Strike the Alafia River off your list of fishing spots. It’s gone, dead as a sewer pipe, killed by the carelessness of yet another phosphate company.

The enormity of the acid spill last week is only now becoming clear as biologists continue to study the river.

“I think it pretty well killed everything,” said Marty Mann of the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. “Bass, bluegills, channel cats, loads of snook, right on down to the tiniest minnows.”

Mann said he saw numerous 6-to 8-pound bass floating dead, along with snook as large as 42 inches.

“You don’t grow fish as big as these overnight,” Mann said. “It will be years before the fishery is anywhere near what it was.”

George Henderson of the Department of Environmental Protection office in St. Petersburg said he believes even the hardiest fish perished as far downstream as the U.S. 41 bridge.

Although things improved upriver after the big rains late in the week, there were no fish left to benefit.

The kill went upriver all the way to the source of the poison, the property of Mulberry Phosphates – a distance of 30 miles. The company allowed some 50 million gallons of phosphoric acid-laced water into the river when a dam on a feeder creek broke.

Major environmental crime

It’s an environmental crime on the scale of the Tampa Bay oil spill. Yet, few outside the Riverview and Gibsonton areas seem to be taking it seriously.

The saddest thing about it is it probably will happen again in the future of this river or others that rise in the phosphate basin – including the Hillsborough, the Little Manatee and Manatee – unless a punishment severe enough to get the attention of the industry is levied.

A $100,000 DEP fine to these companies is far less severe than a parking ticket is to the average angler. So long as it’s cheaper to let the accidents happen and pay the fines, they’ll continue to allow this sort of disaster instead of building backup dams, stouter dams or dams in areas that don’t flow to the rivers.

Why not a class-action suit on behalf of anglers, crabbers, castnetters, guides, marinas, boat dealers, baitshops and waterfront property owners, to reimburse them for the lost value over the next 10 years? Why not a penalty so severe that the other phosphate companies shiver and take the steps necessary to make sure their company does not suffer from such a burden?

“My fishing this winter is shot,” said captain James Wood, who moved to Riverview last year so he could run his fishing charter service there. “It might be done for next year, too.”

Long recovery ahead

In fact, it might be done for a long time. It’s likely that most of the snook in the Alafia estuary were in the river when the spill moved through. There are none there now.

There might be a few moving back in next fall wen the water chills, or there might not. But as far as a new year-class of snook growing up to the minimum catchable size, it’s likely that anglers who fish these waters will have to wait three to four years before they see any number of keepers again.

Mann said some bass escaped in the tributaries and will start to repopulate. But it takes eight to 10 years to grow an 8-pound bass; don’t hold your breath until you hook that next big one in the Alafia.

The dead fish are gone now, flushed out into Tampa Bay by the rains to become crab and shark bait. They’ll soon be forgotten by everyone except those who fished the Alafia and those who made their living from it.

The phosphate industry is an important one to thousands of Floridians, and it provides a needed product world wide. But it’s time for the legal system to act, if the law-makers won’t, to get the attention of this multibillion-dollar industry and stop, once and for all, the disasters it has inflicted repeatedly on the fish, the wildlife and the residents of the central west coast for so long.