Recreation: Harbor Branch will develop bonefish hatchery

FORT PIERCE — For Russ Fisher, few things compare with his love for “hunting” bonefish. When he sets out from his home in Key Largo to catch and release one of the state’s most popular inshore sport fish, Fisher said it’s a lot more like hunting than it is fishing.

He prefers to pursue the torpedo-shaped target in shallow, relatively clear waters. There, he can stealthily approach one, or a small school of, bonefish. He selects a fly he thinks will entice one to bite, then makes a presentation he hopes won’t spook the wary trophy and, instead, start a tug of war.

Fisher is like thousands of other anglers who revere bonefish and their grassflats game fish cousins, tarpon and permit. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars — tourist dollars in many cases — are spent specifically on the same type of “hunting” Fisher finds rewarding. But in recent years, an alarm has been sounded by fishing guides who work the waters of Florida Bay and the adjacent Florida Keys.

The bonefish numbers simply seem to be in severe decline. According to Aaron Adams, Bonefish Tarpon Trust director of science and conservation, reports from longtime guides in the Upper Keys indicate bonefish populations there could be off as much as 85 to 90 percent.

So the trust is aiming to reverse the decline. Thursday, several members of the organization’s board of directors toured the aquaculture facility at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute campus in Fort Pierce to see firsthand what its team of scientists can do to help bonefish in Florida Bay, the Keys and elsewhere in Florida. This week, the organization, in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, announced it has awarded Harbor Branch a $3 million grant to fund first of its kind research to design and test and experimental project to grow bonefish for stock enhancement.

“Our larger goal is to try to determine what has happened to the bonefish stock in the Florida Keys and Florida in general,” said Harold Brewer of Key Largo, trust president. “Working with Harbor Branch, we have an opportunity to start from scratch. This is the beginning of a much larger endeavor once we get these steps in place.”

Fisher said Harbor Branch was chosen for this challenging research for a variety of reasons.

“They’ve given us more than a year’s head start over other options we had,” Fisher said. “Not only do they have the skill set, but they have the team to work through the challenges that will arise.”

Paul Wills, associate director for research at Harbor Branch, said he and his team are ready to do something that has never been done before — raise bonefish in captivity and get them to reproduce.

“The current research plan is a five-year project and at least the first half of it is devoted to brood stock conditioning, hatchery components and producing that first fish,” said Wills, who has been with Harbor Branch since 2006, where he and his team produce red drum, pompano and cobia. “I hope we can get to that point much earlier than that — perhaps in the first year — where we’ll be able to get the technology to where we can produce the juveniles.”

But, Wills admits, there a lot of “ifs.”

“Since it has never been done with this species, there is a lot to be done,” Wills said. “What are the water quality requirements of the juveniles? What can we feed them? Can we train them to feed themselves once they are back in the wild? There are a lot of real basic questions to be answered first.”

The bonefish quandary is a tough one. According to the Bonefish Tarpon Trust, recreational fishing in Florida is a $9.3 billion a year business with $7.6 billion coming from the saltwater fishing sector. In the Florida Keys, some $465 million is attributed to flats fishing, where bonefish, permit and tarpon are commonly encountered. The Everglades region accounts for an estimated $1 billion in recreational fishing economic contribution.

Since the trust was founded in 1998 by concerned anglers, guides and scientists, it has worked to enhance fisheries for these species. Recently, it launched a clean water education campaign that focuses on how healthy habitats equates to healthy fisheries.

“We’re concerned at how low the bonefish population is in the Keys and that even as we try to fix the problems, we don’t know if those populations will be able to sustain themselves once whatever it is that is impacting them is fixed,” Adams explained. “This will be one tool we can use in the bonefish restoration toolbox.”

Sport fish restoration is not a new concept, although it has not been done frequently in marine environments. Throughout the country, states including Florida have established hatcheries for freshwater sport fish like largemouth bass, walleye, muskie and more. It’s been done to help the quality of the fishing and the quality of people’s lives, Wills said.

“But we may also be working on bolstering a species that may be in decline,” Wills said. “Do we want to lose that species? As a biologist I have to say ‘No!’ We want to maintain that diversity.”

One of the first steps, Wills said, when it is time to introduce fish to the tanks at Harbor Branch, will be for scientists and trust anglers and guides to catch bonefish with hook and line methods to bring them to Fort Pierce.

Bonefish Bio

Scientific name: Albula vulpes

Nicknames: Silver ghost, white fox, macabi

Food value: Seldom eaten in Florida, too bony

Range: A tropical species caught in the Keys, Biscayne Bay, Bahamas and Caribbean, as well as on the Treasure Coast

Habitat: Shallow mud or grassflats

Game quality: Legendary for speedy, long-distance runs in shallow water

Size: Common from 2 to 10 pounds

State record: 16 pounds, 3 ounces, Robert Schroeder, Islamorada, March 19, 2007

State fishing regulations: Catch and release only; Bag limit: 0 per day.

