Governmental Nightmares – Richard Londeree
It was in 1989 after several years of unrestricted live rock harvest that the State of Florida became interested in the harvest of live rock. This interest was spurred by the unregulated harvest of rock by an ever-increasing number of divers and boats. Live rock harvest went from just my partner and I to almost every vessel that could make it out to the Gulf. Soon it seemed every boat going down the channel was coming in full of live rock. Not only did this affect the market price of live rock, it also caught the attention of everyone at the dock when these boats would pull in and start unloading live rock.
After complaints from recreational and commercial fishing boat operators about the harvest of live rock, the State of Florida got involved in a big way. I received a phone call one day from an official of the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission in Tallahassee, Florida. He was soliciting the live rock harvesters to a meeting in the capitol of Tallahassee. Well Tallahassee is about six hours from Tampa, but I said we would attend to find out what their plan was to be as we were the major producer of rock at that time and wanted to continue in the live rock business. Well I loaded up the van for the long trip to Tallahassee, but little did I know that this trip was to be the first of many trips through the state of Florida and other states. Six hours later arriving I found a hotel room and crashed for the night. The next morning found me in the Capitol in some bureaucratic building full of bureaucrats. There were five live rockers that showed up and we were sitting face to face with all kinds of State officials.
There were people from the Department of Natural Resources, now the Department of Environmental Protection, State of Florida submerged Lands, The Marine Fisheries Commission, The Coast Guard, The Marine Patrol, and Florida Fish and Wildlife. I had never seen so many badges, ribbons, and shiny buttons in one meeting room. Here I am, a commercial fisherman about to be swallowed by politics and bureaucrat QUAGMIRE as I had no experience in dealing with state agencies but let me tell you after six years of fighting, I became an expert. The State people proceeded in telling us that they did not like our activity of harvesting live rock and were going to regulate us out of business but “allow aquaculture.” Remember that phrase “allow aquaculture.”
We heard from all the agencies involved, and their plan to eliminate harvest of live rock from submerged State lands with a three year “phase out.” Their plan was to allow us to switch to aquaculture of live rock over a three-year period, giving us enough time to get the permit, (6 months), place seed rock in the ocean, and allow it to grow for two years. This was the State’s idea of how long it would take live rock to grow; then when harvesting of live rock ended in 1991, we would still be in business with an aquacultured product.
Well, we then learned that the application carried a $200 fee to process. I looked around the room, and nobody but me had their hand raised. I thought to myself, Hmmm I’m in the live rock business, kind of like it, and wanted to be in the live rock business in the future, this was the way to go! We discussed the live rock issue some more and adjourned the meeting. I was met outside by the official of the State of Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, who grabbed my hand shaking it and proclaiming “congratulations Richard, you are going to be our first aqua-culturist!” He gave me a number to call to apply for “The Permit” to aquaculture live rock. He said, “in six months you’ll have your permit, place your rock and be ready for the elimination of wild live rock harvest”. Well, I found out that nothing could have been further from the truth!
So with desire in the heart, I hopped back into the van for the six hour drive home. I had all kinds of rock dreams on the way home, wondering how I was going to become a live rock aqua-culturist. What was the future to hold, and how was I going to do it? I awoke the next morning and promptly called the number I was given. It was for the local DEP office in Tampa. I informed them of what transpired in Tallahassee and how they were supposed to help me obtain this “Permit”.
My first contact was a gentleman who told me “We don’t like live rock harvest and you will never get this permit!” I was a little taken aback by this comment but persuaded him to send me an application for the permit. I received it a week later and proceeded to wade through the pages and pages of information needed. It took hours to figure out and fill out the information requested. I fulfilled all they requested and mailed it back in. After a couple of weeks, I called for an update on my application, and was told it was “under review”. Well under review is what I heard for nine more months. Becoming very frustrated I called Tallahassee again and told them of my predicament, that it was way past the six months they told me it would take to get the permit, and the phase out on rock harvest was rapidly approaching; I needed “The Permit”.
I was told by Tallahassee that the permitting process was going to be handled in Tampa, and they could not help. So, I called Tampa again and asked for the status of my permit. I was then told that they had “lost” my application, and could not find it, but the funny thing was they had cashed my application check nine months earlier. They told me to call Tallahassee. Catch 22! So I called Tallahassee back and started in on them as I was tired of being the pawn and wanted some action. I called and wrote the Governor, no answer, no help, I called my congressman, he didn’t know what was going on, and finally I got switched to a lady named Wanda Prentis. Thank God for Wanda Prentis.
Turns out Ms. Prentis was head of the States submerged lands unit and without her help and understanding we would have never received our permit. I told her of my predicament with the application, and she said she would investigate it, as I had told her they already had my $200 application fee. About a week later I received a call from her, and I thought “all right, I’m going to get my permit after all!” Well needless to say I was way off base again. I learned that the application from Tampa, not only being lost, was no good anyway as I needed to fill out an application for a submerged land lease with the State of Florida. So here we are one year into the phase out of wild rock harvest, I still had no permit, and rock harvest closure was just two years off. I received their permit application in the mail, and this one was a half an inch thick!
