The Gasparilla Island community celebrated a special scientific connection Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house at Mote Marine Laboratory's new Boca Grande Office at 480 East Railroad Ave., Unit 7, Railroad Plaza.
The new satellite office is a focal point for a science-based effort to increase knowledge of and support for the region's marine environment and conservation causes in Charlotte Harbor and all around Gasparilla Island.
"The goal is to help engage the community and region in tarpon and other marine research undertaken by Mote in Charlotte Harbor and Southwest Florida," said Capt. Phil O'Bannon of Boca Grande, executive director for the new office. "It will also highlight new research directions designed to support conservation of area fisheries and habitat."
Capt. Phil O’Bannon shows off a fish caught with President George Bush in the boat.
The Mote office is the brainchild of Boca Grande residents Andy Ireland, an honorary Mote trustee, and O'Bannon. Here's how it came together.
QUESTION: How did this office come to be established in Boca Grande?
ANSWER: Andy Ireland and I got to talking and said we really need to get Mote down here. There are so many environmental issues Mote could study to make it better for everybody on the island.
Capt. Phil O'Bannon at a glance
Birthdate: June 9, 1952
Occupation: Fishing guide, yacht captain, worked for Bayard Sharp almost 20 years
Hometown: Fort Myers
Residence: Boca Grande
Family: married 28 years with a son
Education: Two years college.
Discovered Boca Grande: I'd known about Boca Grande for years. Mr. Bayard Sharp was a great friend of my employer. We were down in Panama fishing and Mr. Sharp said: "I'm building a new yacht." I said it was too bad I would have applied to be your captain. He said: "The job's yours." I said I can't take it. I've been working for the Phipps' for years. My employer, Mr. Phipps called me later in the night and said I should take the job. So I've been living on Boca Grande for about 28 years.
Q: Why is this ground area zero for your environmental concerns?
A: After growing up in Fort Myers, Cape Haze and spending nearly three decades here, I knew the estuary - not just the fishery - had suffered in general. I want to bring it back closer to what it used to be.
Q: Is it truly possible to reset the clock as far as the deterioration of the fishery and the environment?
A: I think it's possible through conservation, regulation and stock enhancement.
Q: What's your first step in what promises to be a big job taking decades to accomplish?
A: I think educating the public is as big a step as anything. We must make people aware of the problems we have or could have.
Q: What problems are those?
A: There are many but we have to start projects to get real hard data to present in order to make our case scientifically. There are many problems but overfishing is a real concern. We don't take into consideration the number of people out there fishing every day. You really have to take all that into consideration.
Q: What are the goals for your new office in your first year of operation?
A: Start the studies on snook, tarpon and sharks and push forward the red tide initiative. The first year we want to get things started and making everybody aware we are here.
Q: Is red tide getting worse?
A: It's definitely evolving. As a kid growing up, we only had it in summertime. When the water cooled off it disappeared. It's been around forever but with all the other pressures we have from fishing, red tide is something we have to learn to understand better.
Q: Will we ever be able to disperse red tide?
A: Controlling red tide is probably a ways away but it's something they are working on.
Q: Some of your Boca Grande-based studies are easily understandable. Snook were decimated by the 100-year cold snap of 2010 with as many as half killed. Tarpon face unprecedented pressures in Boca Grande Pass and the stench of red tide is too often present along our beaches. Why is the shark research needed?
A: (Mote is) a leader in shark research but they don't know a lot about where they spawn. Do they do it in conjunction with tarpon? It's always been a theory of mine that the big, big sharks migrate with the tarpon. You never see the big hammerhead sharks around here until the tarpon arrive.
Q: You've previously had a great career as a yacht captain. What are the main duties of a yacht captain?
A: Mainly with Mr. Bayard Sharp it was to organize everything on the yacht and keep the crew trained and running. Most trips were geared around fishing. We carried three skiffs on the top of the yacht, mostly for tarpon and permit fishing in the Caribbean, Mexico and all over the Bahamas. We even went through the Panama Canal a couple times. I've fished for pretty much everything there is to fish for in this part of the world.
Q: What's your favorite sport fish?
A: To be honest I like it all. If I had to pick one it would be tarpon fly fishing. It's the most exciting and very challenging. It's not for everybody that's for sure.
Q: Why take this job opportunity?
A: I'm just very excited about what we can accomplish all around Gasparilla Island and the Charlotte Harbor estuary system. I want to help bring it back and preserve what we have.