Is it a buyout, or just bait?

Designed to stabilize commercial fishing, the plan would limit the grouper catch to about 320 big producers, knocking twice as many small-timers out of the fishery without compensation.

Published August 6, 2006

Roger Wilburn’s life on the gulf began at age 11, cleaning fish on party boats.

Over the next 56 years, he caught enough grouper, snapper, shrimp, shark and tuna to pay off the $350,000 boat now docked behind his Panama City home.

Yet Wilburn’s fishing days could end abruptly if Congress approves a grouper “buyout.”

Designed to stabilize commercial fishing, the plan would limit the grouper catch to about 320 big producers, knocking twice as many small-timers out of the fishery without compensation.

“I never thought fishermen would turn on themselves like this,” says Wilburn.

The plan’s creators, led by influential Madeira Beach fish house owner Bobby Spaeth, say quotas and regulatory shutdowns have crippled commercial grouper fishing. The buyout could preserve a critical Tampa Bay industry, they say, while protecting a tasty fish that diners have come to love.

A close examination, however, shows the buyout may be unworkable and unnecessary.

The grouper fleet can survive without eliminating Roger Wilburn and hundreds of fellow fishermen.

 Spaeth has dominated grouper politics for years. He is savvy, blustery and willing to sit through tedious regulatory meetings. His lobbying organization donates to Alaskan politicians, big players in federal fishing legislation.

It was only natural that Spaeth would kick into gear in 2004, when regulators began grounding the grouper fleet for months at a time to reduce overfishing.

Spaeth persuaded U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young to arrange a $35-million government loan that would underwrite a three-part “buyout” of the grouper fleet. Then Spaeth picked a committee of colleagues that hashed out the details and forwarded a plan to Congress in hopes of final approval.

First, fishermen with the smallest commercial catches would lose their right to fish for grouper, without any compensation.

Those with sufficient catches could collect up to $350,000 in “buyout” tax money to quit the fishery voluntarily.

Lastly, fishermen who reject the buyout and stay in the fishery would pay a 5 percent tax on future grouper catches to repay the government appropriation.

Chuck Sullivan, 59, says he would take the buyout in a heartbeat. He’s tired of boat maintenance and onerous government rules.

Grouper fishing “is going down the tubes,” Sullivan says. “I’d like to see anybody else take four months off without one bit of pay and see how they like it.”

Most of the gulf’s 1,000 or so commercial permit holders, however, don’t catch enough grouper to qualify for a buyout. They would be forced out without compensation.

Hit hardest would be multi­species fishermen who target grouper one day, stone crab the next, then cast-net for mullet. Some run charter boats, but fish grouper when clients are scarce.

When Spaeth’s committee polled the fleet, two-thirds of permit holders opposed the buyout.

Then the committee weighted the vote according to each fisherman’s catch. Using that standard, full-time grouper fishermen swamped their smaller competitors and the committee reported to Congress that the industry supports the plan.

“It’s like two wolves and a sheep sitting down and deciding who’s for dinner,” complains fisherman Bill Tucker, who rallied colleagues to fight the buyout.

Permits vs. pounds

Removing small producers from a fishery is hardly a new concept — regulators have done it for years to keep fishermen with meager landings from selling their permits to more productive newcomers, who increase pressure on the fish.

Many full-time grouper fishermen have lost their permits for other species. It’s only fair, they say, that a buyout plan would boot part-timers out of the grouper industry.

“I don’t have a stone crab permit because I didn’t have enough landings,” says Ed Maccini. “Three or four years ago, because I wasn’t catching enough, they decided I wasn’t getting a shark permit. I lost that, and kingfish.”

But focusing on part-timers misses the point, says Roy Williams, biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The grouper industry suffers from too many boats and too few skilled captains and crews. The buyout may take boats off the market, but the best crews will just find work elsewhere and landings will remain high.

Ed Small, who captains his own boat, explains:

“I can get my 350,000 grand, (from taking the buyout), take my laptop computer off the boat, scuttle it and go on someone else’s boat as captain,” says Small. “I still have the (hotspot) numbers in my laptop. How does that take any production from the fleet?”

Furthermore, recent events have reduced the urgency for a buyout.

For one thing, the grouper fleet faces a new restriction this year: A limit of 6,000 pounds per trip. That slows down captains capable of bringing in 10,000 or 15,000 pounds.

And for whatever reason, the bite seems to have slowed some.

Through June, the fleet had landed only 2.2-million pounds of red grouper, a 35 percent reduction from 2005. At those rates, the fleet will easily stay within its red grouper quota this year and avoid the shutdowns that plagued them in 2004 and 2005.

Meanwhile, the federal Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council plans to impose “individual fishing quotas” in the next two or three years, says Williams, who sits on the council.

Individual quotas, based on each fisherman’s historical catch, eliminate the need for shutdowns by assigning catch shares to each fisherman, much like owning stock in a company.

Fishermen who want to increase their catch would have to buy shares from other fishermen willing to sell theirs. Also, the government will tax all grouper fishermen to administer the program.

These new costs of fishing will be passed along to consumers, Spaeth says, “and I don’t think people want to pay $18 for a grouper sandwich.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges, regulators “are hell-bent on getting those IFQ’s whether we get a buyout or not.”

Up in the air

Despite Spaeth’s early success in getting Young to inject tax dollars into the budget, the buyout plan has lost steam in recent months.

Young’s office has received hundreds of opposing e-mails, mainly from recreational fishermen who worry that heavy-hitting long-liners will dominate the market if the buyout goes through.

Attorney General Charlie Crist, a recreational fisherman himself, urged Young to dump the buyout. It “would harm small fishing operators while creating no benefit to the species,” Crist wrote.

Young says he originally thought most people in the industry favored the buyout. Now he wants more consensus before he supports any specific plan.

He is not sponsoring a buyout bill, he said, nor is anyone else that he knows of.

“Except for having money available,” Young says, “the buyout is still up in the air.”