(From June 2015)

When I began this column nearly 10 years ago, I made a promise I would only report fish catches I had actually seen.

That promise for truthfulness extends to other areas as well. Not long ago, I began to receive emails from Brent Brown complaining about the damage being done by the marsh restoration project in the Northern Mosquito Lagoon. Although he sent me aerial photos of obvious scars to the mangrove islands, I told him that for me to write about it, I would need to see it for my self.

When he asked me to meet him early one morning at J.B.'s Fish Camp, I had no idea what I was getting in to. First, I met Chris Rose, a fish camp employee who seemed very upset when I mentioned the marsh project. Next I met Capt. Pete Mader, who runs Eco tours. Pete told me he believed the big back hoes and grade-alls working in the area had contributed to the decline in water quality of the Northern Lagoon.

Soon, I was introduced to Mike Sullivan, who runs Cedar Creek Shellfish Farms. On this day everyone I met was angry about the excavations but no one was affected as much as Mike.

He showed me photos of the silt that is supposed to be stopped by the turbidity barriers that were obviously not working. Clouds of silt and darkened water hanging over his clam beds. Only six years ago his was a thriving business producing millions of clams and now it is all but dead.

Now I can tell you Cedar Creek is no rinky-dink operation. Mr. Sullivan has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and is as much a scientist as he is a farmer. He showed me tanks that held thousands of tiny clams no larger than a speck of pepper and then dipped his hand into another container to pull out hundreds of pea-sized ones. Next he showed me the adults and then those that were spawning. Too bad all of that money and experience now seems to be wasted.

When Brent Brown arrived, he had arranged for a 20-foot-wide beam skiff to take us deep into the mangroves. That boat was captained by Zan Leach, a local commercial fisherman. Also on board was Bob Walton, an environmental scientist, and Alex Arango. We loaded two kayaks to help with the trip and set off.

Our first stop was an ancient shell midden left behind by the Timucuan Indians who first occupied this land. Bob and Alex took an instant interest and Brent and I mounted the kayaks to continue. We paddled through narrow channels overhung with mangroves and Brent told me that just a few years ago those streams had been teeming with fish. Now they were mostly barren.

After some time, the sloughs became too shallow to float even the kayaks, so we had to get out and walk. Finally we were there. Just ahead was a large area that had been stripped of all plant life. Both sides of the little stream had been flattened and the mangroves that had been ripped out by the roots were being pressed down into the muck by the heavy machines. I could not believe what I was seeing. Instead of a restoration project, it looked like an area of undeniable destruction.

Later when I was able to read the permit that had been issued by the St. Johns Water Management District, I learned that sometime back in the early 1960s a grid of channels had been dug through the mangroves with the hope of controlling mosquitoes. At the time, rain water was lying in pools back in the swamp and believed to be a breeding ground for the insects.

Whether draining those areas actually worked is still up for debate. What is not up for debate is the work to restore the area back to its original state was causing horrendous damage to the ecosystem. At this point, at least two injunctions have been sought to stop the digging, but so far both have been denied. At this point, more than 600 acres are scheduled to be plowed under all the while under the auspices of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Look, this stuff is way out of my league, but as a common sense fisherman and lover of the outdoors, I have to tell you something is terribly wrong here. Some of you may remember back in 2012 when I wrote of the seemingly overnight failure of the water quality in the Northern Lagoon. The locals partly attribute that to this project as they do the loss of fish and the death of the shellfish business.

For sure you don't have to be a scientist to know that when you send big amphibious machines into the fragile ecosystem, the results will be disastrous. Fishermen are protective of every oyster and here is the state smashing them to bits. No doubt digging those canals back in 1960 was probably a mistake, but you can't correct that with an even bigger mistake. I am fairly certain the work is being done within legal parameters, but at the very least it is a crime against nature.

Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, “The World’s Greatest Beach” and “I Swear the Snook Drowned.” Email questions and comments to fishwdan@att.net or call (386) 441-7793.

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