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    Beloved grouper to grow dear

    Officials expect an annual monthlong ban on commercial fishing to replenish the grouper supply. Seafood stores predict the price will soar.

    [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
    Murray and Shannon Depenbrock of St. Petersburg dig into their grouper sandwiches at the Fourth Street Shrimp Store on Friday.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


    Be it blackened, breaded or broiled, grouper available in the next month likely will be frozen, imported or very, very pricey.

    A first-of-its-kind, monthlong ban on commercial grouper fishing off the Gulf Coast starts Feb. 15, and it will leave some restaurants and seafood markets struggling to meet demand for the local favorite.

    "A grouper sandwich in Florida is the Philly cheesesteak of Philadelphia," said Brian Connell, general manager at the Fourth Street Shrimp Store in St. Petersburg, which sells 18,000 pounds of grouper a year. "In Florida, it's grouper that people really want. You go up north, and it's, 'What's grouper?' "

    The fish's popularity has been its downfall. Federal fisheries officials say they hope the ban on catching grouper, which will be in place every Feb. 15 to March 15 starting this year, will replenish the gulf's grouper supply.

    Experts say the ratio of female-to-male grouper has increased. That trend indicates that grouper, which are born female and change to male later in their life cycle, are not left in the gulf long enough to mature and reproduce.

    "If you don't allow the fish to be old enough to spawn," said Rick Leard, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which established the ban, "then eventually you're going to have problems."

    The ban interrupts fishing at the height of the grouper's spawning season. But these months are also the middle of Florida's tourist season, and Lent, a big time for fish sales, is just around the corner.

    "They've taken the heart out of the best time of year," said Bill Houghton, co-owner of Madeira Beach Seafood.

    About 90 percent of grouper caught nationwide comes ashore in Pinellas County, and almost all of it into Madeira Beach, dubbed "the Grouper Republic" by local fishermen.

    The rule bans commercial grouper fishing between Brownsville, Texas, and Key West. It does not apply to recreational anglers, a point of contention among those on the commercial end.

    "The sports fishermen can go out there and clean out our gulf," said Mark Whitney, owner of Whitney & Sons Seafood in Hudson. "But the guys who make a living at it take a hit."

    How much grouper will cost in coming weeks is anybody's guess. Retailers are already asking peak prices, from $10.99 to $12.99 a pound retail, thanks to demand for grouper during Super Bowl week and harsh weather, which has minimized catches.

    Ervin Harr, who owns the Surf and Turf seafood store in Palm Harbor, predicts grouper prices will increase only 10 or 15 percent before the prices turn off consumers. "I personally feel that we're at our peak," Harr said. "People are only going to pay so much."

    Some restaurateurs plan to deal with the ban by serving frozen grouper, though none of them wanted their restaurants named in the newspaper. Whitney, of Hudson's Whitney & Sons Seafood, plans to freeze some grouper before the ban begins to ensure the 400 restaurants he supplies can stay stocked.

    "I've got to cover my people because they've got grouper on the menu 12 months out of the year," Whitney said.

    Others will disavow their own policies and buy from Mexican or South American fishermen, who don't have to follow U.S. rules.

    "There's no regulations that protect our gulf fishermen from unfair competition," said Bob Spaeth, an owner of Madeira Beach Seafood who is also executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association.

    Still, other restaurants will buy American, though they'll pay the price. Not all American fishermen have the equipment to deep-water fish for grouper, but the ones that do will be bringing in the more expensive deep-water species they are still allowed to harvest.

    Unlike shark, snapper or other favorites, grouper is harvested year-round in the Gulf of Mexico, and its consistent availability has only heightened demand. Threaten that consistency, some in the industry suggest, and restaurants could turn their customers' palates elsewhere.

    "This could go a lot of ways," commercial fisherman Jim Bonnell said. "Imports, frozen grouper could drive the prices down. When there's not a steady supply, restaurants could take it off the menu."

    In the short term, grouper connoisseurs should know that if they order from a menu that lists grouper at "market price," they should ask what market price is -- at least for the next month or two.

    Rick Falkenstein, who owns the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in St. Pete Beach, challenges anyone to find frozen grouper in his freezer, even during the ban.

    Ordering fresh grouper will, however, come with a price, Falkenstein said: "I project it will be the highest-priced grouper in the history of Tampa Bay."

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