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The grouper battle

Restrictions meant to protect the popular fish could imperil the livelihoods of fishermen in Pinellas County.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Billy White, 22, a fish cutter and packer with Double D Seafood Co., displays three deep water yellow edge grouper that were caught in the Gulf of Mexico and brought in Thursday morning. White cuts and packages 1,500 to 3,000 pounds of whole fish a day.
MADEIRA BEACH -- A tangle of new restrictions designed to protect grouper has fishermen choosing sides. Both groups, polarized by the threats to livelihood and species, will have a chance to speak Tuesday at a public meeting.

The measures especially target "longline" commercial vessels, which can string up to 200 hooks per mile on lines usually 2-5 miles long. Everyone agrees that the local fleet, which catches much of the world's grouper, could be wiped out by the changes.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in October 2000 declared red grouper an "overfished" species. From that point, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has had one year to adopt a protection plan.

The council, a quasi-governmental agency under the National Marine Fisheries Service, has held June meetings in all five Gulf states and is expected to decide in July on an amendment that could affect several overlapping industries in Pinellas County that depend on a steady supply of local grouper.

Although "Amendment 18" includes curbs against vertical-line, or "bandit," rigs, closes some recreational fishing territories and bans spear guns, the moves against longlining are getting most of the attention of locals and threaten to have the largest economic impact.

The plan speaks frankly about a longline gear "phaseout" and proposes, among other things, pushing longline vessels out to 50 fathoms of depth, or 300 feet. Their positions would be tracked by satellite. The boat owners would have to pay for the on-board monitoring systems.

Currently, longliners are allowed to fish outside of 20 fathoms, a distance of about 37 miles from John's Pass. A 50-fathom boundary would put them out of business, longliners say.

It's about the only point on which both sides concur.

"Moving the longlines to more than 50 fathoms would definitely wipe them out," said council economist Tony Lamberte. Longer trips require more fuel, time and ice -- all precious commodities to commercial fishermen. Moreover, red grouper, the most common of the species, is a shallow-water fish, seldom venturing beyond 50 fathoms.

The proposals follow on the heels of a one-month closure to commercial red, gag and black grouper fishing from Feb. 15 to March 15. Officials are considering extending the closure an additional month, a move that would affect vertical-line fishermen as well.

But in an increasingly polarized climate, longliners see the latest amendment to the Reef Fish Fishery Management Plan as a ploy to drive out competition and improve the supply for those who remain.

"We have data that show the fishery is getting bigger," said Robert Spaeth, who owns three longline boats and one vertical-line vessel. As executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, Spaeth has commissioned his own research challenging the red grouper shortage, including a "near-record" 1999 when commercial fishermen caught more than 7-million pounds.

Council records show a steady decline in the commercial red grouper catch over 12 years -- from 7.3-million pounds in 1986 to 4.6-million pounds in 1998.

"There are more grouper landed in John's Pass than any other place in the world," Barbara and Edward Lafreniere wrote in their 1993 book published by Pineapple Press, The Complete Guide for Life in Florida.

"That's possible," Lamberte said when asked about that assessment. "It's very likely that they're the top producer in the U.S., definitely, and most likely in the world."

At least 100 and possibly as many as 135 commercial boats offload in Madeira Beach, said Eckerd College economist Linda Lucas. About 70 percent are longline vessels.

Lucas, who also teaches a course in marine resource policy, is doing economic impact research for both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Southern Offshore Fisherman's Association.

"Most of this new amendment's economic impact is going to fall on Pinellas County and St. Petersburg," Lucas said. "We've got about 305 fishermen that would be unemployed." Another 136 work in fish wholesale houses. Employees in fish distributorships, grocery stores and seafood restaurants also would feel the pinch, she said.

Proponents of the amendment say hardship to fishermen is better than the alternative of continued overfishing.

Fish wholesaler William Ward, who owns Captain's Finest Seafood in Clearwater, quoted a National Marine Fisheries Service study putting the undersized "bycatch" death rates from longlines at 37 percent, compared with 12 percent to 19 percent from bandit boats. Bycatch are the fish killed incidentally and discarded.

"It's factory-style fishing," said Ward, 38. "Our vertical-line boats catch between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds a trip. A longline boat gets between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds. That's good if you're a wholesaler. It's not always good if you're a fish."

Ward said he believes longliners should bite the bullet and convert their vessels to vertical-line equipment. That way, he argued, they could still make a profit because bandit fishing is less expensive.

Bandit reels cost about $800, said Mike Duncizer, who owns Fisherman's Ideal Supply House. Boats typically mount four to six reels each. Although some longliners are actually converted bandit vessels, the larger boats are not and would require electric or hydraulic outfitting. Large boats are also less maneuverable, making it harder for them to set up around reefs or shelfs.

The rhetoric has heated up as those for and against longlines anticipate a council meeting July 9-13 in Duck Key. Bob Jones, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Southeastern Fisheries Association, said no one is noticing the mortality rates associated with recreational fishing, "where sometimes you have to catch 10 to 15 small gag grouper before you get a keeper of 22 inches."

"We, the commercial fishing industry, really are in the throes of cultural genocide here in Florida," Jones wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

Regional councils are required by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act to take the welfare of fishing communities into account when protecting fish. University of Florida anthropologist Michael Jepson is completing a study to determine what constitutes a "fishing community" under the act. Under flexible criteria, Madeira Beach could be included, Jepson said, even though income from fishing pales beside that of tourism and retail business.

"It's something the council would have to address," Jepson said. "It's not the majority of the employment sector, but it's a concentration. Even in terms of dollar amount, relative to agriculture east of the Mississippi, it's huge. So how can you say that's not important?"

Mark Hubbard, whose private charter and two large recreational, or "party," fishing boats sail out of Hubbard's Marina, said longliners are paying a price because they represent the biggest threat to the environment.

"It's a changing time," said Hubbard, 37. "There has to be a major and dramatic decision made that's going to impact fisheries and people's livelihoods. But we have to look at what's best for the fishery."

The public forum on Amendment 18 starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the VFW Holiday Isles Post 4256, 12901 Gulf Blvd.

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