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Buyout stirs debate, concern for anglers

While some see it as a reason to retire, others say they can't afford to.

Published November 25, 2004

MADEIRA BEACH - After more than two decades of commercial fishing, Bob Laskey's 49-year-old frame tells him it's time to take a rest.

"Twenty-five years in this industry is the same as 35 to 40 years in a regular job," he said Wednesday, taking a break from working on his 42-foot boat, Swordfish. "My body just can't take it anymore."

A $35-million federal buyout plan approved Saturday by Congress means his retirement could come sooner than later.

The program, designed to trim the ranks of longline commercial fishermen and reduce overfishing in the Gulf of Mexico, had the rumor mill running rampant Wednesday among local anglers.

The plan authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to work with the Gulf of Mexico Regional Fishery Management Council and "active fishery participants" to design and carry out the voluntary program.

While details remain unclear, the program has generated lots of rumors and mixed reaction, even among friends.

To Laskey, a third-generation fisherman, the buyout benefits both those who want to stay in the business - less competition for the Gulf's catch - and those who want to get out.

But his dockmate, 39-year-old Randy Lauser, said he has plenty of time left to trawl the Gulf in Brandy, his 38-foot commercial boat. Fifteen years of commercial fishing has whetted his appetite for more.

He said he sees the buyout as a way to "get rid of a lot of the part-timers and ... give us full-time commercial fishermen the chance to make a decent living."

"Some people are financially set and can afford it," Lauser said. "I still have a mortgage payment and all that. I still pay my (boat) slip rent here every month. I'm too young. I still have to work."

Bill Houghton, vice president of Madeira Beach Seafood Co., among the Gulf of Mexico's largest seafood processing plants, said the buyout should be offered to the biggest producers first.

"We want to spend the money to preserve the largest amount of fish we can," he said Wednesday. " ... I would hate to spend the money to buy out 500 small boats who barely bring in 500,000 pounds (per year) of fish when you could buy out producers bringing in 2-million pounds of fish."

Those fishermen who accept the deal likely will get a buyout in exchange for their boats and permits, industry leaders say.

Those who don't take the buyout and keep their vessels and permits will have 35 years to pay back the loan that funds the program. In effect, fishermen who remain in the business will be paying to eliminate their competition.

Houghton said repaying the loan could be a problem for fishermen.

"Some fishermen are going to have a hard time with that," Houghton said. " ... To protect not only a resource but to protect an industry, it seems ridiculous they'd have to pay it back. But if that's what it takes, that's what it takes."

Jack Golden trolled the docks and offices of Madeira Beach Seafood on Wednesday, trying to spread word about a meeting being hosted by the Southern Offshore Fishing Association on Tuesday. There, SOFA representatives who helped push this effort through "will try to explain how everything works out" to local fishermen, Golden said.

The meeting will be 10 a.m. at VFW Post 4256, at 12901 Gulf Blvd.

Golden, 69, said he hopes his colleagues keep open minds.

"We don't know all the particulars and we don't know enough about the program to know whether we'll support it 100 percent or not," he said. "But it is a solution for the future of the whole industry. "It solves unbelievable amounts of problems, if it's feasible and it works. We know it's feasible, but fishermen have to go along with it."

Roy Crabtree, regional administrator for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Southeast regional office, said fishermen are "wise to reserve judgment until all the details are worked out on this thing, but it's my intent to see things done right."

He said a Jan. 10-13 meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in Baton Rouge, La., should provide a forum to discuss the program's ramifications. Eventually, public hearings will be held and the fishermen will "have their say-so."

"We'll get on it as expeditiously as we can," he said.

Golden said he'd consider selling all four of his boats if the captains working for him support that.

"If they don't wanna sell, I'm not selling," he said. "There's going to be cases where people don't know how to do anything else."

Capt. Ryan Wagner, a rod-and-reel commercial fishermen and charter boat captain, isn't interested in changing careers.

"I've only had this boat for three years and I'm planning on staying in this for the long haul," said Wagner, 33, a six-year veteran. "If I were out of the fishery, I don't know what I'd do. I don't even want to think about that."

He said the buyout will make the ranks of "grouper fishermen a little smaller and hopefully, what we do a lot more valuable."

[Last modified November 25, 2004, 00:11:11]

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