The grouper catch
It's getting harder to get the gulf's signature fish on your plate. The long-liners and the little guy face off in the politics of overfishing. That grouper sandwich you ordered? Well, it might not be.
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN and TERRY TOMALIN
Published August 6, 2006
The grouper took the bait at 12:40 on a hot June afternoon. Carl Morgan was 80 miles from shore on his trusty Sundowner, hoping to catch enough fish to pay another month's bills.
His mechanized fishing rig took 35 seconds to pull the grouper up from 180 feet. It was a 30-pounder, all mottled in black and white.
A week later, Pat Watt, dining with her husband, Dave, at Clearwater's Wild Fish restaurant, took one bite of the grouper and declared it outstanding.
That the grouper lived about 9 years was an odds-defying marathon. That it wound its way to Watt's stomach may be just as remarkable.
Morgan, 70, and his 59-year-old boat are throwbacks to simpler times, when the Gulf of Mexico offered unfettered opportunity and a fisherman's haul depended on diligence and skill.
These days, the grouper industry is under siege, beset by frustrating regulations, bitter politicking and international seafood scams. Flaky white flesh and tartar sauce may never be the same.
Regulators have shut down commercial grouper fishing for six of the past 20 months. Imports masquerading as grouper have flooded the market. In fact, some restaurants offering West Florida's signature catch are serving catfish, tilapia and other cheap substitutes.
This is a tale about Carl Morgan's grouper, Pat Watt's stomach and the ever-shifting forces that brought them together.
The ugly stepsister
Grouper need rocky bottom and relatively shallow water.
Florida's east coast is unsuitable because the Atlantic Ocean deepens sharply a few miles from shore. The western Gulf of Mexico is inhospitable because silt from the Mississippi River turns the bottom into mud.
But from Pensacola to Key West, the continental shelf is an oceanographic wading pool, chock full of limestone bottom, ledges and rocky outcroppings.
Grouper live from shoreline to 100 miles out, allowing west coast fishermen to land 85 percent of the nation's catch, much of which funnels through John's Pass.
It took a while in coming.
For centuries, Cubans needed tons of preserved fish for Lent and appreciated grouper for firm flesh suitable for smoking. Havana fishermen would load up on gulf grouper, put ashore at what is now the tip of St. Pete Beach and smoke their catch on makeshift grills.
An 1841 survey map, created with the help of a French guide, dubs that spot Passe aux Grilleurs, or griller's pass.
Florida fishermen disdained grouper, targeting American red snapper instead. But snapper are lemmings with fins. Bring one to the surface and hundreds might follow to their deaths, rising to the boat and biting anything that hits the water. A lucky captain could yank two tons from one honey hole, a pressure no fishery could sustain.
About 50 years ago, red snapper began disappearing from the eastern gulf, leaving fishermen and diners with little choice:
Grouper, the ugly stepsister, finally got invited to the ball.
Red bumps and green dots
As sunlight bounces off placid waves, Carl Morgan studies the tip of a fiberglass pole, hoping it will twitch soon. Lean and tough as jerky, he has fished for a living for 35 years. Bandages on his arms and face cover spots where doctors have cut away skin cancer.
The Sundowner, a wooden 48-footer built in 1947, has four poles extending from the rails, with electric motors to reel in the line. Fishermen call this arrangement a "bandit" rig because it resembles a slot machine or "one-armed bandit." It was the latest technology when Morgan went to sea in 1971.
On this day, Morgan and his crewmate of eight years, Ray Quilliam, have only six grouper to show for six hours of work - too few to cover a day's worth of ice, fuel and bait. Fishing has been slow since they left port five days ago and Zack Bishoff, Morgan's 15-year-old grandson who came along to learn the ropes, is ready to go home.
"It makes you pull your hair out. It's a wonder I ain't bald," complains Morgan, shifting into his dingy cabin to putter off to a new spot.
The gulf's blue surface gives no hint of what transpires below. Morgan navigates by electronic gear that rings his captain's chair. A neat spiral notebook lists the coordinates for thousands of fish hangouts he has discovered over the years. His next target is about a mile away.
By chance, he passes over a small outcropping, 180 feet below. It shows up on his digital fish finder as a red bump on otherwise flat bottom. A green dot hanging above the bump represents a fish.
Morgan has ignored similar bumps and dots today, but his instincts tell him to investigate. As soon as dead mackerel and sardine bait drops to the bottom, the fish finder comes alive with green and yellow splotches. All four poles start jumping. Red snapper, vermillion snapper, scamp, red and gag grouper - big ones - pile up on the deck. When the action slows, Quilliam cleans them and packs them in an ice chest.
