Despite talk that more law enforcement park rangers have been put on patrol to keep people out of the park, the number is the same as before the shutdown, Kimball said.
And while trespassing on government land during the shutdown is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $5,000 fine per incident, Kimball also said that the rangers have been told to focus on educating boaters about the closure and not to write tickets.
Allen Ethridge, the park’s acting chief ranger, said that as of Tuesday the rangers had not issued a single citation or even a written warning.
“We want to do our best to keep a passive approach,” Ethridge said. “And so far everyone has been cordial and cooperative. So far so good. And at least what I’m hearing from the rangers, so far there have been no repeat contacts.”
Towe said that most fishing guides he knows are staying out of the park, many because they don’t want to lose their $250 annual commercial permits to operate in the park.
“But the longer this goes on, desperate times could lead to desperate measures,” Towe said. “If it’s a matter of feeding the family and paying rent vs. staying out of the park, some will go into the park and take their chances.”
Capt. Paul Tejera briefly attended the rally with his two clients, a father and son from Philadelphia. They were fishing, but not where the duo dreamed of — in the Everglades National Park.
“Three years. We’ve been planning this trip for three years,” said son Micah Forsyth, a freelance audio engineer. “We don’t have a whole lot of money. But we finally did it, and then a week before, the government shuts down and ruins part of the trip for us. We couldn’t reschedule. I don’t think the government would refund our plane ticket or hotel reservation.”
And while there are other places to fish in the backcountry in the Keys, it’s not the same as the waters of Florida Bay, which is in the national park, said Capt. Greg Poland, a guide since 1989.
“I had two guys from California who wanted to specifically catch a redfish on a fly rod,” Poland said. “They were beginner fishermen, and it is much easier if I could have taken them into the Everglades. They had a three-day charter and canceled the last day because we couldn’t go into the park.”
The protest was peaceful, with Towe delivering a message by bullhorn to those on the boats and over radio channel 79, the local portal for guides, that it was critical for the government to reopen the park.
The Coast Guard and Monroe County Sheriff’s office marine patrol were present for just a few minutes before leaving on an emergency call with lights and sirens to respond to a nearby boat crash.
American and Conch Republic flags waved on many of the boats. Capt. Steve Friedman brought his family to the rally, with a cardboard sign that read: GOP open the ENP.
Many of the fishing guides who were at Wednesday’s protest also were in the Keys for the last shutdown of the park, for six days in November 1995 and for 21 days between December 1995 and January 1996. That time about 60 boats showed up.
One of them was Capt. Hank Brown, a legend in Islamorada. He has guided President George H.W. Bush, first lady Barbara Bush, singer John Denver and the Prime Minister of Australia.
Now 83 and retired, Brown attended the protest to show his support for the many people affected by the closure.
“The only thing good about this is you know it won’t last forever,” Brown said. “In 1996, we came out when they shut down the park. We thought, ‘Well, this won’t happen again.’ But here we are, doing the same thing again. It’s the government’s fault and it’s B.S. They sit in high and mighty places. I often wonder if they give a rat’s ass for you and me and the guides. You even wonder if they know we’re alive.”