tampabay.com

The 'extras'

By TIMES WIRES
Published August 7, 2006


'Short' grouper

Long-liner Ed Maccini works areas of the gulf loaded with small red grouper known as "shorts." He prides himself in saving them so they can grow up. "Those are tomorrow's dollars," he says.

Maccini's secret: A sharp knife.

When grouper are yanked from the bottom, sudden changes in air pressure bloats their bodies with gas and keeps them from swimming back down. Less conscientious fishermen let them float on the surface to die.

Maccini's crew helps them out by inserting a knife behind their pectoral fin to "vent" the gas.

On one recent trip to 185 feet, Maccini laid out a 4-mile line with about 900 hooks attached. On retrieval, leaders and hooks came up every five seconds.

First mate Tennessee Dave Kerrick was quick with the knife. When one flurry of shorts came up, he dehooked and vented four in 15 seconds.

Not every fish that swims toward the bottom will survive. Hooks nick their internal organs and predators hit them on the way down. One study suggests a mortality rate of 50 percent or more when little fish stay on deck very long.

Maccini figures plenty of shorts survive because he catches big grouper carrying old venting scars.

His tally on two retrievals? 156 short red grouper and 39 keepers.

Shorts averaged less than 10 seconds on deck. A total of 151 shorts swam toward the bottom, while five floated on the surface to die.

Turtles

Protected sea turtles are ticking bombs for any commercial fishery, but not in the gulf, says Larry Crowder, turtle guru at Duke University.

Loggerheads and other species tend to feed in the top 100 feet of water, Crowder says. Bottom long-lines, the gulf's dominant fishing method, are restricted by law to 120 feet or deeper.

"I haven't heard of any cases (turtle catches) in the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "It could have happened, but it's not something well-known to sea turtle biologists."

A 16-year-old study backs him up. From 1993 through 1995, government scientists observed 11 long-line trips that put 227,607 hooks into the gulf. Not a single turtle came up.

A fishing technique known as pelagic long-lining was temporarily banned off Hawaii after an estimated 250,000 turtles ate the bait. But pelagic lines float on the surface, not on the bottom.

In 1999, Cortez long-liner Danny Gilliland killed two turtles while fishing illegally. One of his crimes? Fishing shallower than 120 feet.

Critics say long-line fishermen, who lay miles of line, wreak havoc on little grouper and other species because baited hooks soak for hours on the bottom. But the reality isn't so clear.