Twenty minutes into the action, Zack's pole bends straight to the water. It's a 39-inch, 30-pound gag, the biggest grouper of the day. It will earn Morgan almost $100 at the dock and feed 21 diners when it reaches Wild Fish restaurant in Clearwater.
Though the gulf holds about two-dozen grouper species, reds and gags make up three-quarters of the commercial catch. Gag - often called "black grouper" on restaurant menus - fetches a premium because some connoisseurs think it tastes sweeter and flakes better.
Three days later, Morgan unloads about 1,600 pounds of gutted grouper and a few dozen snapper at the TW Wholesale dock on Madeira Beach. They are trucked to Captain's Finest Seafood, a Tampa distributor that buys all Morgan's fish. After subtracting expenses and Quilliam's share, Morgan nets $1,918.21.
It's a pathetic payout.
Pounds and pings
Morgan never expected grouper to make him rich. He accepts 18-hour days and 10-day trips. He's willing to shoulder the annual boat repairs, insurance, equipment and slip rent that keep him going.
But darned these lousy catches.
In his heyday, Morgan averaged 4,000 to 5,000 pounds a trip; now he's down to 2,000 or less. Since he hasn't changed his fishing methods, he fears grouper are over-fished and disappearing, just like red snapper.
Scientific proof is hard to come by. Grouper reproduce like crazy one year, then slack off the next. They stop biting for no apparent reason, then launch into a feeding frenzy after a hurricane blows through.
Despite Morgan's dwindling hauls, the commercial industry as a whole has held its own for the past decade, hauling in about 9-million to 10-million gutted pounds a year.
The recreational catch is slightly less, according to government statistics, though the recreational catch is more difficult to measure.
Does that mean the gulf still abounds with grouper? Or are computers, GPS systems and fancy offshore boats giving fishermen too much advantage and masking a decline? Newcomers don't even have to hunt for hotspots anymore. They can just use radar to ping an experienced boat from 10 miles away and calculate exactly where it is fishing.
Morgan is convinced that grouper "don't have a chance anymore." And he doubts that computers and GPS are to blame.
Harleys and maggots
Florida's commercial fishermen worked "vertically" for centuries. Whether they used bandit rigs or traditional rods and reels, they sent line straight to the bottom, waited for a bite and brought up a fish.
Then the Panther motored into Madeira Beach about 1980, its iceboxes jammed with grouper.
The Panther's crew had laid a "long line" horizontally along the bottom with hundreds of leaders and hooks attached. No need to feel for a bite. Just lay out bait a few hours and retrieve the line.
The Panther haul electrified the docks; fishermen raced to retrofit their bandit boats with long lines that stretched out 5 or 6 miles. Catches could top 25,000 pounds a trip, more than many bandit boats caught in a year.
"Too Tall Dave" Conley remembers one trip so abundant that the entire crew grabbed their pay and bought new Harley-Davidsons.
Red grouper were particularly vulnerable to long-lining because reds tend to disperse over wide expanses. Whereas vertical fishermen had to anchor over specific spots, long-liners could blanket whole sections of bottom.
"It was just like pulling up a bandit line with 10 or 15 hooks on and every hook had a fish on it," Conley says. "You were working 20 hours a day but crews were a lot happier."
Florida's grouper catch tripled in three years.
Consumers benefited because long-lining lowered prices. But as with other breakthroughs, abundance brought unexpected side effects.
Miles of heavy-duty lines laying on the bottom sometimes snagged coral and rock during retrieval, tearing up valuable habitat.
Boats and expenses got bigger and trips got longer. Bait costs jumped exponentially because of all the unattended hooks.
Crews often defrayed costs by illegally cutting up undersized red grouper for bait. They called them "maggots." Conley remembers trips in the 1980s when patches of maggots could overwhelm the crew.
"To take the time to unhook one fish and throw it back versus getting up another 50 hooks with 10 or 15 fish on, you just don't have time to do it," Conley says. "You'd take some pup off the line and throw it in the kill box and just keep going."
Killing too many juveniles can ruin a fishery, but such abuses have abated in recent years, many fishermen say.
Talented long-liners have discovered that spacing hooks farther apart attracts bigger fish. They also lay line in specific hotspots, just like bandit fishermen do, rather than blanketing the bottom. Some captains are taking pains to dehook small fish and throw them back safely.
"It's not 1989 anymore. It's not 1996," says Ken Daniels Jr., whose family owns three long-line boats. "It's 2006, and if I am ever going to get my kids to college then I am going to have to take care of this resource and work responsibly. Ten years ago it was wide open, kill everything, do whatever you want to do.
"It's just not like that today."
But there's no denying success.
A talented long-line captain and two or three crewmen typically catch three or four grouper for every one that Morgan and Quilliam bring in on the Sundowner.
