Grief on the Reef

Barracuda to the left and a shark on the right.Where’s the free lunch?  Who will get the first bite?Invited to dinner, but I don’t have to stay.From the look in their eyes, I’m the only entree.

Few aficionados of St. Mary’s County politics know that the number one writer of fishing fun, fact, and fiction in the CHESAPEAKE is also an aspiring song writer.  This first verse of a homespun song about a little fish in a big sea was inspired by a couple of lady County Commissioners with whom I was tasked to sit between during my first term of office quite a few years ago.
Ironically, I have swum with many barracudas and sharks.  The only bite that really drew a lot of blood came from a moray eel that chomped down on my wrist while I was grabbing a spiny lobster in a mangrove creek in Key Largo.  I still have the scar from that encounter.
Life in an underwater tropical reef community off the coast of South Florida is as varied as the local politics, people, and neighborhoods that we have in Southern Maryland.
In addition to the solitary predators like barracudas, sharks, and moray eels, there are many schools of fish that each provides their own niche within the coral habitat.

Grunts are a common panfish found in large schools among hard and soft coral reefs.  They are easily caught on hook and line.  Like people, there are many kinds of grunts.  There are White Grunts, Black Grunts, French Grunts, Spanish Grunts, and Porkfish which are attractive small yellow and black striped grunts.  There are larger grunts that can grow to five pounds or more which are called Margates.  People who start their careers as grunts become full fledged U.S. Marines.
Schools of goatfish can be found probing the coral sand for food with the two barbells that hang from their chin. 

Though goatfish are seldom caught by hook and line, I have gotten Commissioner Dan Raley’s goat many times since I was elected.
Colorful tropical fish add exceptional beauty to the Florida Keys reefs.  Blue Tangs, Queen Angelfish, French Angelfish, Spanish Hogfish, Rock Beauties, and Damselfish are just a few of the dozens of colorful tropical fish that have minimal food value but thrill divers, snorkelers, and glass bottom boat viewers.
The true vegetarians of our reefs are the many species of parrotfish that scrape algae from coral formations with their beak-like mouths.  Not only are they an important part of reef ecology by controlling algal growth.  The calcium bits they excrete from the coral they incidentally ingest becomes sand on the reef.      Politically speaking, the boss hogs of the reef community are the groupers.  No matter which species, they all have big mouths.
They switch sex as they grow larger changing from female to male.  Also, like chameleons, they can change color to match their surroundings.  Black Groupers, Red Groupers, Yellow fin Groupers, Gag Groupers, Nassau Groupers, and Jewfish are just a few of these brutes who make the reef their domain.
Another loner prowling the reef that reminds me of a former County Commissioner President seeking once again to reign supreme is the Porcupine fish.  These solitary slow moving fish are big blowfish who swell up with air or water when accosted.

In the puffed up state, short spines protrude that make this fish impossible to swallow.  Unlike the former Commissioner President, the porcupine fish spends most of its life in the deflated position.
Which St. Mary’s County Commissioner President reminds you of a fully puffed up giant blowfish?      Perhaps, the most cunning of all the schooling fish on the reef are the many species in the snapper family.  Snapper are usually identified by color or characteristic like Red Snapper, Gray Snapper, Vermillion Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper, or Glasseye Snapper.  However, names like Cubera, Dog, or Mutton are also attached to some snappers.
Many snappers will refuse to take a bait with a hook in it.  They will be happy to feed on free bits of shrimp, squid, or fish but are smart enough to avoid the bait impaled on a hook and line.  One of the tricks successful snapper fishermen employ is chumming a school of snappers into a feeding frenzy.  The dumber fish end up getting hooked.
Big snappers did not get that way by being stupid.  They are hard to catch and prowl the reef in competition with the grouper for food.  Though they started as little fish in a big school, they become a big fish cruising around the reef to snap up weak or injured smaller fish before they are inhaled by the resident Boss Hog grouper.  Big snappers are the marine equivalent to the Dukes of Hazard.
Without the living coral formations there is no habitat for these many species of fish to survive in.  Elkhorn and staghorn corals branch out much like their names.  Brain coral looks like a giant green brain on the ocean floor. 
Star coral grows upward as a green mountain with little star shaped polyps on the surface.  Sea fans and soft corals add beauty and diversity to the thriving reef community.
Like the communities that we live in, the reef faces similar threats.  Hurricanes can destroy our homes and entire reefs can be torn apart by hurricanes.  I witnessed one reef south of Carysfort Light that was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.
Similar to the slow economic devastation perpetuated and intensified by the Obama Administration that is destroying many of our livelihoods, coral diseases have devastated many reef areas in South Florida and the Caribbean.  Black band disease, white band disease, and coral bleaching have hurt many of the reef areas that I enjoyed snorkeling and diving on as a young captain over thirty years ago.  Fortunately, there are areas that are rejuvenating and the fishing in the Keys is as good as ever due to strict management of this public resource.
Below the surface of the ocean are complex communities that rival the diversity of our own neighborhoods and social infrastructure.  Though hurricanes or other natural disasters may occur without warning, most change in coral habitat occurs over decades or centuries.  Our communities can change far more quickly by making changes in the leadership that governs us.
We have the ability to change our Congressional representation as well as State and County leadership in the upcoming Primary and General Elections.   Disgruntled voters in either party can school together to send the predatory politicians packing on November 2nd.
The change we make this time can be in the right direction.

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