Conservation information: www.bonefishtarpontrust.org

Source: Sport Fish of Florida by Vic Dunaway, Florida Sportsman magazine

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Keys character and salesman who defined Florida living dies at 90

Fred Castillo, who died at 90 on March 9, couldn’t have been more of a Miami and Florida Keys character unless Ernest Hemingway or Carl Hiaasen created him for one of their novels.

In a good sense. Born in Miami on May 3, 1925, the youngest of four to a father from the Yucatan, Mexico, and a mother from the Canary Islands, Spain, Castillo found himself an island across the waterway from Alabama Jack’s, a fixture on Card Sound Road near the Miami-Dade and Monroe border.

Built himself a shanty, called it the House of Representatives, and every weekend friends and family would join him for drinks, fishing and fun in the 1960s. “One day, a seaplane landed there. It was the owner of the island,” Castillo’s daughter Paulette Mick recalled. “He said, ‘I’m glad you are enjoying the island. It is my island. But you are welcome to stay here.’”

The casual setting, in eye’s view of Alabama Jack’s, which he’d run for original owners Jack and Alice Stratham when they vacationed, was idyllic.

That is, until the ’60s came to a close.

Click here to read an obituary on Tavernier’s Bill O’Brien, Miami’s former police chief.

Click here to read an obituary on B.J. Rakow, a Miami Beach-based writer.

“Time went on and unfortunately some drug deals went down there,” his daughter said. A body was found in a boat that had drifted up to the dock. “After that, that sort of went downhill and became a place not that desirable to go to because of the drug deals.”

Castillo was mostly unfazed. As a teen in Miami he worked as a paper boy for the Miami Herald before World War II. He juggled island life on the Keys with hard work. He ran Fred Castillo’s Used Cars on Flagler Street near downtown Miami.

After the war, he also returned to the Miami Herald as a district sales manager and chief express sales manager from Miami to South America and the Caribbean. The company sponsored an Operation Amigo exchange program for students in South America and Miami. Mick remembers her father and mother, Martha Castillo, traveling often to Peru, Panama and Ecuador as part of that program. “A wonderful time, those years,” she said.

Before Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, Castillo and family would sail upon a ferry boat to Havana. Castillo sold some of his cars there. “That last year we were going over there, soldiers were on the streets with guns,” Mick said. “We were traveling down some of the roads in Cuba to different towns and there’d be buses on the side of the road. People had been set out and the buses burned.”

Years before, Castillo went to Jackson and Miami High schools but for his senior year played football for, and graduated from, Gesu High in Miami. He joined the Marines on Feb. 17, 1943, before his graduation day. (His sister Esther picked up his diploma.) He shipped out to Hawaii on the USS Kalanin Bay and spent 58 days sleeping on the ship’s deck on a cot, with a tarp pulled over him to fend off inclement weather. Miserable, but it built character.

“That was the worst part,” his granddaughter Jean Mick-Jollay said. “He didn’t have to go into battle. He ended up on the luckier end.” The Herald ran a photo of the Castillo brothers Joseph and Anthony and Fred who were all on leave at the same time from different branches of the military before their services ended in 1945. Their father, Jose Castillo, was an engineer on the Overseas Highway.

But from the wartime experience he learned fortitude. “He was always working more than one job,” Castillo’s daughter said.

Fred Castillo was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, the American Legion, the Moose and Miami Pioneer Club.

“He was always telling jokes,” his granddaughter said. Her name for him: “Hoo-Hoo,” because of the owl-like sound he made when she was a baby and cried in her crib. The reassuring sound always calmed her down. “Hoo-Hoo” became his handle during the CB craze of the ’70s.

After retiring from his sales management role at the Herald, he ran single copy sales distribution of the paper in Key Largo, rising early after midnight with his wife to deliver the paper. “He was a leftie so he would throw papers over the van,” Mick-Jollay remembered. He also was a member of the VFW Post 10211 in Key Largo, sold cars and RVs. He bought investment properties.

“All the kids knew him as Uncle Fred,” his daughter said. At the end of his life he’d moved to North Carolina to be near her. “Everybody loved him.”

In addition to his daughter and granddaughter, Castillo is survived by his wife Martha Castillo and son David Castillo. The family plans a private celebration of life in Key Largo. Donations in Castillo’s name can be made to The VFW, Humane Society or The Miami VA Fisher House.

Should You Visit the Florida Keys?

My Answer is yes and no – Here is why.

