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State of Our Seas: How climate change impacts the Wakulla County coastline

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Posted at 1:30 PM, Oct 31, 2023

ST. MARKS, Fla. (WTXL) — Across the state of Florida, our waterways are being impacted by a host of issues: rising temperatures, pollution, and development, among others. But some areas are feeling it more than most.

Reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod traveled across the state for a special series of reports we are calling "The State of our Seas."

In Wakulla County, we find Saint Marks, Florida, a small town made up of mostly bodies of water. It’s home to a marina called Shields Marina, and it’s there that the team meets with Dustin Antrobus with Fysh and Hunter Charters.

“The world’s better when you’re out on the water,” Antrobus said.

It’s what Captain Antrobus does every day, every year.

While out scouting the seas for fish, he said, "This is the world’s second-largest grass flat. It’s only second to the Great Barrier Reef flats. You have the Wakulla River, the Saint Marks River, the Auxilla River, you have the Ockolcknee River, the Sopchoppy River, and on top of that, you have springs.”

It’s an area unlike any other in the state.

Antrobus drives the team around the shallow waters of Wakulla County, an area that’s 80% water and comprised mostly of state and national parks and refuges.

Because of this, life underneath the tannic water is among the most nurtured in the state.

“I think if I was a redfish, I would want to be from Wakulla,” laughed Antrobus.

“I mean, we are the only boat on the water right here, so I think pressure. It’s not as pressure; we don’t have as much human interaction here. I think it helps to keep things as natural…the homeostasis at a natural level.”

But that doesn’t mean the area hasn’t faced challenges.

For one, populations of sea trout and mullet, which used to be plentiful in the area, have depleted. Antrobus thinks one problem is anglers regularly hitting their limits on catches for the day. For trout, that’s five per person each day.

Another issue could be the heat, slowly killing off species that need more favorable conditions.

“Sometimes I think you are not always on the decline; you are just not on the upswing. And then sometimes you are on the upswing, and you think, oh this is how it should be, but you don’t really know you are in the good times until it’s a bad time or a slow time,” said Antrobus.

That’s what could be said for scallops. They're a staple that’s put small coastal towns like Steinhatchee on the map, but their growth has been stagnant.

“They have done good by keeping commercial interests off it,” Antrobus explained. “You have to come out and get them or bribe somebody you know to give it to you.”

Another species that has put the gulf waters on the map is red snapper.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in the Gulf of Mexico, the season only runs for a month.

For those fishing on their personal boat, the limit is two fish, and they have to be a minimum of 16 inches. But charter boats like Antrobus’ can only catch and release.

“It’s nice to have fish for the future, but at the same time, in an industry where I make a living putting people on fish, it’s kind of a hard sell to tell people, well, we only get one of those. And that usually sparks up the why, and that’s a good segway into conservation conversation,” he shared.

It’s a difficult challenge.

An area known as the Forgotten Coast has been virtually untouched for hundreds of years.

But in the most recent decade, development and expansion have had an impact on the area’s most prized possession, the seagrass and sea floor. They are the incubator of the diversified life here in the gulf.

“For example,” Antrobus said, “Every time there is concrete poured, that water hits the drain, and that drain drains here. So, all that fresh water is not good for these grass flats.”

He furthered, “The sandbar areas, that’s where everyone hangs out, but the irony is, is that’s the early staging of that bleaching, that fresh water coming through those rivers starting to take out some of that grass. So, my hope is that we don’t try to sell out to a point that we are not taking care of all the things we are trying to protect.”

So, how do we protect this shoreline and the creatures that call it home?

In recent years, FWC has made strides in changing regulations for how much of a certain species of fish can be caught and when. But its enforcement, specifically with those visiting, is hard to track.

Antrobus said he charters about 150 trips a year, but he’s getting more and more calls as people start to call his backyard home.

His goal is to inform them of what makes this place special.

“If you find this place, and you are lucky enough to discover it or somebody tells you about it, you’ll never forget it.”

And how important it is to not be greedy.

“The harder part is actually doing it and finding restraint and not actually taking what’s here.”

He said, “If we get past that I didn’t know phase or I was ignorant to what the law was phase, I think that’s our biggest concern by far.”

Making sure there’s enough fishing left for the next generation.