by Dale White, Staff Writer for Sarasota Herald Tribune
CORTEZ – The author of a highly praised book about the environmental past and potential future of the Gulf of Mexico - and how today’s coastal residents have a role in ensuring its vitality - will deliver his message to an audience in Manatee County.
Jack E. Davis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida for more than two decades, received widespread accolades from reviewers for his 2018 book “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” His 608-page work received the Pulitzer Prize for history and the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.
On the evening of March 14, he will deliver a talk benefiting the Florida Maritime Museum in the historic fishing village of Cortez. The fundraiser at the Seafood Shack restaurant overlooking Anna Maria Sound will assist the Manatee County-owned museum and its support group, the Friends of the Florida Maritime Museum, in collecting and preserving knowledge, artifacts and personal stories about this state’s fishing heritage.
In an announcement about Davis’ pending visit, Ed Chiles, an owner of local waterfront restaurants and a member of the museum’s board and the county’s Tourist Development Council, expressed his enthusiasm about the message he expects the author to share.
“The Gulf is calling and it’s time to listen and respond,” Chiles said, referring to recent algae blooms. “The last five months have given us an up close and personal lesson that we better stop taking our coastal waters and our marine environment for granted. Jack Davis has written an incredibly important book, in fact the first major book written about the Gulf, and is a must read for our citizens and policy makers. We can no longer afford to be complacent. This book is a call to action. The Gulf needs and certainly deserves our support. We ignore her call at our peril.”
Davis consented to an interview with the Herald-Tribune about his upcoming appearance.
Have you visited the fishing village of Cortez before?
Reservations for a March 14 lecture by Jack E. Davis, author of “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” can be made at www.FloridaMaritimeMuseum.org. Tickets start at $45 and include dinner and dessert, Davis’ talk, a book signing and a silent auction. The 6 to 8:30 p.m. event will be at the Seafood Shack, 4110 127th St. W., Cortez. All profits up to $34,000 will be matched by a Manatee County tourist development grant to benefit the Friends of the Florida Maritime Museum.
What is the study of environmental history?
The book looks at the historic human relationship with Gulf nature, focusing not solely on the impact of human activities on the environment but also on how nature shapes the course of history. Imagine, for example, how different Cortez history would be without the Gulf of Mexico and a rich estuarine environment.
This area has been heavily impacted by red tide economically and environmentally. To what extent do you think human activity contributes to red tide outbreaks?
I write about red tide in the book and note how nitrogen-enriched nutrients from human sources - such as fertilizer, livestock manure, septic tanks and stormwater -- can exacerbate red tides. Harmful algae blooms in fresh- and saltwater are on the rise around the globe, and I personally don’t think what has been happening around Florida should be conveniently categorized under the label ‘red tide,’ a natural phenomenon, since doing so blames nature while letting humans off the hook for their contributions.
Do you think climate change is a threat to Florida’s coastal communities and, if so, what should we be doing now to prepare for rising sea levels?
I write about this in the book too. According to some studies, five municipalities of the top 10 most vulnerable to sea-level rise are on the Gulf. Our best and smartest defense is restoring the living shoreline - mangrove forests, coastal marshes, seagrass beds and oyster beds. They are buffers against intense seas, nurseries and habitat for marine life and fantastic carbon sinks, absorbing carbon from the air and water. A concrete seawall contributes to erosion and emits carbon indefinitely. We also need to rethink the use of septic tanks, the technology of stormwater and the habit of growing the coastal population. And just as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) supports rebuilding on original property after a hurricane, federal policy should support those who wish to retire vulnerable home sites to nature and rebuild outside of harm’s way.
What motivated you to write “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea”?
U.S. history textbooks typically ignore the Gulf and historians have generally failed to give it much attention. I saw a need. I wanted readers to know that all Americans, no matter where they live, have both historical and ecological connections to the Gulf. Additionally, I believe that oil spills and devastating hurricanes have redefined the Gulf in American minds and I wanted to restore the Gulf’s true identity as a living, giving sea of great ecological and economic value to the U.S. To get this message across, I wrote this book for a general rather than academic audience. Finally, I grew up on the Gulf and have a lifelong intimate relationship with the Gulf. So, writing the Gulf’s biography was a labor of love and privilege.
Do Floridians have any misconceptions about the Gulf and its influence on our environment?
I think they don’t have a full understanding of the value of the Gulf to our health and well being, our quality of life. Ecological betterment is economic betterment.
What will your talk mainly focus on?
Estuaries, escapades and the place of the Gulf of Mexico in American history.