After living in Miami for over 20 years, I would say yes. But when I first arrived in Florida, and drove that long skinny road down to the final and southernmost destination in the USA, I did not even think it was that pretty.

I had seen nicer roads when leaving in California before Florida. And I had definitely experience much better beaches in many parts of the country. The Keys do not stand out for beautiful beaches – a few locations are quite nice and sandy, but this is not why one goes to the Keys.

It’s just about 165 miles from Miami to Key West (180 miles from my house) and any map will tell you it’s a 3 to 4 hour drive, but in fact it never is. Unless you trace that road in the middle of the night on a Tuesday, it will never be a 3-hour drive but more like five hours, should you stop for gas and a cold drink. And it does not matter if you drive a fast Jaguar, it’s not you, it’s all the other incidentals.

First, you must take into account that there is only one road to go south, and even though it will take you there, it will never be free of cars or monumental vehicles such as boats on trailers or humongous RVs. So that’s one thing. I have yet to see one of those large campers go at 55 miles per hour. True, the road is not adapted to speeding for them. So you might get stuck behind a large piece of the moving kind for long stretches.

My first secret is to take the Card Sound, as soon as you leave Florida City, look to your left after the last chain hotel and the road will take you off the traditional causeway going to the Keys onto a left detour – that never says where it goes, but trust me, it goes. It cuts the causeway drive to bring you at the entrance to Key Largo, at the very same point the causeway ends.

So if you want to go all the way down to the finale destination, Key West, it is surely not a day trip, as it may take you five hours to get down. A full weekend is better. The leisurely pace of the islands is going to take over your time, and nothing will be done quickly anymore for the rest of your visit here.

The detour way is exactly the same distance than via the causeway, but very few drivers use it; even some Miami natives do not know this way. And at night, with zero city lights, the most magnificent stargazing experience is there, just look up. Technically, the first so-called Key should be Key Biscayne, but that island is so much part of the city of Miami, it’s more like a chic suburban place than a wild spot.

Having done the road to the Keys so many times, I can tell you that the most beautiful parts are not visible from the main US 1. You need to turn left or right to a side part to see what the islands are all about: water -on the left the Atlantic Ocean, on the right the Gulf of Mexico, as you head south from Miami. You know what they say: it’s the journey that counts, not the destination!

All along the main road (US 1), you will see the mile markers used to indicate the location of a hotel or an attraction – Keys people say “I live at MM 84”, they don’t use addresses for directions, unless they want to send you off the main road. Mile zero is Key West. Several majestic bridges linking the islands will certainly draw justified wows of wonderment.

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My Main Squeezes.

Key Largo: this is really a fishing heaven, but since none of us fish, I’ll skip that part. Instead head to the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can dive down 25 feet to reach the giant Christ of the Abyss sculpture, one of three such copies.

Islamorada: the town calls itself the Fishing Capital of the World. Go watch the massive beasts – aka the giant tarpons coming to feed every day at Robbie’s marina , an amazing ballet of schools of fish coming for crumbs and getting so fat! There is a charge of $1 to walk on the pier.

Big Pine Key: this is where the tiny Deer Key can be spotted, sometimes too close to the road. I know of a thrift store off the main US 1 that has plenty of such visitors by the side of their building, even though they never leave food out. You can never plan on seeing the adorable agile creatures; they are wild and come as they please.

Bahia Honda: The Sate Park here is such a treat for us! This is our favorite beach. We always walk pass the obvious first stretch of sand with parking spaces where most people stay and head instead to the left for a 15-minute walk on the sand, after the curve of the island to find the most pristine waters and some shade under palm trees. We even had a family tree there for many years, where all my kids used to climb and hang with their feet in the water. After a few hurricanes, the naked tree is finally gone.

Key West: the southernmost point of the continental United States is there, with a perfect anchor-like buoy to show you. That’s right, you cannot go any further down than that, and on clear nights, it’s supposed to be possible to see the halo of lights from Cuba in the sky. Rafters and boat people rarely make it there though, as the currents of the strait usually pushes them further up the Florida coast, around Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach.

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The ceremonial of watching the sunset in Key West is more like a circus event, with food, clowns, street tricks, fire eaters, booths of hippie jewelry, and savant dogs showing their tricks. I prefer to watch the sun hitting the horizon line in a deserted area, where the purples and oranges of the sky cannot be spoiled by fire tricks and smoking demonstrations. But it is a popular sight, and if you will be in KW just once, go ahead and watch the ceremony.

It is Addicting in a Way.

It’s the laid back charm that gets you, and it’s called the Keys disease. I definitely got it after a few trips, but it took me a while to get in the trance and find it nice. I still take my French friends and family down south, and they don’t see why I like it so much. I guess they need to relax.

