The man who duels with swordfish is alarmed: Famous fisherman sees worrisome ocean changes
Stanczyk is doing something about the coral reef just inside the Gulf Stream that’s dying off due to a variety of reasons, including disease, poor water quality and warmer waters from climate change.
This article is part of a USA TODAY Network reporting project called ‘Perilous Course,’ a collaborative examination of how people up and down the East Coast are grappling with the climate crisis. Journalists from more than 35 newsrooms from New Hampshire to Florida are speaking with regular people about real-life impacts, digging into the science and investigating government response, or lack of it.
Richard Stanczyk reaches into a well-worn, white 5-gallon bucket and grabs a shrimp. He pinches the tail off and feeds the pink meaty end onto a hook as the wind whistles through the rigging.
“I caught my first sailfish when I was 10 years old off Miami, trolling the edge of the Gulf Stream with my grandfather,” says Stanczyk, 77, while snapping more bait, the entrails splattering on the bow of the boat and nearby anglers. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
He baits a few more rigs and tosses his offerings into waist-high waters on a grass flat a few miles south of Islamorada, the famed Sport Fishing Capital of the World.
“Right now there’s not a lot of fish left, but we still go for tarpon and bonefish, snook and redfish,” Stanczyk says as he grabs one of five rod-and-reel rigs.
A lightning-fast flash of silver blasts past the bow. The reel buzzes as a massive specimen of a fish called a permit quickly swims the length of a football field.
Stanczyk hands the rig to fellow guide and captain Robyn O’Leary.
“Oh, what a runner,” he says as the late-day sun bounces off his thick mask of enamel white sunscreen. “Hold the rod real high.”
Stanczyk has so much sunscreen on his nose, chin and around his mouth that he looks like he is in costume. His thick, ivory-colored mustache protects his upper lip from the scorching UV rays.
The fish runs again, this time taking about a third of the line off the reel.
“Wow, we’ve got to go if we’re going,” O’Leary says, realizing that the crew must chase the fish if it stands any chance of landing the beefy permit, a prized Florida Bay gamefish.
Permit are known for their pulling power, and they’re one of the most sought-after gamefish in Florida. Catching a permit, a bonefish and a tarpon on the same day is called a Florida Bay Slam, a vaunted title among anglers.
Stanczyk stepped to the console, grabbed the cream-colored steering wheel with his sun-weathered left hand and started the engine with his right.
He twisted the wheel like a school bus driver, and within seconds Stanczyk had the boat on a plane — chasing what could be the catch of a lifetime, or at least a great story over beers back at the marina.
These backbay trips are the outings Stanczyk lives for nowadays, an evening fishing with friends and fellow captains. He once plowed the open Atlantic Ocean, tracking down and catching some of the largest billfish ever landed.
Swordfishing off the coast of Florida brought riches
Stanczyk was 31 years old and living in Miami when he first saw a pile of swordfish bills stacked near a bait house in Miami.
The Missouri native was an avid fisherman, and he and his friends didn’t know there were swordfish off the coast of Florida.
But Cuban immigrants had found the swordfish and a way to catch them at night. Plankton rises to the surface at night, and squid chase the plankton. The swordfish chase the squid.
“We used to get our bait at the Miami River, and we started seeing these huge bills," Stanczyk explained. "And we didn’t know what they were. They weren’t marlin bills, and they weren't sailfish bills. They were swordfish bills."
The Cubans were catching the swordfish at night, using flaming torches and a simple form of long-lining, he said.
During the day, though, these behemoths of the sea swim down 1,500 feet below the surface, making them hard for anglers to reach.
"Prior to the nighttime discovery of swordfish, there had only been 100 anglers that had caught a swordfish on rod and reel, and there were very few pictures that had been taken," Stanczyk said. "For about two years we never told anybody that we were catching swordfish, and we had caught 200 before anyone knew we were catching them during the daytime."
Swordfish and other sea creatures have used the Florida Straits and Gulf Stream for thousands of years, migrating with the warm current as it gathers in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea and then blasts up the East Coast and into the northern Atlantic Ocean.
But things have changed in the Gulf Stream system. Waters have warmed, and the regional Gulf of Mexico-to-North Atlantic current has slowed, according to some scientific evidence.
Fish that typically show up in the Gulf Stream off the Keys during the spring months are now coming in the fall, and they’re staying months later than they did years ago.
"A lot of the migratory patterns of the fish and the times when they migrate has changed, and a lot of that is due to the water temperature," he says. "The dolphin usually show up in April, but a couple of years ago the dolphin didn't show up until August. Then they stayed until December."
Islamorada is called the Sport Fishing Capital of the World because of the various species that are caught in Florida Bay and offshore in the Gulf Stream.
Climate change has warmed the Gulf Stream, and the slowing waters have changed the fishery and the overall ecology. "The Gulf of Mexico is (a) nursery ground for young swordfish," Stanczyk said. From there, the larger fish begin to move to deep water, and Stanczyk says these fish rarely come to the surface.
"The big fish live in 1,500 feet of water and they don’t surface very often," he said. "So myself and a friend got the idea to try it out during the day. It took a long time to figure out how to do that."
It turned into an obsession. "I spent 14 years of my life swordfishing at least three days a week."
He soon appeared in sporting magazines as the man who could tease up swordfish from the depths during the daylight. Other fishermen and guides were catching swordfish at night, when it's difficult to see the massive fish thrashing at the surface.
