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Interview with an Activist:
"but teach a man to fish and you feed him for the rest of his life" 
 
by Steve Brewster 
 

On Friday, February 20th 1998, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Tim Dixon, a fourth generation commercial fisherman and provincial community activist. Mr. Dixon, a southwest Florida native, lives with his wife and three children in a comfortable home situated on several acres of land in Placida, a small community just a few miles inland from Gasparilla Island. It was a warm, spring-like day and the short drive on the sandy road, which left the pavement, wound through towering slash pines and windshield high palmetto scrub. After parking and meeting Mr. Dixon face to face for the first time, we exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves. He looked directly at me as we shook hands and I could not help but notice his firm grip and the coarse, well-used surface of his hand. He invited me into his living room where we were to conduct our conversation, seated in large, over-stuffed chairs.

Mr. Dixon has always been a waterman, a term he used frequently throughout our conversation to describe his occupation. Fisherman, boatman, and businessman, are all appropriate images of Tim and his enterprise. Spending endless hours away from his home plying the waters for a profitable catch became a lifestyle that was passed on to him, just as it was to his father and the others. I queried Tim about who he would give the most credit to for being the most powerful, influential part of his life. His most significant role model, he said, was his grandfather, the person responsible for developing his tremendous fortitude. 

One of my first questions to Tim was for him to tell me a little about the various environmental organizations he belonged to and how they are funded. The first one he told me about is called Organization of Florida Fishermen. He describes the group and his association with them as follows:

I got involved with the Organization of Florida Fishermen back in 1972 or 1973. Itís a self-supporting industry group that was formed in response to the big commercial trawlers that were catching all of our fish. We are self-supporting. Money is raised through a variety of fund raising activities.
The second organization he belongs to is called The Lemon Bay Conservancy. They are nonprofit and are funded by membership donations. Rather like a historical preservation committee, they select small areas or buildings in the community that they feel deserve protection or preservation. The restoration of the old lighthouse at Boca Grand was one of their recent and most successful accomplishments.

The final organization Mr. Dixon told me about was the Committee to Save the Manatees and Sea Grass Beds. The county commissioners appoint Timís position on the board, and funding is through the Charlotte County government. This cause seemed to be especially provocative for Tim and he began to open up a great deal as he explained their reason for existence. I asked him about his motivation for becoming immersed in this group.

Starting back in the 1980ís I began seeing a different type of boat back in the shallow waters around the islands called flats boats. These are small boats, 15 to 18 feet or so, and have real shallow drafts, maybe only six inches or so. Then they put great big engines on them, 150 or 200 horsepower. What that does is enable them to get way back in the shallow water areas around the islands and go after fish. With those huge motors and shallow drafts, they can go just about anywhere, pushing themselves through even the shallowest places. What this does, of course, is tear up the seagrass beds. Scars them. They also generally travel so fast through the intercoastal that they couldnít avoid hitting a manatee, even if they saw it. Lots of manatees get hit this way. They get scarred-up. Sometimes they die. 
Why do you see the seagrass beds as so important, worth saving and protecting, I asked?
Seagrass beds are important because of overlap. They act like nurseries for lots of different fish. Without them, numbers of fish and others animals that spend some of their life there go down. That affects fishing for me, and manatees have less to eat. There is a vital link between saving manatees and grass beds. They can not be separated. You canít protect one without the other.
I really understood what Tim was talking about. During my research before our meeting, I had unearthed a technical report from the Florida Marine Research Institute, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg. An excerpt from the report by F.J. Sargent says:
Floridaís fishing industries depend on the health and vitality of shallow seagrass beds, as do diverse animal species Ė many of which are of endangered, threatened, or sensitive status. With the loss of seagrass to scarring comes degradation and loss of critical animal habitat and, in some areas, a decrease in water quality (33).
A separate report published by the Department of Environmental Protection, also located in St. Petersburg, tells us that over the last 100 years, the seagrass beds have deteriorated a staggering 81 percent in Tampa Bay. It goes on to say that in Charlotte Harbor, the area where Tim spends most of his working hours, the beds have been reduced 29 percent from 1944 to 1982.

