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    Businesses steel for grouper ban

    Federal fisheries officials hope the ban, which ends March 15, will replenish the Gulf of Mexico's supply of grouper.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    Eddie Toomer, the owner of a seafood restaurant in Nokomis, loads his truck Wednesday in Madeira Beach. Toomer's 1,400 pounds of red grouper will have to last: A monthlong ban on commercial group fishing off the Gulf Coast began today.
    The Madeira Beach boat crews have been fishing hard, catching as many grouper as they can. Workers in the seafood houses have been putting in overtime, filleting grouper by the ton.

    All of that stops today. A monthlong ban on commercial grouper fishing off the Gulf Coast began at the stroke of midnight.

    Your next grouper sandwich may come from fish that's either been frozen or imported. Either way, it'll probably be more pricey.

    Florida restaurants will have to make do. Local commercial fishermen are worried.

    "Happy Valentine's Day. They're shutting us down," said Bob Spaeth of Madeira Beach, who co-owns six boats and a seafood packinghouse. "In two weeks, you need to bring some food for some of these deckhands and blue-collar fishermen. I don't know what they're going to do for a living."

    Grouper's popularity has been its downfall. Federal fisheries officials hope the ban, which will be in place every Feb. 15 to March 15 starting this year, will replenish the Gulf of Mexico'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, aren't being left in the gulf long enough to mature and reproduce.

    "This one-month period is the peak spawning season for gag grouper," said Steven Atran, a biologist with the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which established the ban.

    But this is also Florida's tourist season, and some restaurants may struggle to meet the demand for grouper. No one knows how much grouper will cost.

    "We've put a ton of grouper away. A lot of grouper has been fished the last two weeks," said Mark Whitney, owner of Whitney & Sons Seafood in Hudson. "Everybody out there is trying to get the last fish they can."

    Some restaurants will serve frozen grouper. Whitney insists that if the fish is frozen the correct way, there's little difference between fresh and frozen.

    About 90 percent of grouper caught nationwide comes ashore in Pinellas County, mostly in Madeira Beach. Commercial fishermen think the ban is unnecessary.

    "There's a lot of scientific evidence that the fishery is not in that bad of shape," Spaeth said.

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