By Alex Butler
Florida native and fly-fishing guide Dustin Pack used to spend his days fishing with hot dogs on the Alafia River. Stingrays and catfish one day gave way to a new discovery for the then 10-year-old. A fish with a distinctive black dot on its tail. Running to his neighbors for help identifying the catch, young Pack soon learned that he had landed his first redfish and began his self-proclaimed obsession with catching and discovering new fish species.
Now, nearly 30 years later, Pack is a notable fly-fishing guide in the Tampa Bay area, working anywhere from 5-10 hours a day on the water. His profession has made him a strong advocate for protecting the Hillsborough River, resulting in his position as a board member for Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and most recently, a petition against Tampa’s River O’ Green dye.
“Some of the officials want to tell you that it leaves after three hours but that is not true. It stays for days, and I think from an officials standpoint it shows that they don’t really care about the river,” said Pack. “[It shows] they’re willing to just dump chemicals in the river for whoops and hollers and parties when we have an entire living body of water that we’re dyeing neon green and that’s not natural.”
His petition quickly garnered 5,000 signatures of people questioning the safety and necessity of the 300 gallons and $16,000 worth of neon green dye that has been put in the river every St. Patrick’s Day since 2012.
“I’m fighting for those people too that want the same result,” said Pack.
Working outside of Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Pack took it upon himself to bike along the river walk taking samples before, during, and after the river dye was dumped. Moving forward, he plans to send those samples to a lab and bring more scientific evidence to stop the tradition.
Pack also collected drone footage of the river 24, 48, and 72 hours after the event. Only after 72 hours did the dye truly fade.
“It’s as neon green as you can get, it pretty much glows, it’s like something out of ghostbusters,” said Pack. “You look on the shoreline where it’s six inches deep and you can’t see the bottom… from the fishes’ perspective imagine living in your house and your entire house is neon green, how offputting is that, how disoriented would you be?”
According to Bridgette Froeschke, an environmental studies professor at The University of Tampa, many fish rely on sight, smell, and chemical cues to find food and navigate. Adding extra chemicals to the water could disrupt these signals.
“Green is also not a color that their eyes have had to be accustomed to,” said Froeschke. “[With the dye] they can’t see as well.”
While the river dye project has been a major focus for Pack recently, it is not his sole form of environmental advocacy.
“My main objective is putting more eyes on the river. It is about the dye but it’s also about the river as a whole,” said Pack. “That’s where our drinking water comes from and some people don’t understand that so we just put chemicals in it… getting people to care about it and educate them on it and how long that river has been there and what it means… everybody needs to have their part.”
To contribute to this goal, Pack has worked as a volunteer board member for Tampa Bay Waterkeeper for the past two and a half years. The non-profit focuses their work on court cases involving violations of the Clean Water Act.
From the cases they have won, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper has given over half a million dollars to Tampa Bay Estuary Program to fund environmental projects such as seagrass restoration.
As the only fishing guide on the board, Pack serves as their eyes and ears on the water.
“He’s intimately connected to the estuary,” said fellow Tampa Bay Waterkeeper board member Justin Bloom. “He sees and feels what is happening out there on the water.”
Outside of his advocacy work, Pack tries to educate his clients on the importance of the Hillsborough and protecting Tampa’s waterways.
“I feel like raising a red flag or bringing attention to it has always been a necessity but even more so now with the amount of people that we have moving here,” said Pack. “If It wasn’t for anglers and people that actually care about these fish and cared about their well-being and cared about them thriving… then who’s going to care about them?”