The sometimes distressed look of the Victorian architecture brought in by the first Bahamian inhabitants, the many dilapidated wooden house – albeit very expensive – is sometimes a sad thing to see, but the true nature of the Keys is really to enjoy the water, the sun, and the relaxed ways of the locals. “Don’t worry be happy” was surely created for the people of the Keys.

I am not a supporter of animals’ water parks or dolphins’ encounters, but the Keys have plenty of that of course, which I have not visited. With the weather constant between 70 and 90 degrees, with a couple of spikes in either direction, the climate here is indeed ideal, that you can count on. Hurricanes do come between June and October, but you will know about it days in advance and will easily escape them.

So should you visit? Yes if you have time and are ready to relax and let go with no schedule and no tight social rules. No if you only have one day to spare, are hurried tourists, or have expectations of any kind. This is a tropical paradise, and as such, the main goal is to have fun, drink rum and enjoy the music.

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This week’s best bet: Dolphin fishing offshore of Haulover Inlet

BEST BET

Captain Ralph Mayans from Sea Cross Charters out of Haulover Marina reported dolphins in the 8- to 12-pound range plus a few more than 30 pounds are being caught almost daily offshore of Haulover Inlet. The dolphins are being caught next to floating debris and along current rips in blue water. Large wahoo are feeding in the same areas and are being caught on chrome and blue spoons.

MIAMI-DADE/BROWARD

Captain Dean Panos of Double D Charters out of Keystone Marina reported his clients have been releasing sailfish on almost every charter. Mixed in with the sailfish have been dolphins, kingfish, blackfin tuna and bonitos. Gene and Frank Clasby of Miami and Bill Berrio of Port St. Lucie fished Biscayne Bay with captain Alan Sherman of Get Em Sportfishing Charters and caught six snook to 32 inches. They also had jack crevalles to 8 pounds and sea trout to 16 inches. The fish ate live pilchards hooked to a Mustad Ultra Point hook. Captain Bouncer Smith of Bouncers Dusky Charters out of Miami Beach Marina reported his recent charters are producing a few sailfish, kingfish, dolphins and big amberjacks offshore of Government Cut. In Government Cut his clients are catching tarpon and snook.

KEYS

Brett Hogan out of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo reported the charter fleet in his area has been making daily catches of sailfish, wahoo and a few dolphins on the surface and then catch-and-release groupers, amberjacks, mutton and yellowtail snappers on the bottom. Captain Jack Carlson from Two Conchs Charters out of Marathon reported the cobia fishing on both sides of the Keys has turned on. Sailfish are showing up in decent numbers in 90 to 120 feet of water on the Atlantic side, and on the bottom, large yellowtail snappers are being chummed to the surface in 80 feet of water and then caught using a Mustad 3407 No. 4 hook tipped with a peeled shrimp.

TREASURE COAST

Captain Charlie Conner of FishTales Charters out of Port St. Lucie reported his clients at the fishing docks and channel edges are doing well on sheepshead, snook, black drum, snappers and croakers. The grass flats are producing steady catches of sea trout, pompano and ladyfish. The DOA Deadly Combo has been working on the grass flats. The ocean inlets are producing steady catches of Spanish mackerel, jacks and ladyfish.

FLORIDA BAY

Captain Bob LeMay reported when the weather heats up, big tarpon have showed up on the shallow flats of Whitewater Bay. The tarpon are responding to live ladyfish, soft plastics, hard plastics and flies. Fishing the rivers and creeks has produced nice catches of sea trout, redfish and snook to 36 inches. Local anglers Gus Torres and Gus Jr. and Mike Prado fished Florida Bay out of Flamingo and caught four tripletail, five redfish and four snook to  27 1/2 inches. The fish were caught on Cajun Thunder floats and live shrimp hooked to a Mustad No. 4 Ultra Point hook.

SOUTHWEST COAST

Captain Gary Mounce of Fishin Finatic Charters out of Everglades City reported redfish and snook are biting cut ladyfish and live shrimp fished under a popping cork along the outer edges and points on the incoming tides. Sea trout are plentiful over the grass flats. The trout are going for jig heads tipped with soft plastic baits. Large snook are being caught on hard plastic lures in the backcountry, and over the hard bottom offshore, sheepshead are biting small pieces of shrimp. Captain Todd Geroy of Captain Todd G. Geroy Charters out of Naples reported large snook are being caught and released with live pilchards. Live chumming with the pilchards around points, creek mouths and oyster bars has helped him locate the fish and then almost every bait fish that is cast in the direction of a feeding fish has resulted in a hook-up. Mixed in with the snook are some very large jack crevalles.