Leasing lands from the state was going to prove to be quite a conquest, even just filling out the paperwork. Wading through this application proved to be quite a process, but it was just the beginning, as I learned that there was to be an underwater site survey of my proposed five acres of the Gulf also. Plus, we had to have permits from the DEP, Marine patrol, Coast Guard, Local Pinellas County Commissioners, The Regional Planning Council, The Aquatic Preserve, And another permit for removal of the rock, by the DEP.
I started the process by calling the Marine Patrol. They had no idea what “live rock aquaculture” was, as did the rest of the agencies I contacted. The problem was there was no “permit” available as there was no avenue to obtain this “permit” because there was no such thing as rock aquaculture. Each time I made a call it was like starting at the bottom of the mountain with no climbing shoes, because nobody had any idea how to go about permitting. Just because Tallahassee said it “would allow” aquaculture, doesn’t mean it could happen, as no one else was concerned with helping the permitting process. I was told a million and one lies by many different agencies, totally frustrated in the process. I literally made hundreds of phone calls in two more years of trying to obtain “The Permit”
During the next two years We were told many times that the state was ready to do a site survey, they would give us a date, and then cancel. I really became hostile at this point, three years into a six-month permitting process, I bypassed the little bureaucrats, and went to the very top, a lady named Virginia Weatherall, the head of the Department of Natural resources for the state of Florida. Well, I really didn’t get to her, but her secretary. I told her the three-year story, and she was very sympathetic, and said there would be some action taken.
Well hurry up and wait some more, as nothing transpired for two more months. I was tired of being the nice guy and called back telling the secretary that if the State of Florida did not get off their rear ends on this one, I was going to bring a lawsuit on them for telling me they “would allow” aquaculture, but then making it totally impossible to obtain “the permit”. Bingo! Action was taken, and I received information that the State was sending a dive team to go out with us and find a spot suitable to them for aquaculture.
It was another big joke as when the States dive team showed up the had a bass boat, a small sixteen-footer, made for lakes, not the big blue Gulf. We had to carry all their dive gear on our vessel as it was a rough day, and they would have sunk. We followed them out the channel and into the Gulf. After riding around for hours, the states team never even got into the water, as they had no electronic bottom finding equipment, had no idea where they were, much less the ability to find us an aquaculture site. I told them I was going further south to look, because we were not getting anything accomplished where we were. As I said it was a rough day, and their little lake boat could not fight the waves and swells heading south, so we soon lost sight of them, as we headed south.
Just off Anclote key we saw some promising bottom and did some preliminary dives to see if it was a suitable location that the State would approve. The state was requiring a sand bottom area, totally devoid of all life, no sea grasses, Caulerpa, sponges, corals, no nothing. Well, it is hard to find a sand bottom area where the sand is not to deep and no life is present to aquaculture live rock. Somehow after hours and hours of dragging behind the boat on a long rope, like a big piece of bait we located a nice-looking area, where the sand was about two inches deep over hard rock.
We were really excited with this area and thought this was it! Making it back to the dock we came upon the State team, who’s boat motor had conked out soon after we left them, they almost sunk, and were not real happy with us. There was some mention of “us” leaving “them” to sink in the Gulf. We learned a long time ago to respect the Gulf of Mexico, because it can get real nasty, real quick out there and people die every year by going out on the Gulf, ignorant, and unprepared for mother nature. They went away with their tails between their legs, and we went home, still with no approved site by the State.
The next day I fired off another phone call to Ms. Weatherall appraising her of the state’s dive team folly, to which she replied, they would try again. At this point, at wits end I hired a lawyer to attend the next Marine Fisheries meeting, in Naples Florida. We really could not afford the attorney’s fees which eventually totaled $18,000 but I had no other option as the phase out of live rock harvest the state imposed was just two weeks away, it had been three years, off blood, sweat, tears, and we were still not even near finding a suitable site, much less a permit for live rock aquaculture.
I think I was developing ulcers at this point and was even more hostile than before. My attorney and I made the five-hour trip down to Naples and appeared before the Commission. My lawyer gave them the spiel, we had a one-inch document detailing the grief, paperwork, years of trying to get their “six-month permit”. Their attitude was “hey it’s not our problem. we just make the laws.” We left that meeting dumbfounded, and mad as hell, because in just two weeks until we would be out of business. At this point we gathered the other live rock harvesters in the state together, and hired a big gun lawyer from Key West, Florida who had fought the state before on fisheries laws and won.
His name was Ed Horan. Now Mr. Ed proved to be our salvation, as we went to Federal Court, in front of Judge King in Miami, and argued our case. The State did not even show up in court! They stipulated, which means they knew they were wrong all along but just did not care about us live rock harvesters. We were all elated as the “drop dead” date was now meaningless, but there was a catch. We could not harvest in State waters anymore, but could go out into federal waters, more than nine miles offshore, harvest live rock and legally land it on Florida’s shores. This sure was a lot easier than our plan of using a helicopter to fly out to Federal waters, drop a cable down to a diver who would swim down to a cargo net full of rock on the bottom, 3,000 pounds, lift it up and fly it to shore, as the state would not allow landing by boat, but flying it in was OK.
