OAK HILL, Fla. (AP) - George Sweetman must follow the crabs.
This year, they lure him to the shallows surrounding NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where the beginnings of a blue crab revival crawl inside his steel traps.
But a plan to phase out his trade from these remote waters could claw back a recent turnaround in the fortunes of Sweetman and others who fish the Mosquito Lagoon -- the northernmost section of the Indian River Lagoon -- killing off their unique heritage.
"Why now are we being thrown out?" asks Sweetman, 69, who's fished here 20 years. "I don't see we're a threat. We make a living. I don't get it. We do no harm."
But the feds say he and others who fish commercially must go because they clash with the government's conservation mission.
In 2018, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore plan to phase out commercial fishing, and it's uncertain where those who sell their catches will be allowed to fish on the federal property.
Sweetman and his fellow crabbers say the feds are unfairly stripping their right to eke out a living here, where the space race left behind a vast buffer of unspoiled nature and some of the best crabbing around. Many see the phase-out as the final blow to a once-proud and prosperous commercial fishing culture in the Oak Hill area. And without access to one of the last havens where crabs and oysters can hang on when the rest of the lagoon fouls, many fear their livelihoods will die, too.
"It's been terrible. That's been the only place where you could catch anything at all in the past three years," said Frank Sewell, 63, a crabber from Grant-Valkaria, who's fished here 40 years. "And we're going to lose all that in '18 if something don't happen."
The tragedy began here.
Four years ago, next to where man blasted off to the moon, a "superbloom" of phytoplankton exploded at an unprecedented scale and density, spanning 60 miles to Melbourne. Another algae bloom stretched another 60 miles south to Fort Pierce. Combined, the two blooms spanned most of the entire Indian River Lagoon estuary, choking out more than half the lagoon's seagrass and countless crabs, shellfish and livelihoods. The algae blooms took an estimated $470 million economic toll on commercial and sport fishing.
Seagrass is an indicator of water quality and the linchpin of the ecosystem, providing food and habitat for marine life.
The crab population nosedived even in these northernmost outskirts of the lagoon during the following three years. But things were much worse elsewhere in the 156-mile-long estuary, one of North America's most biologically diverse.
Now, blue crabs tumble from every trap Sweetman pulls from the Mosquito Lagoon this recent cloudy day.
But he and the other commercial fishermen who make their living here have little time to rejoice in the rebirth they're witnessing.
Many of them fish both coasts of Florida. They must go where the crabs go, and this year they're here.
They can't understand why guided and unguided sport fishing will be allowed, while they're getting ousted. Refuge and seashore officials say those activities jibe with their missions but commercial fishing does not.
"You have an economic use that does not meet our regulations, so the decision was made to phase it out over a 10-year period," said Layne Hamilton, manager of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, referring to a planning process that began several years ago.
Commercial fishing has been allowed since the refuge was established in 1963 and the seashore in 1975.
But federal guidelines established in the 1980s stripped the authority to allow commercial fishing, parks and refuge officials said, leading to the phase-out.
Commercial fishermen currently must get special permits for crabbing, clamming, shrimping, bait fishing, netting and hook-and-line fishing within the seashore and refuge. About 80 people hold permits to fish there commercially.
Sweetman says the terrapins perished because of pollution, not crabbers.
"I haven't caught a terrapin yet, and I've been crabbing here for 20 years," he said.
Modern traps have escape hatches for the turtles.
NASA owns the submerged lands on the southern portion of Mosquito Lagoon. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Canaveral National Seashore co-manage the area.
When Florida conveyed certain areas to the federal government to include in the national seashore in 1981, the state retained the right of people to fish in those areas and the state to regulate it. So it's unclear exactly how much area will be closed to commercial fishing.
The National Parks Service plans to meet with state and federal wildlife officials soon to initiate a plan to manage the fisheries at the seashore and refuge, Palfrey said.
"For some of us, it's almost like a bait-and-switch, a fraud," said Jerry Sansom, executive director of the Organized Fisherman of Florida, which represents 350 commercial fishermen. "It's not over. They're not going to close as much area as they first intended to."
Pollution is the problem, not crabbing, the crabbers assert. They point to population growth, fertilizer from yards, seeping septic tanks and out-of-control runoff from cities.
A muddy brown slime coats their wire traps, more so the closer they set their traps to where people live. Those traps catch fewer crabs.
The region's dismal crab catch in recent years mirrored larger, regional downward trends.
While crab harvests can vary widely year-to-year, the long-term trend has been a statewide downward spiral, though it has shown recent signs of recovery.
According to a Florida Today analysis of state data, Brevard County's commercial blue crab catch in 2012 -- the most recent data available -- was less than one-tenth what it was a quarter-century earlier and the lowest since Florida began collecting the data in 1986. Fishermen bring ashore less than half the pounds of crab each trip that they did 25 years ago.
