Even if caught, violators get more chances
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN and TERRY TOMALIN
Published August 7, 2006
Federal fishing cops caught the captain red-handed.
He had sneaked the Lisa M. Belle into illegal waters, hauled in undersized grouper, doctored his sea logs to hide his sins and killed two protected sea turtles. Karen Bell, whose family owned the boat, told investigators she knew the captain was a greedy rogue and had probably run afoul of the law in the past.
Her family's Cortez seafood business had hired him, she would say later, because "we can't stay open if we don't have fish."
Bell, 42, is no novice. She has managed the A.P. Bell Fish Co. for 19 years. She served on the federal council that regulates fishing throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
That her family deliberately sent a suspect captain out to fish six years ago illustrates a nagging shortcoming in the grouper industry:
Long-lining, a fishing technique that boosts catches, generates enough revenue to allow boat owners to hire contract crews.
But contract crews are in such short supply that ne'er-do-wells such as the Cortez captain continue to land jobs and break the rules.
A downside of abundance
Grouper catches used to be too small to support hired captains. Owners operated their boats themselves and supervised a deckhand or two.
That changed about 1980, with the introduction of a fishing technique called long-lining, which lays miles of hooks along sea bottom.
Long-lining was so effective, the commercial grouper catch tripled in three years. Boat owners suddenly could afford to stay on shore, hire captains and build up small fleets.
Onshore owners typically take 40 percent of the catch off the top. The captain must buy fuel, bait, ice and food for a week or two on the gulf - which can top $7,000. The captain and deckhands then split whatever profits remain. On bad trips, they can actually lose money.
Cheating can improve their odds.
Law enforcement records show that crews sometimes drop lines in forbidden zones, stash away undersized fish and save money on bait by illegally cutting up small red grouper, derisively known as "maggots."
Crews are supposed to throw undersized grouper back into the water, so they can grow up and reproduce. But long-line boats sometimes hook into big patches of small grouper and "you can't get the fish off (the line) fast enough," says former long-liner Orlen "Snatch" Oakleaf, who sometimes cut up maggots for bait.
"I'm not proud of it," Oakleaf says, "but you got to do what you got to do."
In May, long-line captain Mark Tarlowski was stopped off Sarasota with 336 illegal shark fins hidden in his hold. Shark season was closed and cutting off fins at sea is always illegal.
Tarlowski, 38, says he didn't intend to catch shark. He was grouper fishing when the hydraulic system that pulls up his line failed for 22 hours. The sharks ate grouper that were stuck on his line, he says. Then the sharks died, all 84 of them.
Rather than waste shark fins worth thousands of dollars, he says, he decided to try to sneak them ashore.
"The cost of fuel, the cost of bait, the cost of all my materials and supplies," Tarlowski says. "It needs to be seen from an average, hard-working man's perspective, from a man who is raising four daughters."
Flager County resident Lawrence Divirgilio, who owns the boat, blames rising costs and ever-tightening fishing regulations.
"It's a damn shame we have to break a law to make a living."
If he had to find a new captain, Divirgilio says, "probably what I would get would be worse."
Captains vs. owners
Chronic labor shortages aren't limited to captains. Deck work often promises long hours in exchange for three squares a day, free cigarettes and uncertain pay - a combination that often attracts transient laborers.
"Who wants to go offshore for 10 days?" says Bell. "People who come into this life don't mind living like that. A lot come back to do drugs five days straight, until they run out of money."
At one point this year, she says, five of her family's 12 boats sat idle for want of responsible crews.
Supervision improves when boat owners go to sea and captain their own boats. Among other things, they face the consequences if they get caught cheating. Fines can represent half a year's income and authorities can seize the boat if fines aren't paid.
"Do you think I could find anybody who is nearly as conscientious as me?" says long-liner Ed Small, who captains his own boat. "The stakes are too high. A hired guy, he gets caught, he doesn't care. He's going to have a job on another boat immediately."
A St. Petersburg Times survey of federal records supports that theory.
The Times checked violation histories of dozens of grouper boat owners over eight years. The group used different fishing methods and different ownership arrangements, but only contract crews on long-line boats were caught cheating.
Captains working for Greg Abrams, a Panhandle fleet owner, committed three violations in three years. Abrams himself was fined for an onshore offense after he interfered with government research by dumping fish samples down a drain.
The last fine against an Abrams' corporation was $80,000 because of frequent violations on his boats.
Jack Golden, who co-owns four long-line boats out of John's Pass, had one of the cleanest records in the Times survey.
His captains committed only one violation in eight years. Golden lets his captains buy half interest in his boats over time, an arrangement that attracts skilled fishermen with economic incentive to obey the rules.
Reputable captains and owners say cheaters represent only a small portion of their industry.
"The public image is that we are terrible people, who are raping the seas," says Ken Daniels Jr., whose family owns three long-line boats. "That's not really the way it is. A few bad apples can put a rap on the whole bunch."
Most fishermen know they must treat the gulf with care, he says.
"If they cut up shorts (for bait) or leave them laying on the deck too long, they are going to come back next year and won't catch anything," Daniels says. "They will have shot themselves in the foot."
Though fishing violations can result in stiff fines, federal enforcement is limited. The National Marine Fisheries Services has only three law enforcement officers for Central and Southwest Florida. And these days, both NMFS and the U.S. Coast Guard focus much of their investigative energy on homeland security.
NMFS also exhibits occasional tolerance toward law-breaking.
NMFS' own investigative records showed that Karen Bell and her family had hired a grouper captain she considered to be a greedy rogue. A year later, NMFS recommended that the U.S. Commerce secretary appoint Bell to the gulf's top rule-making panel.
NMFS takes the "qualifications and integrity of council members very seriously," national director Bill Hogarth said in a statement. But he declined to comment directly about Cook's advisory role or Bell's appointment.
NMFS' regional office in St. Petersburg lacks a systematic method for notifying boat owners when their captains break the rules.
Bobby Spaeth, who owns several long-line boats, had a captain who was nabbed in an ecological preserve in the Florida Keys. The violation was minor, says Spaeth, but two years passed before Spaeth ever heard about it.
Still, boat owners create plenty of trouble by giving violators second and third chances.
Bill Houghton, marketing director at Madeira Beach Seafood, tells of a long-line owner who is still paying off a $20,000 fine because of fishing violations on his boat.
Houghton declined to identify the owner or captain, but said the captain moved to another boat, cheated again, stuck the second owner with a fine and is now fishing on a third boat.
"They can just hop from boat to boat," Houghton said. "This guy running these boats should be out of the industry."