The Florida Sportsman Panel conservation survey results.

Scene from the St. Johns shows facets of Florida life our wetlands support—and why water quality is so critical.

The first Florida Sportsman Panel survey on conservation and environmental issues in the state yielded some surprising results and confirmed what everyone knows: Inshore water quality is the number one concern of Florida anglers. Case in point: The discharges from Lake O to estuaries on both coasts is the single issue of greatest concern to most anglers.

First, a bit about the survey. The Florida Sportsman Panel survey system was created this year to gauge our readers’ opinions and beliefs on issues of importance to recreational fishers and hunters in the state. Survey results give voice to the specific viewpoints in this diverse group and are not only valuable to us at the magazine, but also to wildlife and fishery managers, outdoor companies and others. Surveys are delivered by email link to panel members, and results are not linked to the respondent, i.e. they remain anonymous. You can join by clicking PANEL at the top of the Florida Sportsman website or by going directly to floridasportsman.com/panel. The conservation survey ran for two weeks in the spring. Some 275 of the 550 panel members participated.

Inshore water quality is the number one concern of Florida anglers.

A high proportion of respondents had extensive experience in Florida fishing: more than 50 percent have been fishing in Florida for more than 25 years, and another 21 percent have fished in Florida for 15-24 years. People who have been fishing in Florida only 1 to 4 years were only 5.8% of respondents. In fact, the percentage of respondents correlated well to the time they’ve spent in Florida. The upshot? Those with more time invested in the Florida outdoors were more likely to take the survey and express their opinions. Respondents were also well-traveled in Florida: a third of respondents traveled out of their county to fish, shellfish or spearfish more than 10 times a year, and another fifth traveled out of their counties between 5 and 10 times a year for these activities. Only 10 percent of respondents did not travel out of their county to pursue the sports. Fishing was the favorite activity of 89.5 percent of respondents.

One admirable respondent added, “I can’t say any one particular is my favorite. I recently took up hunting which occupies most of my time at the moment. I love fishing, spearfishing, shellfishing, crabbing, clamming, kayaking, boating, kite surfing, etc., etc.” Indeed, many of us know that dilemma.

Unfortunately, more than half—53 percent—of respondents answered that they felt the quality of inshore fishing was on the decline in Florida. Fourteen percent felt that it was improving. When it came to offshore fishing, 44 percent felt that the quality of fishing was declining, followed by 41 percent who felt it was staying the same.

That a majority of respondents believe that inshore fishing is declining correlates with the issues of greatest concern revealed by the survey. In response to the query to name the most pressing conservation issues facing Florida today, the top four were, in order, Lake O discharges (52.1%), agricultural runoff (36.9%), nearshore water quality (33.5%) and plastic/trash in waterways (32.3%). As mentioned earlier, the single issue of greatest concern to most anglers (30.6%) was discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Of least concern to respondents were sea level rise (4.6%) and extinction of plant and animal species (5.3%).

Other specific issues offered up by voluntary comments included, “commercial fishing,” “weed killer on lawns,” “sewer system discharges,” “loss of forage fish,” and “lack of water reaching Florida Bay from the north resulting in massive salinity and dieoffs,” among others.

There was strong support for the development of the reservoir and water cleaning facilities south of Lake O. In response to the question, “Do you believe that the reservoir south of Lake O designated by SB10 should be built to alleviate Lake O runoff to the coasts?” 64.5% said yes, 7.6% said no, and 27.9% answered Don’t Know.

Interestingly, while climate change and sea level rise ranked low as concerns across the board, the majority believe that human activities are contributing to climate change. In response to the question, “Do you believe human activities, such as fossil fuel burning, release carbon dioxide or other emissions that are contributing to climate change?” 61.6% of respondents answered yes, while 38.4% answered no. Of those respondents who answered yes, because of those beliefs, 68.5% installed energy efficient home features, 50.3% changed their voting/political activity, and 42% purchased a more fuel efficient vehicle.

The graphic reveals that a majority of respondents to the first-ever Florida Sportsman Panel survey on conservation and environmental issues feel that the quality of inshore fishing is on the decline. It was one of 17 questions asked in the survey, which yielded some surprising results.

Results of this survey would suggest that while a majority of people believe human activities are influencing climate, they are perhaps more concerned with immediate, visible consequence of poor resource stewardship in Florida.

In a section of the survey devoted to opinions on management and regulations of game and sport, agencies received mixed reviews on their performance. A high percentage (46.0% of respondents) said that Florida’s governments were doing a bad job of protecting the state’s fish and game and its natural habitats, 35.7% considered it an indifferent job and 18.3% believed they were doing a good job. Slightly better were opinions of state management of resource regulations and game management actions: 38.5% believed agencies were doing a bad job, 39.7% answered indifferent job, and 21.8% said managers were doing a good job. Federal managers of NOAA received less positive opinions of their management of resources and regulations: 54.4% said they were doing a bad job, 31.7% said indifferent job and 13.9% called it a good job by federal managers.

In one of the survey’s indicators of the importance of conservation and the environment to respondents, a vast majority of people answered the last question: “Please describe the one action that could be taken in your area that would have the most impact on conservation in Florida.” More than 180 people of the 275 who answered the survey took the time to write a response. These were wide-ranging answers, of course, that shed light on the variety of threats facing enjoyment of outdoor activities in the state. There was great concern for the health of the Everglades voiced in this comment section, and numerous opinions on overcrowding, lack of access to hunting and fishing, misuse of public funds intended for conservation, use of lawn fertilizers and weed killers and the need for greater enforcement, among many others.

There were also positives brought out, such as the point made by the respondent who praised the contribution of “our active spearfishing population to help educate others as well as help preserve our marine ecosystem by taking lionfish and destroying ghost traps when they come across them.”

Pointing out the critical connection between conservation and outdoors activities, another respondent wrote: “I live in the Tampa Bay area. There are 4 contiguous counties with no WMA for hunting access (Pinellas, Manatee, Hardee and Desoto). Surrounding counties have minimal WMA lands (Hillsborough, Polk and Sarasota). This is the most densely populated region of Florida and all of us must travel at least an hour and a half to reach crowded public lands. Most of which have extremely limited hunts.

“As you know conservation is most important to those with a stake in it. Mainly, fisherman and hunters. There’s no problem with access for fishermen. I’d like to see more done to improve hunting which in turn fosters more support for conservation of our terrestrial and wetlands.”

Those are the kind of important comments and viewpoints that need to be heard by all of us, and by managers and politicians repeatedly, over and over. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2018

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