FRESHWATER

Alan Zaremba of World Wide Sport Fishing Inc. reported peacock bass have started to spawn so having a good pair of polarized sunglasses has helped his clients spot the fish on their beds. Casting AZ Jungle jigs in the half-ounce and quarter-ounce size has been getting the peacock bass strikes. Zaremba has found good numbers of peacock bass in the C-1, C-2, C-4, C-0 and C-100 canals.

This week’s best bet: Dolphin fishing offshore of Haulover Inlet …

BEST BET

Captain Ralph Mayans from Sea Cross Charters out of Haulover Marina reported dolphins in the 8- to 12-pound range plus a few more than 30 pounds are being caught almost daily offshore of Haulover Inlet. The dolphins are being caught next to floating debris and along current rips in blue water. Large wahoo are feeding in the same areas and are being caught on chrome and blue spoons.

MIAMI-DADE/BROWARD

Captain Dean Panos of Double D Charters out of Keystone Marina reported his clients have been releasing sailfish on almost every charter. Mixed in with the sailfish have been dolphins, kingfish, blackfin tuna and bonitos. Gene and Frank Clasby of Miami and Bill Berrio of Port St. Lucie fished Biscayne Bay with captain Alan Sherman of Get Em Sportfishing Charters and caught six snook to 32 inches. They also had jack crevalles to 8 pounds and sea trout to 16 inches. The fish ate live pilchards hooked to a Mustad Ultra Point hook. Captain Bouncer Smith of Bouncers Dusky Charters out of Miami Beach Marina reported his recent charters are producing a few sailfish, kingfish, dolphins and big amberjacks offshore of Government Cut. In Government Cut his clients are catching tarpon and snook.

KEYS

Brett Hogan out of the Holiday Inn in Key Largo reported the charter fleet in his area has been making daily catches of sailfish, wahoo and a few dolphins on the surface and then catch-and-release groupers, amberjacks, mutton and yellowtail snappers on the bottom. Captain Jack Carlson from Two Conchs Charters out of Marathon reported the cobia fishing on both sides of the Keys has turned on. Sailfish are showing up in decent numbers in 90 to 120 feet of water on the Atlantic side, and on the bottom, large yellowtail snappers are being chummed to the surface in 80 feet of water and then caught using a Mustad 3407 No. 4 hook tipped with a peeled shrimp.

TREASURE COAST

Captain Charlie Conner of FishTales Charters out of Port St. Lucie reported his clients at the fishing docks and channel edges are doing well on sheepshead, snook, black drum, snappers and croakers. The grass flats are producing steady catches of sea trout, pompano and ladyfish. The DOA Deadly Combo has been working on the grass flats. The ocean inlets are producing steady catches of Spanish mackerel, jacks and ladyfish.

FLORIDA BAY

Captain Bob LeMay reported when the weather heats up, big tarpon have showed up on the shallow flats of Whitewater Bay. The tarpon are responding to live ladyfish, soft plastics, hard plastics and flies. Fishing the rivers and creeks has produced nice catches of sea trout, redfish and snook to 36 inches. Local anglers Gus Torres and Gus Jr. and Mike Prado fished Florida Bay out of Flamingo and caught four tripletail, five redfish and four snook to  27 1/2 inches. The fish were caught on Cajun Thunder floats and live shrimp hooked to a Mustad No. 4 Ultra Point hook.

SOUTHWEST COAST

Captain Gary Mounce of Fishin Finatic Charters out of Everglades City reported redfish and snook are biting cut ladyfish and live shrimp fished under a popping cork along the outer edges and points on the incoming tides. Sea trout are plentiful over the grass flats. The trout are going for jig heads tipped with soft plastic baits. Large snook are being caught on hard plastic lures in the backcountry, and over the hard bottom offshore, sheepshead are biting small pieces of shrimp. Captain Todd Geroy of Captain Todd G. Geroy Charters out of Naples reported large snook are being caught and released with live pilchards. Live chumming with the pilchards around points, creek mouths and oyster bars has helped him locate the fish and then almost every bait fish that is cast in the direction of a feeding fish has resulted in a hook-up. Mixed in with the snook are some very large jack crevalles.

FRESHWATER

Alan Zaremba of World Wide Sport Fishing Inc. reported peacock bass have started to spawn so having a good pair of polarized sunglasses has helped his clients spot the fish on their beds. Casting AZ Jungle jigs in the half-ounce and quarter-ounce size has been getting the peacock bass strikes. Zaremba has found good numbers of peacock bass in the C-1, C-2, C-4, C-0 and C-100 canals.

4 Weekend Trips to Take Right Now

Just a short drive from Miami, the Keys—stretching from Key Largo to Key West—offer a different way to experience paradise.

