The natural world is full of cycles. Not unicycles or bicycles or tricycles — cycles as in patterns that repeat over and over.
Some cycles recur in short periods of time. The sun rises in the morning, sets in the evening and then repeats the process next day, the next, and every day after in a cycle that repeats about every 24 hours. The full moon shrinks down to nothing over the course of about two weeks, waxes back to full status about two weeks later, and repeats the process in a cycle that takes about 30 days.
Some take longer — maybe much longer. Planet Earth cycles through the four seasons about every 365 days. Periods of global hot and cold (think “ice ages”) repeat over thousands of years.
Populations of fish and wildlife go through cycles as well. Some are regular and predictable: Schools of mackerel migrate northbound along the Southwest Florida coast each spring and then return southbound each fall. Schools of tarpon migrate into our area each spring, stay the summer, then depart in the fall. Largemouth bass fan out beds in the shallows each winter. Snipe wing their way southward down the Florida peninsula each fall, spend the winter poking their long bills into the muddy soil in the marshes, then fly back north in the spring.
But many natural cycles seem to defy our understanding. Fish populations are often cyclical, as various species go through times of abundance which are followed by periods of scarcity. Grouper are a good example. Their numbers seem to swell and dwindle every few years, and fishery managers struggle to adjust harvest regulations accordingly.
Octopi also go through dramatic population swings in nearshore Gulf waters. We’ll go for years at a time with only a few of these odd mollusks around, so scarce that we might catch only a handful in an entire season.
Then something happens and the octopus population skyrockets. For a few months we’ll catch them regularly, sometimes landing several per day as incidental catches while we target grouper, snapper and other bottom fish. Then they disappear, and it will be some years until the cycle repeats. No one has ever been able to tell me whether “octopus years” are the result of a population increase or are the result of octopus migrating into the area.
When something happens in nature that we haven’t seen before, it’s tempting to treat it as a truly new phenomenon. The reality is that just about anything we see — no matter how unusual — has probably happened before.
Hurricane Charley’s fierce winds killed untold numbers of huge, towering mangroves around Charlotte Harbor, transforming the much of the fringing shorelines from a dense thicket of magnificent 20-foot trees to, in some areas, a barren collection of broken sticks without a green leaf in sight. It was a sobering sight, but Charlotte Harbor has always recovered from this in the past.
What’s that you say? We’ve never seen such mangrove destruction on this level here before? Well, just because we’ve never seen it before doesn’t mean that it’s never happened before. In fact, it’s a certainty that similar things have happened many times before during the thousands of years that Charlotte Harbor has existed. Remember, we’ve only been here for a very short time.
The same thing can apply to unusual fish events. We might think they’re unprecedented, but our window of observation is spectacularly small. For example, about 20 years ago, there was a year when a bunch of large 9- to 10-pound bluefish showed up along the Southwest Florida coast. Not just one or two fish — there were enough of these choppers around that we’d encounter them almost every day while fishing for mackerel around Boca Grande, and similar reports came in from all up and down the coast.
Most years there are a few bluefish of this size caught in our area but usually the fish taken here are much smaller. The bonus batch of big boys was around for a month or two but then vanished, leaving us to catch bluefish up to about 3 or 4 pounds, which is what we usually see in this region.
Has this happened before? Probably. Will it happen again? Probably. But nobody knows why it happened, where those fish came from, or when we might see them again.
Closer to 35 years ago, there was a summer when a huge bunch of Atlantic bonito showed up off our coast. When we started catching them, we didn’t even know what they were. They’re shaped like small little tunny (what most folks here call a bonito), but they sport a series of almost-horizontal stripes on their back.
There were swarms of these things around the bars outside Boca Grande Pass for a while. Then they disappeared and we have not seen them again, at least not in anything approaching those numbers. Will they return? Maybe — if we wait long enough.
The takeaway from this is that when we see something happening, the fact that we haven’t seen it before does not necessarily mean that it hasn’t happened before we started paying attention. We are tiny, short-lived specks in a very large and enduring universe (Editor’s note: For a fun song about this concept, visit http://bit.ly/2NIXE7m).
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.