"A fish has to eat two or three times a day. He's just like us," Morgan says. "These guys are setting 1,000 hooks on the bottom, and if they leave it down there long enough, he's going to eat. We can't sit on one spot for half a day. We have to keep moving."
Long-liners and their hefty catches stood squarely in the cross-hairs five years ago when a federal "stock assessment" suggested that red grouper were in dire straits, reproducing too slowly to replenish their numbers.
By then, the commercial fleet consisted of about 160 long-line boats, centered in Pinellas County, and about 770 bandit boats and rod and reel boats, spread more evenly throughout the gulf. Though outnumbered, long-liners caught most of the grouper, and red grouper in particular.
So in 2001, the federal Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council tentatively voted to banish long-line fishing to water at least 300 feet deep, beyond the range of most red grouper.
That's when the long-line champion of Madeira Beach weighed in.
Derbies and catfish
Over the years, no one has influenced grouper fishing more than Bobby Spaeth, a hard-charging Seminole High School grad who turned a creaky old ice machine into the Tampa Bay area's biggest fish house.
Madeira Beach Seafood operates like a company store, advancing ice, bait, food and fuel to commercial fishermen who live on the edge. They can sell their catch to someone else, but good luck getting supplies the next time.
Spaeth, 59, owns several long-line boats and rents dock space to others. His fish house assesses a 1 percent "legal fee" on payouts to underwrite his lobbying group. He once sued federal regulators over shark restrictions and made them back down.
"Some people don't like him. He gets mad and yells at people," says Jack Golden, who owns a small long-line fleet. "But there's nobody else in there fighting for us. Ask any fisherman at the docks - even the ones who don't like him."
So when regulators tried to banish long-liners to 300-foot depths, Spaeth was a force to be reckoned with. He hired a Nova Scotia biologist who said red grouper reproduce earlier than previously thought. More eggs meant more fish.
Federal regulators, leery about lawsuits, dropped their plan to single out long-liners. Instead, they established a 5.3-million pound red grouper quota for the whole commercial industry, beginning in 2004.
At that moment, the fresh grouper sandwich was in peril.
Commercial quotas often create a self-defeating reaction that fishermen call a "derby," and Florida's grouper industry was no exception.
Fearing shutdowns, fishermen worked extra hard, trying to stash away money. Forget time with the family. Forget 15-foot seas in February. Dump the haul, buy more ice and get back out there.
With more fish on the market, prices softened, stoking this hectic pace even more.
When the fleet busted its quota, the feds shut down commercial grouper fishing in November 2004, and in October 2005. Owners and crews who struggle from paycheck to paycheck faced a grim Christmas.
"When Ford announces that they are closing a couple of plants, there is big stuff in the paper," says Chuck Sullivan. "We got shut down and there was no word about our hardship. Nobody pays our bills. We don't get anything from the government. Nothing."
Without local grouper to fill their menus, many restaurants turned to imports, which can suffer from poor handling, says Gilbert Migliano, owner of Save On Seafood, a large Pinellas distributor.
Local fishermen ice grouper down as soon as it hits the boat, Migliano says. "The body temperature goes from 90 degress to less than 40 almost immediately and you have a great fish."
Foreign fishermen might let a grouper warm up on deck for hours, he says.
"I can take an import that is two days old and Mexican and you won't want it. The local fish is 12 days old and fine."
Worse, some imports aren't grouper at all.
The St. Petersburg Times commissioned DNA tests on fish from 11 Tampa Bay area restaurants that showed that six served cheaper fish though their menus listed "grouper." One Palm Harbor restaurant advertised "champagne braised black grouper" at $23 a plate, then served tilapia, a cheap, farm-raised fish.
In May, a federal grand jury indicted a Panhandle seafood processor who allegedly had imported 1-million pounds of a frozen Vietnamese catfish called basa, repackaged it and sold it as grouper.
An e-mail from a Vietnamese exporter outlined the scam: "Please inform you again that now most of U.S. importers now continue importing basa fillet under other names ... you change the carton when it arrives at your cold storage."
Trip limits and buyouts
Two years of government shutdowns turned the commercial fleet against itself.
Even in good years, successful boat owners are lucky to net $50,000 or $60,000. They cannot afford to sit idle for months at a time.
Last year, bandit fishermen and a few long-liners circulated a petition asking federal regulators to limit grouper catches to 5,500 pounds per trip. That would slow down the best long-liners, who landed up to 15,000 pounds.
Spaeth, the long-line champ, considered the idea un-American.
"What's right is free enterprise," he would say later. "It's what I fought for in Vietnam."
But even members of Spaeth's lobbying group, the Southern Offshore Fishermen's Association, liked the trip limit. Most brought in less than 5,500 pounds anyway. Regulators compromised with a 6,000-pound trip limit, which kicked in this January.
