Florida drought has 'gators trolling for anglers

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Hungry alligators put bite on anglers in Palm Beach County

By Neil Santaniello, S. Florida Sun Sentinel Staff Writer

June 13 2002


Bill Lebensfeld fights an alligator for a fish he caught at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The alligator is in the bottom right corner of the photo.

To protect people from brazen, hungry alligators, wildlife officials have temporarily limited bank fishing at the headquarters of Palm Beach County's federal wildlife refuge.

With refuge marshes so low on water even an airboat cannot get around, there's been a buildup of big alligators in the deeper water of the rim canal inside the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach, refuge officials said.

That has stepped up competition for food among the cooped-up gators located alongside refuge public boat ramps.

"Some are literally coming out of the water" to chase after fish hooked by anglers, said refuge manager Mark Musaus. That is creating a safety problem, he said.

"We don't want anybody getting hurt."

"It's not a good situation because we have to remove [alligators] if they become a problem -- and we don't like to do that," said Mindy Gautreaux, assistant refuge manager.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge is prohibiting bank fishing along the boat ramp area and its L-40 levee bank, but visitors can still cast lines into the water from an alligator-proof, disabled-access fishing platform, Musaus said.

"Alligators can't reach up there," Gautreaux said.

The ban does not apply to fishing from boats.

The gator problem began when water levels in the refuge's interior dropped in the dry season. The levels recently fell below their protective "floor" of 14 feet above sea level for lack of rain, leaving parched swamp and pockets of water, including alligator holes.

The situation has goaded some larger alligators to move into the canal and linger around its east edge, where they are "homing in on people who are fishing," Musaus said.

Water levels have since crept up another half-foot, but not enough to send aggressive alligators back to their usual haunts, refuge officials said.

Before the fishing restriction, anglers added to the problem by feeding hooked fish to alligators looking for a handout. Feeding an alligator is illegal. Citations have been written by refuge law wildlife officers, "but it is not solving the problem," Musaus said.

Alligators are generally on the move around South Florida this time of year because of dropping water levels and something more primal that also prods them along: lust.

Males will hop from pond to pond, canal to canal, to search for a partner during their April to July mating season, said Lt. Chris Sella of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Confine a bunch of displaced, hungry, sex-seeking alligators in one pocket of water, and it can get a little hairy, said Sella, coordinator of the wildlife commission's nuisance alligator control program.

"When you have them all congested like that, you have the larger males trying to dominate an area," he said. "They'll actually fight and bump each other and bite each other, the larger male trying to gain dominance over the smaller one so he can mate with more females."

Some refuge visitors have been spooked, lodging complaints with the refuge staff. They mistake an alligator going after a fish for an alligator going after them, Gautreaux said. Still, "you don't want an alligator mistaking a leg for a bream."

When an alligators take to attacking fishing bobbers, or approaching people casting fishing lines, the wildlife commission will dispatch a licensed trapper to remove the "nuisance" animal, which is then killed, Sella said.

Following their preservation mission, refuge officials prefer instead to restrict human contact with aggressive alligators until water levels climb again and the animals disperse back into the marsh, Gautreaux said.

Musaus said the bank-fishing restriction would be lifted once marsh water levels rise, and that could happen quickly if the volume of rain seen the past few days continues.


Hungry
As a fish is reeled in, this gator goes for it at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton on Wednesday. Refuge managers have reduced fishing from the banks because of low water levels and the presence of gators. Even when fishing from designated areas, anglers must fight the gators for fish.
(Sun-Sentinel/Scott Fisher)


Neil Santaniello can be reached at nsantaniello@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6625.  
 

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