The statewide harvest in 2012 was less that half 1987's peak. But while the statewide commercial catch was 32 percent lower than the 27-year average, Brevard County's was 75 percent lower.
Much of the statewide decline is explained by climate and freshwater inflow, says Ryan Gandy, research scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"Right around the mid-'90s, you had a climatic change," Gandy said. "Before the mid-'90s, it was cooler and wetter, and after the mid-'90s it was warmer and drier."
Extreme drought can make estuaries such as the lagoon too salty for blue crabs. Tropical storms can render it not salty enough. When the salinity's not right, ocean-dwelling female crabs swim right past Brevard's inlets, instead of coming in to mate with the lagoon's resident males, called "Jimmies.""These large climatic changes ... and the amount of rainfall you get will control the amount of harvest you get in the following years," Gandy said.
In Sweetman's traps, this year's catch has been the best he's seen in three years.
As he throttles through the refuge, his boat sends wakes to the banks of scattered mangrove finger islands, where an occasional egret or fisherman furtively stalk their prey. The islands break to vast open waters that Sweetman says provide plenty of room for commercial and sport fishermen to coexist. Steel rocket launch towers and the Vehicle Assembly Building that once housed the space shuttle are the only distant features that disturb an otherwise flat horizon.
By the early 1960s, NASA had bought up most of the northern portion of Merritt Island for rocket launches and a buffer zone. The spillover of crabs and other marine life from these usually clean waters have often helped keep commercial fishermen afloat during rough times elsewhere in the lagoon.
"It's for everybody," Sweetman said of the waters near the space center.
"Why are they singling us out? We're not the bad guys. There's been no definitive 'why,' " he says over the hum of his vessel's Honda 115 motor.
A sole pelican hitches a ride on the back of the boat.
During the bad algae blooms a few years back, more than 300 pelicans perished. The rest seemed to leave. Sweetman sees more pelicans these days. The blooms have subsided, for now.
This trip, Sweetman pulls up two scrunched metal traps run over by boats. Sometimes people swipe his catch, leaving behind a beer.
He's OK with that: "It's called living in harmony," Sweetman says.
He yanks in a trap line, hand-over-hand. He shakes the trap. A half-dozen blue crabs tumble from their wire prison, shells glistening, claws snapping, mouth parts twitching.
These fidgety fellas yield $2 to $3 per pound, wholesale.
Sweetman clinks the trap against the side of the boat, shaking loose a bit of brown seaweed. A few years ago, crab traps throughout the lagoon were smothered by a similar stringy stuff, when for unknown reasons, the drift seaweed exploded, then crashed in record cold temperatures. That released more nutrients and removed a seaweed-sponge-up of nutrients in the water, causing a vicious cycle of excess nutrition for algae to feast upon.
Sweetman brushes brown slime off a white trap buoy.
His grandson, Tyler Sweetman, reaches into a white plastic bin of menhaden, marinating in bloody water. He stuffs the bait into yellow and orange vinyl-coated wire traps.
The 18-year-old has no plans to take the torch of commercial fishing from his grandfather. He's studying at University of Florida to be a doctor.
With a metal grabber that resembles salad tongs, Tyler picks out the undesirables from the wood crate of crabs: pufferfish, sheepshead, conch, and spider crab -- a junk crab that shows up in just about every trap.
He grabs a puffed-up puffer fish, tossing it overboard. It floats, still inflated. The banned junk fish is poisonous and growing in numbers in recent years.
Commercial fishermen continue to shrink in numbers.
"There's your first clammer," George Sweetman says, gesturing toward one man wading waist deep in the distance.
"It's a good business," he asserts. "It's not something that should be frowned on or looked down upon. We're not raping the product."
In a way, they help sustain that product by keeping a close watch on environmental changes, Sansom says. Phasing out commercial fishing removes an early warning system for ecological oddities as they unfold on the lagoon.
"Eliminating the commercial crabbers from the national seashore isn't going to do a damn thing for the lagoon," Sansom said. "If anything, it's going to remove an awful lot of eyes that keep the biologist informed about what's going on out there."
Sewell recently alerted biologists to a strange filament algae he hadn't seen in four decades of fishing the area.
"It's some kind of algae, not attached to the bottom. It's growing in big green globs of it," Sewell said. "I've never seen anything like that."
The crabbers hope for fewer of these anomalies and a return to the way things used to be.
Quiet days pulling crab-filled traps from these faraway waters inspires hope among the crabbers.
"Over the past year, we've seen the lagoon come back," George Sweetman said from the helm.
He's damned if he's going to let the feds take away his chance at a comeback, too.
"I'm going to fight this to the end," Sweetman says, gripping the helm. "It's not America, I'm sorry. ... That's just another nail in the coffin and I don't accept that, not without a fight."
He must go where the crabs go.
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.