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Field Notes
author Joel K. Bourne, Jr
Photography by Rebecca Hale
Joel K. Bourne, Jr

What was your best experience in the field on this assignment?

Perhaps the one person who takes the cake for commitment to his piece of the coast is Capt. Richard Bradley, a fishing guide out of Merritt Island, Florida, who showed me in no uncertain terms just how resilient the marine ecosystem can be. With the permission of the local authorities, we spent a day paddling canoes into the no-motor zone of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Cape Canaveral. Originally established as a security zone for NASA rocket launches, it has become a de facto marine reserve producing world-record redfish, permit, and speckled trout in the spillover zones along its edges. Bradley, who had fished the area as a boy, was honest about his resentment at being shut out, but also in his amazement at how well the reserve had worked. Within 30 minutes of arriving at one of his favorite sandbars, I'd caught and released the biggest redfish of my life—a sweet 36-inch (91-centimeter) fish followed soon after by my largest speckled trout, which must have run 12 pounds (5 kilograms). For Bradley, however, reducing nutrient runoff from lawns, farms, and streets is even more important than marine reserves. Without that, he says, "you're just putting Band-Aids on a patient with cancer."

What challenges did you face when covering this story?

The worst part of reporting this story was the confirmation of a phenomenon I've been watching for years: the utter build-up of the coasts. From the high-rise condos of Panama City to the resorts and second homes springing up on the cliffs of Oregon, our coasts are being developed to the hilt, driven in part by the largest and wealthiest group of retirees ever to head for warmer shores. In fact, Jerry Ray, the spokesman for Florida's mega-developer, St. Joe, told me his company had done an exhaustive study of coastal areas from Virginia to the Texas border and had found only one piece of raw land left that was sizable enough for a master-planned development. Everything else was either owned by the government or already developed. Riding down the road with Ray through what was once called The Forgotten Coast, we passed mile after mile of slash and jack pine forests ultimately destined to become new subdivisions. It drove home the point that biologist Jane Lubchenco made to me: If we want healthy fisheries, clean beaches, and thriving coastal communities, we need to manage the human footprint holistically, on an ecosystem-wide scale. Otherwise, the things we love about the coast will vanish just as surely as a sandcastle built at low tide.

Did you have any quirky moments in the field?

One day while having lunch with a few St. Joe employees at a Mexico Beach diner, I asked the company's head biologist, Steve Shea, if his biologist friends ever gave him a hard time for working for the Dark Side. He responded with a heartfelt laugh. "I get that all the time," he said. "But then I tell them, 'In the next five years, I'll make more benefits to habitat and wildlife in a year than you will in your lifetime,' "and they want to know more. The quirky logic here is that Shea is saving habitat from his employer. With nearly a million acres (400,000 hectares) of pine plantations in the Florida Panhandle—much of which is unsuitable for development—St. Joe can set aside huge swaths for wildlife to compensate for developing their more profitable coastal properties. But unless I missed the math somewhere, it still results in a net loss of habitat. Whether they can sustain their professed commitment to the environment in the face of market forces, or whether it's just an aggressive developer's green veneer, remains to be seen.