tampabay.com

Caught with the proof of a great catch

Hurricane expert's snapshot lands him in hot water.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published February 27, 2007


They are the photographic staple of fishing magazines everywhere - big trophy fish, posed among grinning, triumphant captors.

But as one Florida celebrity discovered recently, memorializing that great catch through the camera lens can land you in trouble.

Max Mayfield, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, is under investigation by his former employer for catching a 200-pound Goliath grouper the day after his retirement in January.

The boat captain and crew slid the grouper into the boat through a door in the back, unhooked it, snapped a few celebratory photos and slid it back into the Gulf of Mexico. It swam away.

The photo ended up in newspapers, and soon federal fishing agents were calling.

The Goliath grouper is a protected species, so bringing one into the boat is illegal, even if for a few minutes. Doing so can damage a protective slime covering the fish.

Mayfield, 58, said Monday he had no idea he had done anything wrong until someone complained to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which also oversees the National Hurricane Center.

"I love to fish, but I haven't done any in a long time. I don't know the rules," Mayfield said. "Nobody on that boat knew the rules."

Tracey Dunn, who oversees federal fishing enforcement in Florida, declined to discuss specifics of Mayfield's grouper because it is under review by the fisheries service general counsel.

Reprimand or fine?

Sanctions can range from a written reprimand to a civil fine.

Though lack of knowledge about rules is not a defense, Dunn said, federal agents often focus their investigation on a boat captain or other experienced fishermen rather than on an inexperienced client.

The boat in question was the 34-foot Bud&Mary, owned and captained by Richard Stanczyk, who operates a marina in Islamorada. He says he has fished the Keys for 29 years and never heard that putting a Goliath temporarily in the boat is illegal.

Stanczyk holds a charter captain's license but said he rarely takes out clients. Mayfield is a friend, Stanczyk said, and the trip was for fun, not hire. Mayfield's son and three others also went along.

Mayfield tied into the Goliath west of Key West.

"My boat has a tuna door in the back. When you open it, you can slide the fish through," Stanczyk said. "He was laying in water. We took a few hooks out of him and let him go in better shape than when we found him."

Change in procedure

From now on, Stanczyk said, he will try to unhook Goliath grouper while keeping it in the water. If that proves impossible, he will cut the line close to the hook, which is the proper procedure for all protected species.

Most boats lack tuna doors. People arranging on-boat photo sessions often hoist a big grouper over the side, which can damage its internal organs.

Stanczyk said he is embarrassed for Mayfield, a familiar face for years as he interpreted storm data on national television from the hurricane center.

"A great debt is owed to him." Stanczyk said. "For those of us living in the Keys, we live and die with hurricanes approaching and we relied on him."'

Mayfield said he had hoped to spend two or three months fishing after leaving the hurricane center, but after the grouper incident, "it hasn't panned out."

Several television stations have offered him weather or hurricane-related jobs, he said, and he plans to pick one in a few months and go back to work as a hurricane analyst.

"I don't really want to do it day-to-day, like a TV weatherman," he said. "But rather when there is a hurricane threat. I was kind of hoping to get into that."