Spaeth still had one powerful card in the works.
In 2004, he had persuaded Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, to stick a $35-million loan into the federal budget. Spaeth and a committee of industry colleagues then constructed a "buyout" plan, where the appropriation would pay some fishermen to quit the grouper game.
The plan, which Spaeth's group has since submitted to Congress, would also restrict commercial grouper fishing to full-timers, eliminating two-thirds of the fleet without any compensation.
Gone would be charter boat captains, stone crabbers, retirees and others who fish for grouper periodically.
When recreational lobbyists and bandit fishermen learned of the plan, they fired off irate e-mails to Tallahassee and Washington, complaining that the buyout would entrench long-lining.
They picked up an important ally in Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, who says the buyout isn't necessary, won't work and has lacked public scrutiny.
Worse, says Crist, one influential group hopes to use political muscle to boot out weaker competitors.
"It just isn't fair."
Fish houses and condos
Will Ward owns Captain's Finest Seafood, a small seafood distributor near the Port of Tampa. A few hours after Morgan unloaded his grouper, Ward packed the 30-pounder into a gray, icy tub with six or seven other gags and trucked it to the Wild Fish restaurant near Westfield Countryside mall.
Ward, 43, worked commercial boats for 15 years until he earned a USF accounting degree and shifted to wholesaling. He mainly sells fresh grouper to Tampa Bay area restaurants.
When regulators shut down the Florida fleet, Ward tried to import fresh grouper from Mexico and the Pacific, but the quality was spotty.
"One time the fish looks good and next time it is terrible," he says. "I can have 30 orders that day and I have to call 30 restaurants and explain to them why I don't have fish."
Yet for all these problems, Ward says, Florida's grouper industry faces a bigger challenge: The waterfront condo.
Commercial fishermen need hulking ice machines, right at dockside. They need places to unload tons of slimy fish and places to park big, tubby boats.
In short, they need fish houses. But fish houses generate only modest profits and a few jobs, which can't compete with 15-story, million-dollar views.
In the past seven years, Pinellas County has lost three of its four largest fish houses to development. The biggest, Spaeth's Madeira Beach Seafood, sits on leased land that is up for sale.
Five small fish houses remain in Tarpon Springs, Madeira Beach and Redington Shores, but their slips can hold only a few dozen boats.
Ward, Spaeth and others have lobbied city and county governments to set up a working public waterfront - like San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf - to no avail.
"When Madeira Beach (Seafood) goes, where are people going to go?" says Ward. "You have the largest grouper landing port in the United States and it is in jeopardy of being erased from existence."
Capers and gags
Dunedin resident Pat Watt has no inkling of stock assessments, buyouts or derby fishing. But she loves fresh fish from Florida.
"Up north, the fish are all frozen and fishy tasting," she says. "It's different down here."
Watt and her husband, David, eat out three or four times a week and are trying Wild Fish for the first time. She orders the grouper piccata, a customer favorite sauteed with wine, butter, lemon and capers.
As usual, Dave orders seared tuna. She raves about the grouper, then passes a forkful across the table to give him a taste.
That pleases manager Paul Renner, who grew up in St. Petersburg, never far from the water.
Renner's father used to spearfish under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, leaving 8-year-old Paul on the edge of the boat, holding the line and wearing a life jacket. Sometimes, his father would nail a big one that would take off, Renner says. He would jump into Tampa Bay and let it tow him around.
Now 45, Renner is a veteran spear-fisherman with a commercial license. He ventures out whenever possible and brings back much of the fish his restaurant sells.
When regulators shut down the grouper fleet in 2004 and 2005, the Wild Fish took grouper off the menu and refused to bring in imports.
So far, shutdowns and shortages were caused by troubled red grouper stocks. As the Watts sip their chardonnay, Renner learns of disturbing news: The latest federal assessment indicates that gag grouper stocks may also be on a downhill slide.
If preliminary estimates hold up, regulators will have to reign in gag landings. Together, reds and gags make up 75 percent of the commercial catch.
Renner sighs. His shoulders slump.
"I wish we could all just catch what we need. I wish we could just go back fishing like we used to."
About 12-million pounds of fish labeled as grouper are imported nationally, slightly more than the domestic catch. Imports, which are mostly frozen, come from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Brazil, Central America and temperate zones in Asia. Many Tampa Bay area restaurants use imports because they are less expensive than domestic grouper and widely available. Some use imports only when the domestic fleet is shut down. Others, like Salt Rock Grill, Hurricane, Frenchy's, Dockside Dave's and Harvey's Fourth Street Grill, say they will not serve imports under any circumstances.
A plan to stabilize the grouper fishing industry by limiting the total catch would put scores of fishermen out of business. What's more, it's probably unworkable and unnecessary.