© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jim Zurbrick remembers the days when you could take a party boat out of Johns Pass and catch all the red grouper you wanted within sight of land.
But that was when John F. Kennedy was president and Florida was a land of swamp and scrub with a few cities built around some sugar-sand beaches.
"Everybody knows that today red grouper fishing is just pathetic, especially in 60 to 80 feet of water," said Zurbrick, who runs the Jolly Roger II, a spearfishing charter boat. "There are just too many people."
Federal officials know red grouper stocks are in trouble and they plan to take some drastic measures.
"We have to reduce the catch by 45 percent in both the commercial and recreational sectors," said Steve Atran, a biologist with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "How we will do that has not been determined."
To reduce the commercial catch, fishery managers could impose trip limits or move anglers farther offshore.
"To reduce the recreational catch, the only tools available are closed seasons or bag-limit adjustments," Atran said.
Atran said the three most viable options for recreational anglers are:
Establishing an August-to-November closed season and requiring that only two of the five-grouper bag limit may be reds.
Establishing an October-to-December closed season and requiring that only one of the five-grouper bag limit may be a red.
Establish a June-to-August closed season and leave the bag limit alone.
Zurbrick, who runs weekend scuba diving trips to the Middle Grounds, said he believes fishery managers are looking in the wrong place.
"The longliners have a much greater impact on the resource than recreational anglers do," he said. "Move them out to 50 fathoms (300 feet) and that would solve it all."
Commercial anglers use miles of monofilament line with thousands of baited hooks that do not discriminate between legal and undersized fish.
"Sixty to 90 percent of the fish that come up on a longline are dead," Zurbrick said. "That is fine as long as the fish are legal. But what do you do with an undersized grouper that is dead?"
Commercial anglers who use rod and reel or spearguns can at least choose which fish they kill, he said.
The council could move the longliners to deeper water. The Gulf Coast of Florida is the only place in the United States where longlines are allowed in 120 feet of water, which anglers refer to as the "20-fathom line."
Zurbrick said about 100 longlines operate in the gulf as opposed to more than 1,000 commercial fishing boats that use rod and reel or spearguns.
The debate over what to do with the red grouper fishery will be a heated one when the council holds a public hearing Tuesday in Tampa.
"The average recreational fishermen has no idea that they may be facing a closed season for red grouper in coming years," Zurbrick said. "This will get hot."
The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Tampa Airport Hilton, 2225 Lois Ave. North Suncoast anglers will get a chance to share their views at a hearing Wednesday at the Plantation Inn, 9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River.
For more information, contact the council at (813) 228-2815 or go to www.gulfcouncil.org.
BY THE WAY: According to the International Game Fish Association's record book, the largest Epinephelus morio ever caught on a rod and reel weighed 42 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught March 9, 1997, by Del Wiseman Jr. in St. Augustine.