Sounds stupid? Well, it was. We would have to raise the rock up out of the Gulf, fly over another state’s airspace, then back to Florida to land, legally. This was going to cost big bucks but was our only avenue to continue in business. Just to make sure this would work; we called the Marine Patrol in Tallahassee to tell them of our plan; they went ballistic! They told me they would arrest everyone, confiscate the helicopter, and the live rock, and put us in jail. Well, the guy with the helicopter backed out and I called Mr. Ed again. He called Tallahassee and reminded them of Judge King’s ruling and gently told them if they interfered with our landing Federally harvested live rock, we were going to sue them for $1,000,000.
Guess what? The State backed down and were now able to go out nine miles, harvest live rock and land it legally on Florida’s shore. Whew, what a fight! So, at this point we still had income from the Federally harvested live rock, which helped finance the continuing fight with the State to obtain “The Permit”.
The year was 1991, three years since our live rock meeting in Tallahassee, and three years into our “six month permitting process” we still had no site approved. In fact, it would be another three years of fighting with the state to obtain “The permit.” We were now working with a State official out of the Saint Petersburg office of the DNR. Her name was Jenny Wheaton, the only other person besides Wanda Prentis that was helping rather than hindering our efforts at live rock aquaculture. Jenny was to be the one to orchestrate the states effort to come out into the Gulf and do the site surveys needed to satisfy the requirements ordered by the State. This dive was scheduled and canceled many times over the next three years. Of course, we had to be ready for the team each time by placing corner markers on the five-acre site, along with underwater ropes circumventing the perimeter of the site, so they could do quadrant studies of the flora and fauna existing on the site.
They were to set down a grid device, count all the critters within the grid and determine the density of life in the area. With each cancellation of the proposed site survey, my ulcers and nerves grew to a point where we were once again forced to hire legal guns to battle the State. I informed Jenny of my plan to hire Mr. Ed again, which spurred her on to get the State to do the survey they had promised to do years earlier. With the threat of another lawsuit from us, finally there was movement, another date was set, and we were going to do the site survey!
Jenny’s team was to come by boat from Egmont Key, about 25 miles south of Tarpon springs, dock in Tarpon and then survey the next day. Well, there was another catch; they had to dock the boat but had no money to pay for it. So, we had to pay the marina for the State’s boat to dock. It wasn’t that much money, but it was the fact that the State dropped the ball again.
There were many events like this, but we will let them slide in this story. The big day came for the dive survey, and we were out in our boat to assist the state’s team. The good thing was that the survey had been put off for so long that it was nearing wintertime, the water was freezing, and the flora and fauna which was present in the summertime was covered by sand, or had died off due to the cold water. The plants and sponges that thrive in the summer basically disappear in the wintertime. Plus, the storms had blown in allot of sand, which had covered the little bit of existing hard bottom which was present.
This proved to be our salvation as the State would have never approved the area in the summer, as it had too much life. Jenny used a motorized sled along with a couple of other divers and spent a few hours doing a very thorough survey. They took underwater video, counted every living thing in the five-acre area, and eventually came up with a plan. It seems there was a little too much hard bottom just east of our site so she could not approve that area, but she said if we were willing to modify our lease request to eliminate the eastern edge of the five acres, she would approve it.
Well needless to say we jumped at the opportunity to finally obtain “The Permit.” She agreed and we ended the day on a high note. Sounds good huh. Well, the biggest hurdle was still to come as this application had to go through the lengthy process of approval from the Governor and State’s Cabinet. We were put on the agenda for consideration in September of 1993.
This was the first ever application for leasing submerged lands for live rock aquaculture, and it was going to prove to be very difficult to convince the Governor and cabinet to approve our application. I decided not to attend the meeting in Tallahassee, and it was a good decision as I am sure I would have been a little too hostile to confront the top bureaucrats in the state, after the fight we had been through for six years. The day for the meeting came and they ended up discussing the issue for hours. It came down to one dissenting vote, that from Bob Butterworth, the Attorney General for the State of Florida.
He was concerned that someone may have set up aquaculture in front of his condo, in Boynton Beach. It is a good thing I was not at that meeting as I am sure I would have spoken my mind about what I thought of their permitting process, and the State’s treatment of us, but it went to a vote, and we were approved! It came down to that one vote, after six years of grief to obtain their “six-month permit.” Hallelujah! It finally seemed as though we were ready to start growing live rock. But there was another catch. The rock I had located five years earlier was soon to be unavailable, as when I was working the deal to purchase the rock, I had told them it was six months until I needed it, but it had turned into six years, and things had changed at the rock quarry.
Read on to hear about the One Million Pounds of Rock.