Surfboards and Adirondack chairs beckon outside The Beach Café at Morada Bay.

While Miamians live where everyone else vacations, residents like to sneak away occasionally for a change of scenery. When feeling the itch to get out of Dodge without dealing with TSA lines, head to The Florida Keys—a mere one to four hours away, depending how far down the A1A you’re willing to venture. Visitors in the know are also keen on this diverting locale, often extending work trips a few days to dip their toes in the white sand and unplug. Take a look at a few of the top Florida Keys destinations that are worth the drive.

Time-Tested: The Moorings Village Spa, Islamorada. This cottage at The Moorings says “vacation hideaway.”

Three decades ago, windsurfing champion Hubert Baudoin traveled to The Keys for a competition and stayed. In his 20s at the time, Baudoin purchased The Moorings in 1988 and has since expanded it into the internationally celebrated, 18-acre luxury property it is today. The site of big-name fashion shoots (Chanel, for example) with some of the world’s leading supermodels, The Moorings is just as renowned for its postcard-worthy white-sand beaches (as seen on the hit Netflix show Bloodline) and cottages that transport you to a state of mind worlds away from city life. The impeccably manicured property comprises 18 one- to three-bedroom cottages and villas, including the two-story Blue Charlotte House, a 6,500-square-foot stand-alone home that gives travelers a true taste of private-island living. Don’t forget to pop into world-famous Pierre’s for the freshest catch of the day. 123 Beach Road, Islamorada, 305-664- 4708

Group Outing: Cheeca Lodge Spa, Islamorada. There’s not much guests can’t do at Cheeca Lodge Spa.

Planning a weekend gathering for friends? Just two hours south of South Beach, the famed Cheeca Lodge Spa, one of Islamorada’s most popular destinations, works for laid-back and active vacationers alike. Simply relax, or dive into snorkeling, visit a spa, fish (Islamorada is frequently dubbed the “sport-fishing capital of the world”), satisfy any appetite at dinner, golf on a Jack Nicklaus–designed course, play tennis, hang at a private beach, stretch at yoga classes, or go boating. For the kids, there’s an all-day camp full of activities (which really ends up being a win for parents). 81801 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada, 305-664-4651

Private Escape: Little Palm Island Resort Spa, Little Torch Key. At the aptly named Little Palm Island Resort Spa, guests can land in style aboard a seaplane.

Arrive by yacht (the property’s marina can accommodate up to 120-footers) or seaplane at this resort, which consistently lands on multiple international “Best” lists. With indoor-outdoor tropical suites, thatched-roof bungalows peppering the beach perimeter, and unobstructed views of rolling ocean waves with nary a soul in sight, you won’t believe you’re still in the States. A trip here is purely about the utmost in indulgences, from outdoor mud baths and hydrotherapy to catch-and-cook romantic dinners and secluded swims. Leave the kids—and the wireless connection—at home. 28500 Overseas Hwy., Little Torch Key, 305-872-2524

New Digs: The Marker Waterfront Resort, Key West

Located at the seaport in the heart of Key West’s Old Town, The Marker is the area’s first new luxury build in close to 20 years. Miamians will feel at home in the property’s familiar island-contemporary designs, or enjoy an evening swim under the stars in one of three saltwater pools. If you fancy enjoying the island like a local, wander a few steps from the hotel to Key West’s most famous eateries, bars, and nightlife, which line Duval and William Streets, and cultural attractions like the Key West Garden Club, the Key West Lighthouse, and the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens. Book The Captain’s Quarters for unparalleled views from your wraparound deck overlooking the neighboring harbor. 200 William St., Key West, 305-501-5193

OUT In The Water In Key West

Located 90 miles from Cuba at the southern most tip of the United States, Key West offers unparalleled access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, it’s about a 14-block walk from one shore to another—a short journey that allows visitors and locals alike to take advantage of everything the seas have to offer. From snorkeling to beach lounging, fishing to wine cruises, Key West serves up an aquatic A-game you can’t find anywhere else.

1. Beach - Key West is approximately two miles wide and four miles long, so a beach is nearly always in sight. We’re fans of Higgs Beach (pictured above), which is conveniently located next to the pier and AIDS memorial. Smathers Beach, Key West’s longest beach that runs along the Atlantic Ocean on the southern shore of the island, is a prime location for sandy acitivites like volleyball and suntanning, and of course, swimming. Head to Fort Zachary Taylor Beach to see the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean meet. It’s also a great spot to rent a chair and recline, chat with fellow beach crawlers (it can get busy during high season), or grab a bite from the snack shack.

