Don Sweat learned to walk the tightrope between commercial and recreational fishermen early in his career. "I worked with a lot of commercial fishermen and fish houses," said the former Florida Sea Grant marine extension agent for a multicounty region on Florida's gulf coast. "But I also dealt with many recreational anglers in regards to issues such as catch-and-release. So I saw it from both sides."
Sweat, who worked in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Levy counties, joined the fledgling marine extension program in 1977. Over the next 33 years, the Florida native helped save bay scallops and marine sponges, yet still found time to organize one of the longest running kids fishing tournaments in the state.
"I've done it all," quipped the 72-year-old as he strolled along the docks at the Pier in St. Petersburg. "And I am happy to say that most of it has been fun."
Sweat retired two years ago, but last month the man who loves to talk about the future of fishing was honored by his Sea Grant colleagues around the country with the William Q. Wick Visionary Career Leadership Award for his achievements.
"When I got out of school, nobody had ever heard of aquaculture," he said. "But as it so happens, that is how I got my start, fishing farming."
The state Sweat grew up in is quite different from the Florida we know today. In the 1950s and 1960s, commercial fishing was king. The state's mullet and shrimp fisheries supported thousands of families and pumped millions of dollars into Florida's economy.
But even then, the writing was on the wall. With thousands of new residents moving into the state every year, the seafood industry knew that it had to do something to keep up with increasing demand.
Sweat, who was born in Jacksonville but grew up in DeLand, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida and a graduate degree from Stetson before becoming a pioneer in Florida's fledgling fish farm industry.
"I moved to Key West and started working with shrimp," he said. "I set up some ponds on Summerland Key but decided that we would need more land."
Even in the 1960s, Keys real estate fetched top dollar, so Sweat took off for Central and South America.
"I would start off by looking at maps," he said. "If I saw something I liked, I would fly over in a small airplane. Then, if it still looked good, I would rent a four-wheel drive and head out there myself so I could take in the tastes and smells."
Sweat found the ideal spot for a 2,500-acre shrimp farm on the coast of Honduras. "The farm is still there producing 6 million pounds of shrimp a year," he said. "They are all millionaires, but I moved back to the states so I could raise a family."
Looking for a more stable job, Sweat joined the one-year-old Sea Grant Program, which was patterned after the long-running county agriculture agent program.
In the mid 1970s, Florida's fisheries began to show the signs of stress from years of unbridled growth and habitat destruction. One of the first casualties was the state's bay scallop fishery, which has often been described as the marine equivalent of a proverbial canary in a coal mine.
Florida officials wound up closing recreational scalloping on much of state's west coast, but Sweat worked with researchers from the University of Florida and the University of South Florida to understand the scallop spawning process, which led to an ongoing restoration program and the reopening of recreational scalloping.
Sweat also spent 15 years with a UF team that worked on the sustainability of the state's commercial sponge fishery, much of which is located in Tarpon Springs. Sweat helped prove that sponges that were cut, instead of pulled from the sea floor, would regenerate. This groundbreaking discovery led to a change in regulations and the subsequent increase in local sponge populations.
But Sweat also had some more difficult assignments. In the mid 1990s, he found himself embroiled in the net ban controversy, which halted the use of gill nets inshore.
"I often had to be the bearer of bad news," he said. "Those were some hard times for a lot of Florida families, people who I had worked with for years and suddenly just lost their livelihood."
But perhaps Sweat's greatest accomplishment was his work with the nonprofit Pier Aquarium, which he helped found in 1988. In addition to entertaining about 80,000 visitors a year, the aquarium also hosted one of the largest kids fishing tournaments in the state.
"For me, there was nothing like looking around and seeing all those happy kids lined up along these railings catching fish," Sweat said. "Now that is something to be proud of."