The smell of death has overcome us this week from the normal safe haven of our backyard dock in St. Petersburg, not far from Weedon Island. We have seen untold numbers of dead fish and birds. We watched a southern stingray gasp and die and an ibis convulse in seizures. We experienced respiratory irritation often associated with Red Tide and witnessed the uncanny quiet created by the absence of the osprey and her fledgling that live on our tree.
In the quiet discomfort of the past few days, I have reflected and realized I have been lucky enough to travel the world and experience its beauty, culture, diversity and humanity. Intrinsically connected with that comes ugliness, destruction, carelessness, pollution and marginalization. However, this time the ugliness, carelessness and pollution is in our home, our water, the grass flats and mangrove holes my 8-year-old son and I love to fish, the sandbars where we spend our Saturdays, and the waterfront restaurants we love to cruise to as a family.
I now sit in the silent absence of jumping mullet and that screeching osprey that almost used to annoy me and I have to wonder: Where are we going?
I came from a part of Florida in the heart of the Bible Belt. In that part of the South, you don’t have to be Christian or even religious to be taught that whatever is done to the least, smallest and most vulnerable of God’s creation is done to him. In fact, you were taught by that generation of parents to never throw away the plastic rings to a six-pack without cutting each ring to save innocent wildlife. Those same parents taught us we could work in corporate America in large cities and still be free to chase our dreams. We could be avid hunters and still be conservationists and advocate safety. We could be boaters and fishermen and still be environmentalists.
If we are honest, the 10-year-old versions of ourselves already knew how we were failing as stewards of this world, a problem of the highest moral significance. And the 20-year-old versions of ourselves were old enough to understand there is an ethical balance between the greed of profit-chasing and the building of equitable, sustainable and profitable goods and services that stand the test of time.
I am fully aware that Red Tide occurs naturally. I have lived in Florida my entire life. I have witnessed what happened in 2018 along the Caloosahatchee. And yet, I have never seen anything like this. The science on this matter is conclusive. Yes, the solutions are expensive but pale in comparison to the cost of Florida’s tourism and hospitality industries. Even that cost pales in comparison to the interconnectivity and environment we all share as human beings and its beauty, culture, diversity and humanity.
We stand on the verge of some of the most diverse and ecologically sensitive areas in the world collapsing at the fault of greed and years of pushing the problem on to future generations. The middle-age versions of ourselves now stand in odd silence in what should be our time of leadership. Where are we going?
Matt Gowens was born and raised in the Florida Panhandle and graduated from the University of Miami College of Engineering. He has lived in St. Petersburg for 12 years.