Are You The Game Warden?


By Doug Wakeman

[dropcap]“A[/dropcap]re you the Game Warden?” So asked a fisherman on the bank at the Bristol landing, as I sat at the helm of our boat, the one with the big signs that say Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

No, I’m not the Game Warden! But as the Senior Policy Analyst for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, I get many similar questions about the organization and the resources we protect. “What do y’all do?” “How’s the River right now?” “How’s the Bay?” And of course, “What on earth is a Senior Policy Analyst?” With great autumn fishing just a fading memory and superb spring fishing still a distant dream, this seems like a good time to address these questions for a wider audience.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper is both a member-supported non-profit organization, and also a person. The organization belongs to the international Waterkeeper® Alliance, whose mission is “…To champion clean water and strong communities…” Our more specific mission (from is “the protection and restoration of the Apalachicola River, Apalachicola Bay, [and] all of the waters that flow into them … promoting stewardship of the plants, animals, and other natural resources.”

The Apalachicola River is unique. This beautiful waterway feeds “the most ecologically diverse natural area in the southern United States. It has a huge variety of species of plants and animals, many of which are rare, many of which are found only in this area, and some of which are considered Threatened or Endangered… Apalachicola Bay is widely recognized as an exceptionally valuable estuarine system, one of the most outstanding remaining in the Northern Hemisphere. This River and Bay System is truly an American Treasure—unique and matchless in aquatic and land species.”

Our work is about people, too. We are “working to preserve the ways of living, and ways of making a living, that depend upon a healthy River and Bay. From the catfish anglers of Chattahoochee, to the paddling outfitters of Blountstown, to the fishing guides, beekeepers and honey merchants of Wewahitchka, to the oyster harvesters and seafood workers of Apalachicola and Eastpoint, thousands of people depend upon the health of the Apalachicola River and Bay for their livelihoods. Working to ensure that these ways continue is an essential part of what we do.”

The most important threats to the River, floodplain, and Bay are in two forms: low flows, and pollution. As with any pristine ecosystem, there are constant threats from pollution of all kinds. Pollution comes from “point sources” such as power plants or municipal wastewater pipes. We also may have problems with “non-point sources,” where rainwater carries pollutants from wide areas into the River. Especially worrisome are the poisons and synthetic fertilizers that run off from farms, golf courses, and even suburban lawns.

As troubling as pollution may be, the problem of low flows down the River and into the Bay is our greatest concern day-to-day. When droughts and upstream consumption in Georgia reduce the flow of the River, two bad things happen. First, not enough water gets into the floodplain swamps, where the first links in the food chain live. The production of nutrients in the entire ecosystem is reduced, which hurts the shellfish, the baitfish and the big fish, too. Low flows create poor fishing! Second, the saltiness of the Bay increases when freshwater flow is low. High salinity is harmful for many denizens of the estuary, and can be lethal to oysters. Oyster-destroying diseases and predators thrive in the saltier water. Several years of low flows and high salt have caused the collapse of the oyster stocks. This hurts fishing, too: healthy oyster reefs provide essential food and safe habitat for dozens of species, especially when the fish are young and vulnerable.

Our work against these threats is spearheaded by the man who carries the job title of Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Dan Tonsmeire has led the fight for more and cleaner water since 2004. His never-ceasing pursuit of our mission focuses on three things. He works with private groups and governmental agencies to return life-sustaining freshwater flows to the River. He works on projects to protect and restore the productivity of the floodplain, swamps, and marshes. And, he works to prevent harm from all forms of pollution.

So, how are the River and Bay right now? Not good, but improving a little. The slowdown in the economy has given us a break from headlong development and the pollution it brings. The federal Clean Water Act keeps most point-sources of pollution under control. The River isn’t suffering from any major pollution problems of which we’re aware — if you know of any, PLEASE let us know! And the destructive dredging of the upper reaches of the River has ceased. But the consequences of the record low-flows of the recent drought years have severely damaged the productivity of the system. Oyster harvests have been reduced by 80% or more; shrimping and crabbing aren’t much better. Dry conditions have killed off about 4 million White Tupelo trees in the floodplain — have you priced Tupelo Honey lately? It will take decades of normal high water to restore them. Many recreational fisheries in the River, Bay and surrounding coastal waters have not declined as much, and we’re hopeful that will remain true.

The good news is just one word: RAIN! Last year brought huge amounts of rain from early summer onward, and 2014 has been similarly soaked so far. Right now, the River’s running high! If we continue to get plenty of rain, and if our work to protect and restore natural conditions in the River and floodplain is successful, much of the lost productivity can be restored. It may take 20 years, but it can happen. However, if frequent droughts return and the politics of water allocation doesn’t change, this American Treasure may never recover its natural level of health and production.

As to the final question: a Senior Policy Analyst is someone with a graduate degree and gray hair! I’m an economist, with a focus on the environment. I write, do research, communicate with the public, and assist Dan Tonsmeire with his work. Also, with our tiny office staff, everybody does a bit of everything, and I spend a lot of time at the front desk. So the question I answer most often is, “How much are the cool hats?” Answer: $15. So please come see us — 232B Water Street in Apalachicola — and take one home!

Doug Wakeman is the Senior Policy Analyst for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a member-supported non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the Apalachicola River and Bay. Send email to, or visit us on the web at, or call us at 850‑653‑8936, or Find Us on Facebook.