Similarly, in a report published by the United States Department of the Interior titled, Population Biology of the Florida Manatee, Timís insight appears to be correct. Scientists compiling data for the report have tracked manatee deaths from a variety of causes, natural and otherwise. Statewide, the study reports those deaths attributable to human cause sits at 33% from 1976 through 1992. Quantified, that comes to a staggering 482 known deaths directly coupled to watercraft collisions (238).

As our conversation continued, I asked Tim to tell me about ways in which his environment, the world around him, has changed or been altered. With this, he heaved a heavy sigh and began relating his story of personal change. When he first started making his livelihood by fishing, the annual catch of mullet in the state was about twenty million pounds. Now, that total has dropped by 90% to roughly two million pounds. In 1994, Tim explained, the state of Florida, because of the depleted numbers of fish, passed a ban on gill nets, the method used by most of the fishermen to harvest this type of fish. For Tim, the pivotal moment had finally arrived. 

Even before the near-total collapse of the fishery though, Tim felt the effects of catch restrictions and quota limitations continually lowered year after year. He and many other fishermen were slowly being squeezed from their professions. In the end, he sold his nets to the state under a special, one-time buy back program. Tim was facing a dramatic change which, he told me, he never thought could have happened.

In a recently published editorial in our local newspaper it is clear that Tim has chosen to change in a wiser fashion than some other local fishermen. An excerpt from the article titled, "Netting the Poachers" explains.

Commercial fishermen who refuse to abide by the 1994 constitutional gill net ban continue to find ways to circumvent the law. They sewed solid-fabric tarps into nets to sidestep the legal net definition. Now theyíve perfected tactics that includes towing an empty skiff with a cast net, which remains a legal device, into which gillnetted fish are dumped for delivery to the fish house. Many poachers use "spotter" boats to detect marine patrolmen, and voice-activated radio headsets and cellular phones to alert each other, according to Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida. Forsgren has assembled photographs taken in March showing small skiffs carrying illegal gill nets Ė including boats in Charlotte and Manatee counties. Forsgren also has cited recent arrest records showing significant numbers of mullet being poached along the Gulf coast. The Florida Marine Patrol last week found 10 fill nets concealed in the marshes of Wakulla County (Proffitt 12). 
Since continuing life as a waterman was the only way, Tim told me, he would consider remaining in Florida, and fishing was not going to be profitable enough to continue pursuing under the new state guidelines, something had to change. The response he chose came through a government sponsored re-training program and the Florida Conservation Association. Upbeat and enthusiastic, Tim began to explain about his, indeed his whole familyís, new direction. Something that would allow him to remain within his favored environment was on the horizon. Aquatic farming was that new direction for Tim, Doranne, his wife, and his seventeen-year-old son, Jimmy.

In 1995 Tim and Jimmy began the yearlong training program, which taught them how to commercially raise clams. Parts of the curriculum involved learning how to scuba dive, purchase seeds, which are the tiny, sand grain sized larvae, and then grow them into clams of a marketable size. Tim leases two acres of submerged land in Charlotte Harbor from the state of Florida, which has been staked out with boundary markers. The state has designated about two hundred acres in the harbor for such use. Tim told me that there were forty of his fellow fishermen in the first re-training group, and he estimates about eighty-four people in his area are currently active in the clam raising business today. 

At this point Tim wanted me to know some of the details involved with his new, sustainable resource venture and I found my own enthusiasm matching his as he explained. Seeds, which begin life the size of a grain of salt, are purchased from a company on the eastern coast of Florida, Harbor Brand Oceanographic Institute, which he says is an industry leader in this field. About seven to ten thousand of the tiny seeds, initially, are placed inside each specially made, 3mm nylon mesh bag, which is where his wife has also become an active member of the business. She purchases rolls of the raw mesh material, cuts it into the proper dimensions, then sews the pieces into useable bags employing an industrial strength sewing machine. While this provides the bags necessary to raise their own product, extras are made and sold to other aquatic farmers in the area at a small profit, a sterling example of capitalism in its most fundamental form. 

