The Bream Fishermen Association (BFA) is a well-known and highly respected organization which has assisted the city, county, state, and region as environmental stewards in protecting our northwest Florida and south Alabama waters for over 40 years.
Loosely organized in the mid 1960s by local fishermen who were concerned about the deterioration of regional water quality conditions, the BFA was officially chartered as a non-profit organization in January 1970. That was the same year that the United States Environmental Protection Agency was created as an outgrowth of the burgeoning environmental movement.
The EPA opened its doors for business on December 2, 1970, less than eight months after the first Earth Day celebration, and 11 months after the BFA was established.
Charles A. Lowery and JD Brown at the Annual Nov 2010 Fish Fry
The BFA was originally directed by Charles A. Lowery, a Colonel in the Army National Guard Signal Corps, who has always led by example. Colonel Lowery helped oversee the development of a volunteer-based water quality monitoring program in area waters to assist the health department and state biologists in identifying the causes of water quality impairment and degradation.
Over the years, the BFA placed pressure on state and private organizations to do more to protect the health of our air and waters, and in doing so has been instrumental in protecting our area's natural resources.
Many BFA Members grew up in the area and recall a time in their youth when Perdido and Pensacola Bays were teeming with life; these were sandy-bottom systems with clear waters and sea grass meadows that extended in a patchwork across the entire water body.
Gone are the days that Bayous Texar and Grande were crystal clear, and schools of fish, shrimp, and crabs could be seen among the grasses.
This was also the generation that survived through hard times and fought for our freedom overseas. They remember a time when you could throw a cast net and have enough bounty from our waters to feed an entire family.
These memories, coupled with fortitude, fueled these men and women into taking action. As the saying goes, “Never underestimate what a small group of people can do when they put their mind to it”.
While out fishing, members would pick up trash if they came across it and note unusual water colors or smells from runoff.
These sites were reported and followed up on by the members. In so doing, they assisted the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission in identifying problems so that they could be corrected.
In 1972, in Nichol’s Creek on the Yellow River, a fisherman caught two yellow bullhead catfish which had tumor-like lesions on their heads and flanks.
The fisherman brought his findings to the BFA, who in turn consulted the newly arrived EPA scientists on Sabine Island. So unusual were these lesions, the fish were sent to the Smithsonian Institute for cataloging in the Registry for Tumors.
The tumors were interesting enough to warrant a visit from several scientists at the Smithsonian Institute and the Washington office of the EPA to attempt to collect more specimens. This visit and subsequent visits thereafter were hosted by BFA members.
Although no additional specimens were ever collected with the extent of lesions exhibited by the first specimens, some 200 additional specimens were collected and studied.
The study's findings were captured in a scientific publication (Couch, J.A. and J.C. Harshbarger. 1985. Effects of carcinogenic agents on aquatic animals: An environmental and experimental overview. Journal of Environmental Science and Health. Part C: Environmental Carcinogenesis Reviews. Vol 3, Issue 1.pp 63-105) which linked the lesions found on the fish to environmental contaminants in the water.
The BFA has developed good relationships (partnerships) with the USEPA, the FL Wildlife Federation, the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (known today as the FL Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), and the FL Dept of Environmental Regulation (FDER) and the FL Dept of Natural Resources (FDNR), which merged to become the FL Dept of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in 1993.
We have also worked with the University of West Florida's Dr. Tom Hopkins to identify problems in our area waters and solve these issues, helping to put UWF's Marine Biology Department on the map.
Expanding on their early efforts described above, the BFA Board and members developed a scientific program of water quality sampling.
The members of the BFA understood the importance of scientific methodology in water sampling and the need for quality data and proper collection techniques, so data could be used to identify trends.
In the 1970s and 80s, the BFA expanded their water sampling program to include 93 quarterly stations; each site was revisited every three months; and each BFA-obtained sample was measured for 18 parameters.
BFA Members and state biologists met frequently to discuss data and trends that were observed in the field. In this way, the BFA assisted the state with source identification of many pollutants and environmental issues.
Through these efforts, the BFA identified a problem in Brushy Creek. Brushy Creek in Escambia County, FL, was a routine water quarterly sampling station within the BFA/FDEP Ambient Water Quality Monitoring Program.
Data collected in 1979 revealed high bacterial loads, which focused efforts on the creek and the source of these loads. Further investigation identified the source as a sewage wastewater treatment plant which serviced the City of Atmore, AL, and the surrounding area.
The BFA wrote up and published their findings as a special report, dated Nov 1980. The City of Atmore addressed the problem by updating their wastewater treatment system.
Many individuals may not realize that the reason that FDEP has a Northwest District Office in Pensacola today is a direct result of the numerous trips the BFA Executive Board made to the state’s capital, Tallahassee, in the early 1970s. That was the time when fish kills were measured in acres and miles.
At the persistence and urging of the BFA, not only was the NW District established, it also housed a state-of-the-art chemistry laboratory outfitted with Department of Health chemists and FDER field biologists and environmental chemists.
Then FDER District Director, Vivian Garfein, supported the BFA in their community interests and volunteer efforts, that she arranged for the chemistry staff to begin their workday only after the BFA volunteers had completed their ambient water quality sampling efforts and returned their samples to the lab facility.
In this manner, data quality objectives could be met and fulfilled. (Many of the water quality tests must be initiated within six hours of sample collection to meet and qualify for state Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) criteria.)
Today, forty-plus years after the US Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (CWA), our nation's waters are in much better shape than they have been in decades past.
Industrial discharges, which were the ‘low hanging fruit’, are now regulated, and guess what? It worked. Industry has done a very good job of cleaning up their pollutants. Of course, there is still more work to be done, but it is important to recognize the progress that has been made.
What does that mean locally, closer to home? Our bays, which were dying in the 1960s and ‘70s, are better today, in large part due to efforts by the BFA members who have been, and have taught others to be, stewards of our environment and resources.
No longer do we experience fish kills covering acres or miles. We still have fish kills from time to time, but they are not so much industrial in nature; The biggest current threats to our waters come from storm water runoff, sedimentation, and habitat alteration.
The BP Oil Spill (2010) was an assault on our beautiful Gulf of Mexico and may have altered the balance of the Gulf ecosystem (time and monitoring will tell the story), but every day our inland waters are impacted by the ordinary activities of all of us, industry and private individuals as well.
Unfortunately many of the water quality monitoring programs have had their funding cut back since we entered the economic recession. In January 2009, the FDEP quietly closed their Pensacola water chemistry department.
Currently, the NW District does not have an environmental chemist on staff. The FL Dept of Health had their budget cut in half, and has had to drop many stations within their monitoring program; today their only stations monitored are amenity beaches (popular tourist locations with parking lots and rest rooms); they no longer sample swimming holes, canoeing creeks, or local hang-out spots.
It is our mission to continue monitoring our waterways and to help maintain our water quality for our safety and for the safety of our environment.