by Lisa D. Mickey
Volusia County’s Billy Rotne, a 16-year Indian River Lagoon charter captain and fishing guide, has been honored with the Marine Discovery Center’s biennial Conservation Hero Award for 2020.
The nature center had hoped to present its Rhizophora Award to Rotne in 2020 during one of its larger sponsored events, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, MDC honored the New Smyrna Beach resident at a small, outdoor gathering of the center’s staff and board members in late January 2021.
The award is presented to an individual who has worked to make a positive impact on the health of the Indian River Lagoon by demonstrating the Marine Discovery Center’s mission “to protect and restore the Florida coastal and Indian River Lagoon ecosystems through education, research and community stewardship.” It is the highest conservation honor bestowed by the center.
“It feels great to be recognized for my efforts and only gives me more resolve to push forward to make a difference in the lagoon,” said Rotne, a third-generation Floridian who runs his business out of Ponce Inlet Charters. “I’ll do everything I can possibly do in the effort to restore the Indian River Lagoon to its former glory.”
Rotne has led countless charter fishing tours in the lagoon and said he was pushed into advocacy for the estuary following the 2011 algal bloom that ultimately killed 47,000 acres of seagrass – critical habitat for many fish and estuarine species.
A massive 2016 fish kill in Brevard County in the lagoon’s nutrient-challenged Banana River also was a wake-up call for Rotne and others making their living on the water. Due to impaired water quality that killed hundreds of thousands of fish and has largely wiped out the lagoon’s seagrass, Rotne admitted he had to move past his own anger and despair and work to bridge the gap of understanding between commercial anglers and the science community.
“A lot of the other fishing guides and [anglers] didn’t necessarily understand what was going on and there was also a lot of denial about what was happening and what we were seeing out there,” Rotne said.
“I tried to use some of my background in understanding the science of things and combine it with my on-the-water experience to work with stakeholders and scientists to help everybody come together,” he added.
Rotne updated scientists on what he was seeing daily in the lagoon, reporting seagrass loss and algae sightings to researchers, while also relaying scientific information to the fishing community to help them understand what they were seeing and why what they were seeing was happening. He even changed where he fished and led charter trips to avoid “over-pressuring the resource.”
Having grown up fishing on the lagoon, Rotne’s realization that the estuary was changing became “very personal.” He recalls being out on the water in his boat alone and how the severity of what he was seeing hit him. He broke down. He also experienced other guides “pouring their hearts out about how much the lagoon meant to them” and found himself trying to reassure others.
“I went through all the stages of grief – from shock to anger to sadness to despair to now, feeling more positivity and trying to focus my energy and emotion on what needs to be done to fix the lagoon,” he explained.
“Being a lagoon fishing guide brings with it a great responsibility,” Rotne added. “It’s not just about how many fish you catch. Everybody is seeing that now.”
As a result of his efforts, Rotne was asked to serve as a Volusia County representative with the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program Citizens’ Advisory Committee. He also helped form the Lagoon Watermen Alliance, a policy advocacy group composed of lagoon stakeholders and scientists.
“This is an effort to come together and work from the education, restoration and the policy side to attack the problem from all angles,” Rotne said. “Fishing guides have the capacity to use their voices as stakeholders as those who generate their livelihood on the water and we can help influence policy makers.”
As critical fish populations in the lagoon have steadily declined, Rotne said there have been plenty of times when he has spoken candidly with his charter-trip guests. When they caught fish, he would explain why the fish they were seeing were so special and now challenged. When they didn’t catch fish, the captain did not make excuses.
“I don’t pretend that there’s nothing wrong,” he said. “I explain the problems this area is facing so they understand it and try to give them a reason to care about the lagoon. Taking time to show people that there’s still important things left to fight for in the lagoon and helping them gain understanding has been one of the best parts of my fishing-guide career.”
That kind of passion and caring is what made Rotne a top selection for the Marine Discovery Center’s conservation award.
“Billy grew up in Volusia County and has built his young profession on the need to protect and restore the Indian River Lagoon,” said Chad Truxall, MDC Executive Director. “His knowledge of the living and non-living components of the lagoon and how they relate is extensive, but his real talent is his passion to teach all of those around him why we should care about the lagoon.”
Rotne admits he has always possessed a passion for the lagoon, but learning to temper his emotions and use them productively has been something he has had to learn in recent years. Fortunately for him, veteran scientists and environmental administrators, such as Dr. Duane De Freese, executive director at the Indian River Lagoon Council, helped show the young captain the way.
“It’s easy to be very angry and upset and to demand that someone be held accountable for what has happened in the lagoon, but as I waded farther into this problem and became wiser and a more mature individual, I have learned how to make myself a more impactful advocate, and not just be someone who is abrasive,” he explained.
It may be a while before the seagrasses in the lagoon return, bringing with it the array of species that made the Indian River Lagoon world famous as a fishing destination. Rotne knows that and is prepared for the long, slow return the lagoon needs to recover.
But instead of shaking his fist, he is talking to others, sharing his knowledge and helping build teams of stakeholders equally passionate about the lagoon.
Fortunately for the world’s most biologically diverse estuary, anglers have great practice in patience and determination – just what is needed to help restore a national treasure.