A DEP employee measures how far back from the riverfront the mangrove massacre went. Photo via DEP inspection report.
Florida likes to call itself the Fishing Capital of the World — and not because we’ve got so many fishy business folks operating here.
According to the tourism promoters at Visit Florida, we rank at No. 1 in angling excellence in part because we’ve got “more than 7,700 lakes, 10,550 miles of rivers, and 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline” where you can cast a line.
But what if clueless people do something so colossally stupid that they chase all the fish away? What’s that going to do to Florida’s peerless piscine standing?
I heard a story last week about just such a stupid move in Port St. Lucie, and then I went in search of the fisherman who witnessed it. His name is Jim Dirks, and he’s been fishing the same stretch of water near his home for 44 years, reeling in snook, tarpon, redfish, and so on.
And now, he told me, he can’t.
The place he always fished was on a stretch of the St. Lucie River that was part of the North Fork St. Lucie Aquatic Preserve. It was by a development that had been a Club Med for years. The owners recently sold it to an Arizona company that renamed it the Sandpiper Bay Resort.
The resort’s river frontage was full of magnificent mangroves, some of them sprouting more than 24 feet high. The mangroves provided habitat for the fish that Dirks liked to catch.
Then, one Sunday last month, Dirks and a fishing buddy went to their usual spot and were startled to see the riverfront denuded.
Someone had chopped down all the mangroves and hauled them away. It was a mangrove massacre with hundreds of victims.
“They cut them all the way down to the roots,” Dirks told me. “Which pretty much killed them.”
Without the mangroves, the fish that Dirks loves to catch have all vanished. His Sunday nights are now free, unfortunately.
Dirks told me he asked an employee of the resort’s marina who had committed such senseless destruction. The response: “I can’t say.”
Furious, Dirks snapped pictures and then, the next day, he sent them to the state Department of Environmental Protection. After all, he said, “if you live in Florida, you know that mangroves are a protected species.”
That’s when things got interesting.
A ‘Hollywood mobster enthusiast’
Two days after Dirks sent his complaint to the DEP, a pair of inspectors showed up at the resort to see the damage for themselves. Mangroves, as Dirks pointed out, are considered so vital to Florida’s ecosystems that they are protected from this kind of rampant butchery by a 1996 state law. You’re allowed to trim them with a permit, but not kill them.
The inspectors met with Mike Giarogalo, the property manager, who showed them around. What they saw was appalling.
Along the 3,394-foot shoreline, someone had chopped down the mangroves on 951 feet of it. Along the shore, the choppers had cut a swath 15 to 26 feet deep. Mangroves that had once towered above the water were now nothing but nubs.
“While on-site, it was noted that mangroves were significantly altered, and the trimmings/branches of mangroves were piled in, or adjacent to, roll-off dumpsters for later disposal,” the inspectors wrote in their report.
A week later, two more DEP inspectors showed up for a fuller inspection. This time, according to the DEP report, they were shown around by two people: Giarogalo and Michael Mota. The second man was listed by the DEP inspectors as “a representative of the owner of the property.”
Mota has been the subject of quite a few stories in The Boston Globe. The most recent one called him a “Rhode Island entrepreneur and Hollywood mobster enthusiast.”
Those last three words mean that he’s a fan of fictional gangsters, particularly the ones from the acclaimed HBO TV show “The Sopranos.” He’s even put on fan gatherings celebrating that genre.
Think of it as being like Comic-Con but, instead of Marvel, the focus is the Mafia. Instead of dressing up as Captain America, you’d cosplay as Don Corleone.
He’s so into mobsters that he’s even launched a mob-themed cryptocurrency and distributed tokens bearing his face and the motto “In Mota We Trust.”
Meanwhile, though, the Globe reported that “Mota is being sued by creditors and vendors in 10 lawsuits totaling more than $500,000 and has left furious investors and vendors in multiple states.” Guess those folks don’t trust him anymore.
He’s supposed to be the president of Florida-based Bayport International Holdings, which promised to carry out a $90 million to $100 million veterans home project in Pawtucket. According to the Globe, though, Bayport is actually a defunct company.
The list of his dissatisfied customers includes fellow “Sopranos” fans who “say he overcharged them and promised them perks they could not access, and he has been accused of not compensating vendors and actors from ‘The Sopranos’ who were involved in his conventions.”
The newspaper quoted one former business associate saying of Mota, “All you need to know about him is that he runs a website with the word ‘con.’ Because that’s what he is,”
Someone with that kind of a reputation fits right in here in Florida!
After all, when Charles Ponzi was first busted for pulling the original Ponzi scheme up in Boston, where did he go when he got out on bail? Florida, of course, where he immediately got involved in a real estate scam. A lot of Ponzi’s land turned out to be underwater — not in terms of financing, but literally.
Anyway, Mota helped show the DEP employees all over the place, and he or Gioragola or both of them came up with an explanation for what happened to all the mangroves.
No, it wasn’t a mob hit. The mangroves didn’t get mowed down like Sonny Corleone on the Jones Beach Causeway. Instead, the weather got the blame.
A stupid lie
There’s a non-gangster movie that I think deserves a mention here: “All About Eve.”