 

2. Suba Diving - The entire 120-mile stretch of the Florida Keys contains the United States’ only living coral barrier reef. Just five miles offshore and you can plunge under water and explore this aquatic wonderland. Not only will you experience a pristine ocean view, but trained instructors will point out coral-encrusted ship wrecks, natural coral formations, and the many fish and plantlife found in these treasured waters. It’s no wonder some of the most well-known underwater photographers make their way to Key West. 

3. Swim With Dolphins – Arguably the ocean’s sweetest mammel are readily accessible in Key West. You can opt to dolphin watch on one of the many boat tours (where you can also snorkel to discover starfish, rays, and sea turtles) or take a short trip toward Key Largo and actually swim with the friendly fish. One of the best ways to familarize yourself with Key West waters is to get to know the creatures who live there.

4. Fishing - In the 1930s, author Ernest Hemingway could often be found trolling the Key West seas aboard his 38-foot fishing boat looking for tuna, permit, and tarpon—all native fish. Embody Hemingway’s nautical spirit and hit the water; various charters and guides will take you through the best locations, including flats fishing and deep sea fishing. Reconnect with your fisherman roots or discover for the first time one of the most relaxing pastimes in Key West.

 

5. Sunset Wine Cruise - Ranked as one of the top two sunset sails in North America by Coastal Living magazine, Wind and Wine Sunset Sail boards on the Westin Marina and swiftly takes passangers off the mainland and onto the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A friendly crew of three serves guests a variety of domestic and international wines, along with a wide-selection of cheese, from classsic brie to dill-infused goat cheese. During the two hours aboard, you’ll be able to talk to fellow passangers while soaking in the setting Key West sun as it reflects off the sea. Ocean, vino, and sunset—the perfect close to a day in the water.

Corals off South Florida hit with severe bleaching

Corals are turning chalk white and dying on reefs stretching from the Florida Keys to Palm Beach County, in what experts call one of the worst episodes in two decades of coral bleaching.

Under stress from unusually warm water, the corals are expelling the tiny bits of algae that give them their fiery streaks of red, orange or green color and that provide the coral with nutrition.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the most bleaching has been seen in the Florida Keys, Miami-Dade County and Broward County, although some reports have also come in from Palm Beach County.

Brian Walker, research scientist at Nova Southeastern University’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, said the bleaching appears to be particularly severe from Biscayne National Park to Hillsboro Inlet in northern Broward County. Among the hardest-hit species are pillar corals, maze corals, star corals, and staghorn corals.

These include corals off Broward and Miami-Dade counties that had survived 200 or 300 years. Scientists have found that some of these old corals have lost nearly half of their living tissue.

“These corals are very important because they have proven to be quite resilient, withstanding everything over the last couple hundred years,” Walker said. “Understanding how these resilient corals respond to present environmental conditions informs us of how the environment has changed. The fact that they are dying now after living hundreds of years, may indicate that their surroundings are much more stressful than ever before.”

The corals form the only major reef tract in the continental United States and support fishing, diving and snorkeling. Reporting the bleached and dead corals are scientists from government agencies and universities, as well as volunteer divers, in a system coordinated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection..

The sick corals off the South Florida coast are part of a worldwide bleaching outbreak that includes the coral reefs of Hawaii and other Pacific islands and is projected to reach Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. The last global coral bleaching event occurred in 1997 and 1998, when 15 to 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs were lost, DEP said in a statement.

Asked to describe what he’s seen, Walker said, “Many white colonies, some diseased colonies, and many corals that have recently died. These are identifiable by exposed fresh skeleton without any tissue or bare colonies covered with a layer of turf algae. Some sites appear to have over 50 percent of the colonies affected.”

Scientists say it will be difficult for South Florida’s reefs to make up for the loss of coral. Although coral larvae settle out of the water onto rocks and found new colonies, this doesn’t happen to a sufficient extent to make up for the losses, Miller said.

“It’s a bad situation for the corals out there right now,” she said.

Bleaching episodes have increased in duration and severity in the past few decades, according to National Marine Fisheries Service. Miller said climate change is likely to be a long-term factor in increasing the number of bleaching episodes, although it would be difficult to tie any particular episode to global warming.

This year, for example, there is a strong El Niño, the periodic warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean along the equator, she said, which is a factor in the bleaching taking place across the globe.

dfleshler@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4535

Copyright © 2015, Sun Sentinel

Audubon Declares Areas In And Around The Florida Keys A Birder’s Paradise

You already know about great fishing in the Florida Keys; but are you aware of the winged riches there? The National Audubon Society has just recognized Florida’s Everglades and Biscayne Bay as “Globally Significant Important Bird Areas,” measured by a set of peer-reviewed, scientific criteria.

