Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Along the Gulf

I sit on the thin edge of the Gulf of Mexico.  I squint and hold up a hand for shade.  Some of the whitest sand I have ever seen amplifies the bright sun.

The sand is a fine powder made up of corals and shells tumbled over each other and pummeled by water for thousands of years.  It feels smooth and cool on my feet.

Barely ankle high waves in the gem-green water lick the shore.  I’ll get into that lovely water in a little bit.  I am lucky, I thought, to be here.

The houses of civilization are easily a quarter mile away behind me.  This is the new beach.  I’d be sitting under four feet of water if I were sitting in the same place only two years ago.  Tides change.  Sand swirls and drops.

To get to the water now, you must walk through small hummocks of green dune grass, little yellow flowers, and vine tendrils stretching out like long spider legs.  I am happy to do so.

Near my chair, flocks of skimmers, plovers, least terns, and other birds crowd the beach facing into the wind, like fighter jets on standby.  The big brown bombers, pelicans, fly in formation up the coast inches from the water’s surface, rarely moving their wings.

A lone great blue heron with its spear-like beak and spring-action neck prowls the shallow water for little fish.  Occasionally a small tern swoops up and then drops straight into the water as if crazy.  I squint to try to see if it has caught anything, looking for that telltale glint of white fish belly in the sun.

A boat comes into view.  It looks as if it’s going to drive right onto the beach.  It’s a shallow water skimmer with a flat bow and a big black outboard on the back.  Two men in full waders and green baseball caps stand on the bow and focus on the water in front of them.

Draped on their arms are small white nets like they’re holding someone’s shawl at coat check.  The boat gets in even closer, probably knee deep.

The men toss the white cast nets into the water.  The nets are specifically designed to catch small fish.  They call them bait fish, and marine biologists call them forage fish, or one of the most important parts of the food chain.

Two days ago, I read that Florida marine birds are finding fewer forage fish.  Two reputable organizations studied it, and came to the conclusion: forage fish are depleting too rapidly to keep up.

The men toss their nets once more.  The weights on the edges of the nets splash into the water.

The men pull up the nets quickly and one of them lowers his head as if in disappointment.  I am glad for their empty nets but feel a little guilty – I have no idea their intent.  Maybe what they’re doing is sustainable.

Then again, if their nets are empty, where are the fish?

I don’t know much, but I do know the birds will not win the long term competition with people for forage fish.  We’re too good at hunting and taking everything we want from nature.

Another least tern makes a headfirst -- almost desperate -- dive into the shallows not too far from the boat.

Are the birds getting enough food to have the energy to make more birds?  Are they getting enough food to have the energy to evade predators or fly out over the water to hunt?  Are they getting enough food to have the energy to migrate when their eternal clock says it’s time?  I do not know.

Maybe they are.  Maybe they’re not.  Optimism is as fleeting as a gulf ripple.

Maybe the men on the boat are actually scientists counting the small forage fish.  Trying to find answers.  Maybe people are beginning to understand and care that the health of the planet depends on the health of the ocean.

I resolve to believe that, and stop giving the men on the boat the evil eye, stop daydreaming about wading out and asking them what the hell they’re doing, stop imagining grabbing their nets out of the water and running away down the beach like a madman.

The horizon stretches away, flat and epic.  It asks the questions with a little more edge: what is the future and is it going to be a good thing?

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