In it, the title character pretends to be something she’s not. At the film’s climax, another character who has uncovered the truth tells her all the ways that she’s a phony. At one point, as he’s running through her long list of embellishments, he comments on one, “That was a stupid lie. Easy to expose.”
I thought about that line when I read the next part of the DEP report, which said that “the reasoning behind the mangrove removal/cutting was because of a tornado that had impacted the mangroves.”
The DEP report didn’t say who came up with that excuse, but Mota told the Globe: “I DID NOT CUT ANYTHING DOWN. I know there was a tornado and storm that happened at the property.”
Oh, well then, that exp— no, wait, that doesn’t explain anything.
One of the reasons why mangroves are protected under state law is that big storms like tornadoes and hurricanes don’t knock them down. They’re flexible in high winds and their interlocking root systems absorb the energy from big waves. So a tornado would be unlikely to hurt even one, much less a whole forest of them.
Add to that the fact that the felled trees found in the dumpsters were still as green as your beer at an Irish tavern on St. Patrick’s Day. Clearly they had all been healthy when someone cut them down.
Then there’s the most obvious problem with the tornado excuse: There is no record of any such weather disaster. Neither the National Weather Service nor neighbors such as Dirks have seen any signs of a twister tossing cows around.
“There was no tornado hit that property,” Dirks told me, sounding disgusted.
Instead, Dirks said, the obvious answer is that someone speaking for the property owner ordered all those mangroves to be chopped down. That way, the trees would no longer obstruct the guests’ view of the water.
He speculated that some out-of-towner who’s not familiar with Florida figured there’d be no penalty for carrying out so much environmental devastation. That person, he said, probably thought, “Oh, these people in Florida are idiots and we can get away with it.”
Despite his love for lawless thugs like Paulie Walnuts (my favorite “Sopranos” character), Mota told me it wasn’t him who ordered the hit. In fact, he said he’s not even connected to the property owner, a real estate investment firm.
The way he tells it, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, not unlike Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s “Some Like It Hot” characters witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. He shouldn’t have been mentioned in the DEP report, he contends.
“My name was there in error,” Mota told me via e-mail. “I was on site that day consulting on another matter and gave them a tour.”
When I asked more questions, he referred me to the property owner’s attorney, Keith Lee, who sent me a prepared statement: “As this is an ongoing investigation by the DEP, we will refrain from making specific comments to tell our side of the story. At this point, I can only say that we care very much about the environment and the local community and feel terrible about what happened.”
Sleeping with the fishes
As I may have mentioned a time or 12, Florida’s DEP in recent years has developed a reputation for lackadaisical or even non-existent enforcement of environmental laws. As a result, I generally have low expectations for the agency that some people have dubbed “Don’t Expect Protection.”
But Dirks said he’s been generally pleased with the way the DEP jumped on his complaint about the mass mangrove mayhem.
I checked with the DEP office that dispatched the inspectors. Spokesman Jon W. Moore told me the investigation is still in progress, but on May 30 the district chief sent a warning letter to the property owner, Store Capital Acquisitions LLC of Arizona.
“This warning letter is the first step of the department’s formal enforcement process and we have a number of enforcement tools we are able to use to address these violations,” Moore said.
The letter itself says the case “may result in liability for damages and restoration, and the judicial imposition of civil penalties.”
The “restoration” part of that sentence caught my attention, so I checked with two mangrove experts. One was Samantha Chapman of Villanova University, who has been studying Florida’s mangroves for years. The other was Loraé Simpson of the Florida Oceanographic Society.
“They’re not going to be able to replace all that,” Chapman told me. “Restoring it is going to be tricky.”
She pointed out that mangroves actually create land by the accumulation of fallen leaves and other detritus. Now that the mangroves are gone, “that land’s going to sink. … It’s going to be a mess.”
She told me that in other countries that don’t protect their mangroves — Belize, for instance — “they clear all the mangroves and the land sinks into the sea.”
When I asked Simpson about restoring the mangrove growth, she predicted the owners couldn’t regrow a stand so lush “within the next 25 to 50 years, if ever.”
It’s unfortunate, she said, that “mangroves grow in places where people want to live and they think, ‘Oh, it’s just a tree, it’ll grow back.’ It’s all about having that view.”
She also predicted that, without the mangroves filtering runoff and sucking up nutrients, the water quality in the river will decline just as the fishing has.
Dirks said that a few years ago, one of his neighbors hired some landscapers who mistakenly chopped down mangroves along 80 feet of the shore. The neighbor had to spend $14,000 to replant them and provide regular updates about the regrowth over the next 10 years, he said.
So when Dirks compares his neighbor’s experience with the vast destruction at the Sandpiper, he has high hopes for even harsher penalties being imposed.
“Someone said, ‘Cut down those mangroves,’” he told me. “I want that person to go to jail.”
I don’t know that I’d go that far. Maybe hit them with an enormous fine and a requirement that they at least try to put back what was cut down.
Maybe, to make an example out of them, we can take a lesson from the Corleone family. Take all that chopped-up vegetation out of the dumpsters and put it in that person’s bed, just like the horse’s head in “The Godfather.” They won’t be sleeping with the fishes — just with the mangroves where the fishes slept.
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