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Keys fishing guides protest closure of Everglades National Park

Each day at noon, Capt. Matt Bellinger usually does his local radio fishing update from somewhere in the back country of the vast Everglades National Park, where he takes clients to fish for snook and tarpon or photograph birds and other wildlife.

He always ends his updates with his mantra: “Get on the water. And go fish!”

But on Wednesday, sunny with calm seas and a gentle breeze — a perfect day to be out on the water — Bellinger could not take clients to his beloved fishing grounds. Like all 401 national parks, the Everglades National Park was closed by the government shutdown.

So instead of fishing, Bellinger took his flats boat to Cowpens Channel, where about 150 other boats gathered to protest the closure of the marine park.

“I’ve lost $10,000 in canceled trips that I’ll never get back,” said Bellinger, whose Bamboo Charters runs two boats. “I’m already into my war chest to survive.”

Capt. Randy Towe, a fishing guide in the Keys for 35 years, organized the peaceful rally to send a message to Congress that the Oct. 1 shutdown has affected far more people than just furloughed federal workers.

“The point we’re making is that a guide’s booked fishing day that is cancelled is revenue that is gone and we’ll never get back,” Towe said. “We don’t have an insurance claim to fill out. It’s lost revenue because of the government’s poor handling of everything. This closure has already done a lot of damage to good, innocent people.”

At least one congressman was listening to their plight. Rep. Joe Garcia, who represents the Keys, issued a statement Wednesday that said: “I stand with you. As you make your plight. …”

The self-employed fishing guides don’t care about the politics of Washington. They want to work.

“This is idiotic,” said longtime Keys fishing guide Gary Ellis. “I’d like to tell them all to grow up and get a life and take care of the American people.”

The shutdown will be devastating to this weekend’s Redbone At-Large Tournament in Key Largo. It’s part of the celebrity tournament series Ellis founded more than 25 years ago to raise money for cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects his daughter.

“This is costing our charity money; it’s costing our community,” Ellis said.

The protest was held at the channel — within swimming distance of the Islamorada shoreline and just a football field away from the boundary of the national park — where about 75 to 100 fishing guides in the Keys make their living.

It’s a protest that was not aimed at Dan Kimball, superintendent of the park, or his park rangers. “We know they are just doing their jobs,” Towe said.

Kimball said he sympathizes with the guides, many of whom are his friends. “I’m real concerned about the economic impacts they are facing,” he said.

But Kimball’s orders from Washington are to close the park, even the open waters. The only exceptions are for boaters who are transiting through the park and have no other safe route, and for those who need to use the park as a safe haven from storms or mechanical problems.

There are now 12 rangers patrolling the park’s marine area, more than 800 square miles that runs from just south of the mainland, all the way to just off Long Key at mile marker 70 of U.S. Highway 1 in the Keys and west to Everglades City covering the Ten Thousand Islands.

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.”