building policy, making some really great appropriations, including the Sebastian Inlet Fishing Museum. I think you and Senator Pruitt, that was one of your big projects. But how about a pearl of wisdom for the future? Are you optimistic that we can get this job done? I know the governor just put a historic 100 million on the table for the Indian River Lagoon just a week ago, but what do you see in our future?

Charlie Sembler: Well, there’s literally dozens if not hundreds of different issues that all affect the Indian River and the goals that counties and cities in the water management districts are all trying to achieve. But the one thing that I would tell you is probably one of the most important things that this is from just your average citizen to your fishermen to your county commissioners to your city council members, but in particular to your legislative members, and that is developing personal relationships with the policy makers in particular. 

I can’t express to you enough the importance of having a good personal relationship with members of your legislature. That is the most valuable currency that you will ever build and accumulate on getting projects done. I say that because I’ve been there and I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it happen and, at least in my time, it worked well for us.

When you have members of your organization and the cities and the counties that are working hand in glove with your legislative members, it makes a huge difference, number one, in appropriations and continuing funding, but it also makes a huge difference in moving projects along where they don’t get bogged down in red tape or they don’t get put on a file cabinet or a desk drawer and they get forgotten about. Nothing moves the system along and breaks red tape like members of the legislature. With all due respect to the counties and the cities, and they do a great job and they assign staff and they do what they can, but nothing gets the attention not only from the appropriators and the regulators like members of the legislature. I can’t encourage folks enough to establish those personal relationships with those folks if they’re willing to spend time with you.

Most of them that I know, and I still try to stay plugged in to some of them, they’re very good about sharing their time. There’s a lot of demand on their time. There’s a lot of different issues facing Florida. But the only way that you’re going to sustain, like I say, the level of effort that everybody’s gotten thus far is continuing to develop those relationships and continuing to be on their radar and continuing to have the cities and the counties with short-term projects, medium term projects, long-term projects. So when the day comes up or the appropriation comes up, say, “Hey, do you have anything in this area or this area or this area?”. County and city folks or water management district folks can go pull it off the shelf, “Here’s a plan for a project.” It’s been vetted, it’s been peer reviewed, keep it refreshed every year and be able to hand it to that legislator so you’re not saying, “Well, we’ll get back with you and we’ll try to come up with something.”

Because the one thing, just real quickly, Duane, the one thing that works against us on projects like this, especially me and you and others who are … we’re getting towards the back quarter of our life, is time and time works against it. We can’t stop it. We can’t slow it down. It’s not going to wait for anybody. That time, I can’t tell you how invaluable it is not to waste it. I mean, not waste one day of it. That’s why when you’re selecting people and you’re putting them in office and you’re talking with folks and trying to rally support, it’s important that whoever you put in there and you’re dealing with to move these projects along, that they understand that that time is … it’s a sacred, valuable part of getting things done and you can’t let a day go by without pushing on it and keeping it going because the minute you let up, it just has a tendency to kind of go by the wayside.

Duane DeFreese: The Indian River Lagoon doesn’t have time either. It’s not just you are in my time, but all the science shows the longer you go down the wrong path on an ecosystem, the harder it is to get that flywheel turned back to where you want it. I want to really thank you for your time, for your insights and for telling the story. I mean, we could go on, you and I, for hours talking about different things for the lagoon, but your work on the lagoon, your service to our community is deeply, deeply appreciated, and I’m looking forward to getting on the water with you, and every time I’m with you, I learn something, so thank you so much for your time.

Charlie Sembler: Well, thank you for having me, and I look forward to getting out there and I’ll share a few of the old pirate stories we can’t talk about on the air, but I think you’ll find them interesting.

Duane DeFreese: That’s great. Well, thank you all for listening. If you enjoy these discussions about the Indian River Lagoon, please like and subscribe to this podcast. To learn more about the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, how you can get involved in volunteer opportunities, learn tips on living lagoon friendly, or to support lagoon restoration by purchasing a license plate or volunteering your time, visit us at onelagoon.org

The new news is we’ve got new artwork for the Indian River Lagoon license plate. If you go online at DVM, you can check it out. We haven’t lost the snook, but I think you’re all going to really love the plate. Most important is the dollars that go to plate sales in each of the counties stay within those counties to move projects through the National Estuary Program. To stay informed about lagoon news and upcoming events, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and they’re all @OneLagoon.

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