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Focus turns to grouper plight

State and federal fishery managers will hold the first-ever public forum on grouper next week at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published February 23, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - State and federal fishery managers will hold the first-ever public forum on grouper next week at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

With the recreational grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico closed until March 15, representatives from sportfishing groups are expected to have tough questions for the government officials who manage Florida's top offshore fishery.

One topic on the agenda will be the discussion of bycatch mortality in the both the recreational and commercial fisheries. Recent data shows that 45 percent of the undersized red grouper caught on commercial longlines die after being hooked.

A recently released report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides some insight into what happens to undersize grouper on some longline boats.

On Nov. 29, 2006, FWC Officer Ed Chambers was patrolling the Florida Middle Grounds in the agency's new 32-foot FinCat when he came across a longline buoy in an area closed to commercial fishing, the report said.

About 2 miles away, Chambers and his crew boarded a 60-foot boat called the Cindy Sue. The boat's captain, 30-year-old Steven Fidler of Panama City, told Chambers that he knew nothing about the abandoned longline gear.

"On board the vessel I immediately observed numerous smaller red grouper on the bait cutting table," Chambers wrote in his report. "I also observed numerous pieces of red grouper mixed throughout the other bait baskets."

Chambers searched the ship's hold and found an additional 15 undersized fish that had just been caught, according to the report.

"Mr. Fidler and the crew advised that they had caught the fish on their first haul of the morning," according to the report. "They stated that they were planning on releasing the fish, though most of them were already dead. This did not coincide with the fact that there were small grouper pieces mixed in with the bait. The grouper pieces appeared to be from smaller red grouper. This is a common illegal practice on commercial longline vessels."

According to the report, Chambers asked Fidler whether the grouper on the cutting table would be used as bait. "He had no reply but a shoulder shrug," Chambers wrote.

Fidler was charged with possession of undersized red grouper and possession of grouper not in a whole condition. The undersized fish were donated to a local charity.

Fast Facts:

Grouper forum

The public forum is Tuesday (1-4:30 p.m.) and Wednesday (8 a.m.-noon) at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (100 Eighth Ave. SE, St. Petersburg). Registration is required but free at www.gulfcouncil.org. The deadline to register is today.