After about two months the bags are brought to the surface. The clams are divided out and about seven hundred to a thousand of the now larger clams are transferred into bigger, 8mm mesh bags. The bags are tied together and strung along the bottom. Once in place, protective netting is placed over the entire grouping of sacks. This is necessary, Tim says, in order to protect his crop from predators like crabs, octopi, and some types of fish which love to feast on clams as much as or more than any human. If all goes well, ten to fourteen months later Tim has produced a highly marketable and popular product, littleneck clams, often called steamers or steamer clams. 

Tim and some of the other aquatic farmers have banded together and formed a co-op to aid in the development and expansion of markets for their product. Hopefully, Tim mused, this move into a new field will provide enough income to keep the lifestyle, that is, being on and associated with the water, in tact.

While Timís new project may seem somewhat strange or unusual to us, it is by no means novel in other parts of our country or the world. Cultivation systems are in practice in Japan, France, and the Netherlands. Commonly found along many of our coastal regions, hard clams were originally called quahogs by our Native Americans. Todayís Americans, however, prefer the name steamers. 

These small-shelled marine invertebrates are animals that belong to the class Bivalvia, phylum Mollusca, and are benthic filter feeders. That is, they live on or near the ocean floor and obtain nutrients by filtration. Because of their immense filtration capabilities, they are truly a beneficial component in the ecosystem when it comes to cleaning the waters of some types of contaminates. If the type and concentration are not too severe, however, the clam is able to metabolize the substance and excrete it as waste. 

As we neared the conclusion of the conference I asked Tim what he thought the future held for him and his son. His outlook was positive and optimistic. He expressed a confident feeling about the future even though it may not be fishing in the same sense that his ancestors had handed down to him, but something close nonetheless, and sustainable. Itís still a personally owned and operated business and his future is not totally dependent upon whether others have depleted our resources to the point of exhaustion. As it appears today, Jimmy, his eldest son, will inherit his fatherís business and way of life in the years to come.

Tim remains active in his various committees and organizations, in fact having to leave for a meeting being held by one of them as soon as our conversation ended. As a final question to wrap up the interview, I asked Tim if there were a message that, if he could, he would like to have sent out to the public. Perhaps something that would encompass the whole of his beliefs and what he campaigns for. His response was two fold: 

First, there is enough room for all. And next, everyone needs to pull together. The recreational and commercial interests must work with scientist in order to better understand collected data. The public seems unwilling to believe scientific data. It deals more with emotions.
I enjoyed interviewing Mr. Dixon a great deal. He provided me with much more insight into his world than I ever could have gained otherwise. All of the information Tim talked about and referred to was backed up by solid evidence as near as I could tell. He had indeed done his homework on those matters directly concerning him and his environment. That alone was impressive. He did not exaggerate or espouse unfounded rhetoric, he simply stated what he believed to be were the facts. I sincerely hope Tim and his family have great success with their new, sustainable product. Iím also glad he will have something to pass along to his son. Perhaps it will be an even better tradition. It is certainly appears to be more environmentally sound.
 
Works Cited

Dixon, Tim. Personal Interview. 20 February 1998. 

Population Biology of the Florida Manatee. Eds. Thomas J. OíShea, Bruce B. Ackerman, and H. Franklin Percival. U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Washington, D.C. 1995. 238.

Sargent, F. J. Scarring of Floridaís Seagrasses. Florida Marine Research Institute, St. Petersburg, 1995. 33.

Proffitt, Waldo. "Netting the Poachers." Sarasota Herald-Tribune 31 March 1998, sec. A: 12.
 

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