Stanczyk could produce them during the day, so the anglers could watch the giants rip their bills through the air.
He developed the needed techniques and rigging during the late 1970s to capture these giants of the sea during the day, but soon the fishery crashed as longline commercial fishermen moved into the Gulf Stream.
"By 1978 long-lining came along, and I’m certain they completely destroyed the swordfish population,” Stanczyk said. “And they eliminated long-lining in the straits of Florida around 2000. So it was around (Sept. 11, 2001) and we didn’t have tourists or anything to do, and so my brother and I went out to see if the swordfish at night had rebounded. And they were there."
Then, Stanczyk moved on to fly fishing for sailfish in Mexico.
This started a completely new obsession, or maybe it was an extension of his childhood love. He kept his main boat, Catch 22, near the Yucatan peninsula for years, traveling between Mexico and the Keys.
Stanczyk has seen other changes in the Gulf Stream over the past six decades.
"When I began to swordfish, I had trouble because some days the current would be so strong that the bait wouldn’t stay down in the water," Stanczyk says. "I was using 10 to 20 pounds baits and my son can hold to the bottom today with 4 pound baits."
From Bud N’ Mary’s to online fame
Stanczyk bought Bud N' Mary's Marina in 1978, and he’s spent most of his days since in the Gulf Stream or in Florida Bay.
It’s at the southern tip of Islamorada, nestled between Florida Bay and Everglades National Park to the north and east and Great Florida Reef, further out, the open Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream.
Stanczyk adapted early to the social media of the day — taking photographs and showing them to people in person.
Fishing and boating pictures plaster the main office of the marina and Stanczyk’s office.
There are large pictures of Stanczyk fishing with famous people, from movie stars to past presidents. There’s a picture of a young Nick Stanczyk, his son, holding a world record 37.5 pound African pompano, a mark which still stands today.
Nick is one of the most famous anglers on the planet, largely due to his presence on YouTube. His videos draw a million viewers, and he posts at least one a week. Like his father, who gained fame largely through magazine articles, Nick knows the art of self-promotion.
He majored in video and visual arts and the University of Miami, and he’s turned that degree into a money-making YouTube channel called StanzFam.
He’s a yacht broker, an apparel representative, a fishing guide, part-owner of the marina and a husband and father of two girls.
“As a kid I was immersed in it; and fishing with (my dad) and my uncle, it was just a daily routine,” said the 37-year-old. “I didn’t know I was fishing with so many famous people. I realized it’s cool but I didn’t realize how great it really was.”
Climate crisis taking a toll
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Sargassum is a form of seaweed that floats in the open ocean. At natural levels it provides habitat for a myriad of aquatic wildlife.
Anglers once prized the site of sargassum weed lines drifting along in the Gulf Stream current. Nowadays so much sargassum blooms that it often washes up on coastlines, where it becomes bloated and releases foul gases.
Stanczyk has seen other changes, especially on the coral reefs that help make the Florida Keys a popular tourist and fisher paradise.
"You always found the dolphin by finding the weed, but now there's so much weed that you can't find the dolphin (mahi-mahi)."
He can’t do much about acid rain and other pollution, but Stanczyk is doing something about the coral reef just inside the Gulf Stream that’s dying off due to a variety of reasons, including disease, poor water quality and warmer waters from climate change.
The coral reefs help clean the water, provide habitat for countless wildlife and also help protect the Keys from hurricanes.
Hurricane Irma destroyed much of Bud N' Mary's Marina in September 2017, causing $1.5 million in damage, Stanczyk said.
"These are monster storms," Stanczyk says of modern hurricanes. "There's no question that the storms are getting bigger."
Stanczyk, wanting to see the reef restored, donated land to the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota with the hopes of developing and replanting small coral that will grow 20 to 50 times as fast as the historical coral while also being heat- and disease-resistant.
The Great Florida Reef is the third largest reef in the world, but it’s suffered near-catastrophic losses in the past few decades.
Shallow bottoms that were covered by brain and elkhorn coral 20 years ago are now mostly featureless, with the occasional small piece of coral interrupting the vast, desert-like stretches of sand.
The damage came mostly from coral diseases, but the warmer waters and slowing Gulf Stream aren’t helping.
Stanczyk and others around Islamorada have watched the decline for years.
Mike Goldberg at Key Dives developed a non-profit (I.CARE) with researcher Kylie Smith that focused specifically on restoring the local reefs. Goldberg spoke with Mote and they pitched to Richard the idea of building a coral facility at Bud N’ Mary’s.
“We gave a presentation and tears welled up in his eyes. It was that important to him. You could see it in his face,” Goldberg remembers. “Not only is this good for the community, the ocean needs it and the reef needs it; and it’s good for him economically and politically. And it feels good. What do you want to have left of your legacy? He was always thinking of the environment, so that wasn’t a hard sell.”
Goldberg describes Stanczyk as the financial anchor of the island, a business that’s critical to the economic and ecological health of the community.
Goldberg likens his role to Kevin Costner in Paramount Networks’ popular show "Yellowstone."
“He's holding on to this last bastion of small mom-and-pop operations that are still left here,” Goldberg said. “… And Bud N’ Mary’s is probably the most popular marina in the upper keys if not all the keys.”
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.