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Carl Wernicke: The Gulf of Mexico has a history we all should know


Several years ago I reviewed here a new book, “The Gulf, the Making of an American Sea,” by University of Florida professor Jack Davis. It provided a long neglected comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico, the sea that dominates the history of Pensacola.

Last year, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history. And earlier this month, Davis came to Pensacola to talk about the book at the WSRE Public Square Speakers Series at Pensacola State College. I was happy to see a jammed auditorium.

The book takes a wide view, encompassing the Gulf’s geography, its native human populations, its role in European exploration, in commerce, and in war.

He also focused heavily on how human actions have weighed on the Gulf.

Davis noted that the Gulf of Mexico fishery is the most productive coastal fishery in the United States. Oysters, shrimp, mullet, redfish, speckled trout, tuna — the Gulf is a natural cornucopia that at one time seemed boundless. The book relates an amazing anecdote about fish schools so thick that they impeded the progress of sailing vessels moving through them.

The primary source of the Gulf’s rich marine life is the system of estuaries along the Gulf Coast, including Pensacola and Perdido bays. These shallow, brackish nurseries are where the salt water of the Gulf meets freshwater rivers draining most of the United States, and even part of Canada.

In addition to all the good things these rivers bring to the coast, they also transport  the pollutants a growing nation dumps, including untreated sewage, fertilizer from farms and yards, chemicals from factories, untreated stormwater runoff … the list is depressingly long.

Combined with all the pollutants deposited locally in a place like Pensacola Bay, and you get the late 1960s, when this area made national headlines for massive fish kills covering miles of polluted water.

Things are far from perfect today, but much improved. That stems, in large part, from the efforts of groups like the Bream Fishermen Association, formed by local people such as Ernie Rivers, J.D. Brown and Charles Lowery. Other locals leading the cleanup effort include Perdido Bay activist Jackie Lane, and Linda Young, who for years wrote, edited and published the Pro Earth News, a fierce critic of polluting industries and the state and local officials who helped them do it.

To his credit, in his book Davis celebrated the efforts of these environmental warriors, as well as their compatriots across the Gulf Coast, people who stepped up to take on the burden of public service, almost always without compensation, but with plenty of criticism, pushback from government and industry, and even lawsuits designed to intimidate them.

So I was pleased to see Davis open his talk at PSC by singling out by name Rivers, Brown, Lane, Lowery and Young, and the BFA, currently under the leadership of Barbara Albrecht. It was a well-deserved moment for the group, most of whom were present in reserved seats at the front of the auditorium. These are people who could, in many ways, measure the progress made in cleaning up Pensacola Bay and other local waters in terms of the personal sacrifices it cost them.

For at least one evening, it was gratifying to see them bask in some well-deserved and public thanks.