In the occasional freshwater ponds, tidal lagoons and in the undisturbed Florida Bay by Everglades National Park, resident and migrating warblers, vireos, tanagers and thrushes share the habitat with white-crowned pigeons, year-round tidal waders and spring-nesting sea birds. And that’s just for starters.

Living only an hour north of the Keys, I often escape for a weekday or two to enjoy nature both under and above the water. The Gulf and the Atlantic — and the mangroves between — are magnets for birds as well as sea life. And to pull it together, the 12-county, 116-site Great Florida Birding Trail opened in 2006 and was renamed the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail in 2011.

The South Florida segment of the trail includes a dozen Keys native habitat stops such as the National Key Deer Refuge, Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Long Key State Park and Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote birders’ paradise located 70 miles off Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. (For trail information, visit here.)

 

In the Lower Keys, the National Key Deer Refuge‘s 9,000-plus acres of mangrove forests, freshwater and salt marsh wetlands, pine rockland forests and tropical hardwood hammocks are an annual stopping point for thousands of migratory birds, and a winter home to many North American bird species. The refuge lies off U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker (MM) 30.5 bayside on Big Pine Key.

At Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, located on Route 905 at MM 106 bayside, birders can view breeding populations of black-whiskered vireos as well as migrating species such as warblers, white-crowned pigeons, terns, noddies, boobies and other unique Keys shorebirds and songbirds. Rare sightings of the LaSagra’s Flycatcher, thick-billed vireo and Zenaida dove also have been reported.

At Long Key State Park at MM 67.5, you can explore mangrove swamp, mudflat, rockland hammock, beach and coastal berm habitats. At low tide, the Roseate Spoonbill may be spotted dipping its round-tipped bill into the shallows searching for a meal, joined by reddish and other egrets.

New program: Harvest a lionfish, get an extra lobster

Spearfishermen who bag at least 10 lionfish a day during the two-day lobster mini-season next month will be entitled to an extra lobster if state fishery managers approve a new pilot program this week.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) board will vote on a proposal when it meets Thursday in Sarasota that would allow divers that harvest 10 or more lionfish a day to take one lobster over the bag limit during the two-day sport season, which is July 29 and 30. In the Keys, recreational divers are entitled to six lobsters a day.

A diver would only be allowed to possess a single lobster above the bag limit per day, regardless of how many lionfish greater than 10 they harvested, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

“If you get 50 lionfish, you are not entitled to five extra lobsters,” Nalley said.

In addition, the lionfish must be harvested prior to taking the extra lobster, and divers would be required to retain their lionfish while on the water to verify their qualification for the additional lobster, Nalley said.

FWC staff has been pushing lionfish eradication programs for the past five years and trying to reach more groups interested in killing lionfish. Currently, there is no size limit, bag limit or closed season for lionfish.

“This is the group (spearfishermen) most closely tied to harvesting fish or lobster,” Nalley said.

One of the biggest supporters of lionfish eradication efforts has concerns about the FWC proposal.

“There are other ways to do it without further impacting the lobster fishery,” said Lad Akins, who oversees special projects for the Key Largo-based REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation). “We need rules that are based on sound science. Lobster regulations are in place for a good reason. I understand what they are trying to do, but we don’t need to give up an extra lobster to accomplish the goal.”

REEF has been on the forefront of lionfish research and eradication efforts. The group was one of the first to hold lionfish removal derbies and has worked closely in the past several years with the FWC and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on eradication.

Akins instead proposed waiving the lobster endorsement tag fee for people who hunt or harvest a certain number of lionfish, he said.

In the past five years, the FWC has launched several projects to reduce regulations for individuals who want to harvest lionfish. Recreational lionfish harvesters are no longer required to have a recreational fishing license when using a pole spear, Hawaiian sling, hand-held net, or any other spearing device designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish.

Measures have also been put in place to minimize the potential for new introductions of lionfish into Florida waters. FWC staff worked with the Division of Aquaculture at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to coordinate implementation of a prohibition on breeding lionfish and cultivating their eggs or larvae in captivity. Measures have also been added to limit the possibility of new introductions by prohibiting the import of any lionfish into the state of Florida.

The FWC created a Lionfish Outreach Team with the goal of educating the public about lionfish and the invasive species’ impact on the marine ecosystem.

FWC has also designed a new program, Reef Rangers, which is comparable to the Adopt-A-Highway Program offered by the Florida Department of Transportation where volunteers commit to litter removal from their section of the highway. Similarly, participants in the Reef Rangers program pledge to protect their local reefs against the lionfish invasion and conduct lionfish removals at regularly scheduled intervals on reefs of their choice. Divers can sign up for the Reef Rangers program online at ReefRangers.com or at a lionfish event using the program’s traveling sign-up kiosks.

tohara@keysnews.com