SUN PHOTO/MAGGIE FIELD Commercial fisherman John Yates,
who works for A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, said the
new regulations will all but eliminate small fishing
operations. In the village, layoffs are expected to
mount as only five or six of the 16 boats in the Cortez
fleet will qualify under the new longline criteria.
CORTEZ – New commercial grouper fishing regulations designed to save sea turtles have left some Cortez fishermen dead in the water, while some survive to fish another day.
Of the dozen grouper boats fishing out of Cortez, five will be able to use longlines under new rules passed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council last week, said Glen Brooks, of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association.
"It went as well as it could have. They kept the most boats in there for us they could," Brooks said, adding that there was little cause to celebrate. While three of his six boats will qualify, he anticipates idling the others and laying off about half of his 20 employees.
The new rules are intended to reduce the number of longline boats, which regulators hope will minimize interactions with sea turtles. Longliners typically drop a line with 750 to 1,200 baited hooks on the sea floor for five to 10 miles, and begin retrieving it within an hour.
For boats to qualify for a longline endorsement, the new rules require minimum average annual catches of 40,000 pounds. They also prohibit using more than 750 hooks at a time, with 1,000 maximum on board, and prohibit shallow water grouper fishing from June to August, when turtles are plentiful in the eastern Gulf.
"All they did is open the door for (only) a few people to fish," said fisherman John Yates, of Holmes Beach, who works with A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez. "It’s not going to keep the fish house open for everybody. They opened the season for the big guys and cut the little guy out."
"We lose a couple of vessels, I know," council member Roy Crabtree said. "But I think in the long run it’s the best thing to get the industry on sound ground and avoid a jeopardy call," a turtle death that would require closing the fishery indefinitely.
But it’s the future of Cortez and the handful of other fishing communities along the Gulf Coast that is in jeopardy, according to Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co.
Of the Cortez company’s six grouper boats, only two would qualify under the new rules, she told the council, adding that the 70-year-old company has been running in the red since an emergency longline gear ban went into effect in May.
The ban was the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) response to a controversial calculation of fishery-wide unintended loggerhead sea turtle deaths based on a single report that five sea turtles were found dead on a longline. The Turtle Island Restoration Network sued NMFS to force protection of sea turtles from the longline fishery under the Endangered Species Act.
Since the ban began, Bell Fish Co. has stayed afloat by using a credit line that is almost exhausted to loan money to fishermen, who are fishing with less effective vertical line gear, Bell said. Five of its 17 employees have been cut back to 30 hours or less a week.
"All our boats are in the negative. The crews aren’t making money. They’re paying for fuel, bait and ice to go to work. We cannot sustain our business on two longline grouper boats," she said.
"I’m willing to take my chances with jeopardy," Bell said. "We’re almost gone anyway. We’re just about ready to close the doors. The boats are in jeopardy, the fishermen, the employees, my family all are in jeopardy."
Instead of reducing the fleet under new regulations, Bell suggested allowing time for an individual fishing quota (IFQ) system to go into effect next year, or restricting the use of squid bait, a favorite of turtles, or restricting gear.
Crabtree said the IFQ system alone would not solve the problem and asked for other suggestions.
"I don’t know the answer," she said. "That’s your job. My job is to run a fish house, and I can’t do it like this."
At Madeira Beach Seafood, only three boats of 35 broke even on recent fishing trips, said owner Bob Spaeth, director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association.
Fishermen suggested allowing longlines based on whether they work in communities like Cortez that are economically dependent on fishing, instead of basing it on their average annual catch, but the council declined.
Snagged on statistics
Loggerheads are threatened, one step below endangered, and long term nesting statistics are down in Florida, one of two significant loggerhead nesting areas in the world. Short term nesting, however, is on the rise, including on Anna Maria Island, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Mortality statistics are not as clear, according to the council, which spent most of last week expressing frustration that available statistics were inadequate to make informed decisions.
"In all my years on this council I have never read so much on this issue that said so little. The data is horrendous," council member Corky Perret said. "Whatever action we take is going to hurt a large group of people based on data that even the scientists say at best are uncertain."
Commercial fishermen reminded the council of testimony last month that longline fishing has a negligible impact on loggerhead sea turtles. Statistics collected by the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (a division of NOAA) from 2006-08 showed that bottom longline fishermen snared about 350 loggerheads annually, and estimated that half, or 175, may have died, amounting to about 1 percent of adult loggerhead sea turtle deaths in the region.
"Longlining is not the primary cause of decline," Marks said. Other causes cited include recreational fishing, offshore racing during nesting season, oil rig demolitions and spills, red tide, coastal development, beach renourishment, nest poachers and illegal artificial lighting disorientation.
Several fishermen testified that they had never encountered a single dead sea turtle on their longlines.
Recreational fishermen and environmental groups, often at odds with the commercial industry, also questioned statistics at the hearing.
"The science on this seems very uncertain," said Dennis O’Hern, executive director of the Fishing Rights Alliance and a private recreational angler, who expressed concern that regulations would be extended to the recreational fishery. "What I’m concerned about is you’re going to take action on uncertain information. You’re playing blindman’s bluff."
"The NMFS said more turtles were being taken than allowed and you’re being told to solve the problem," said Dr. Russell Nelson, a fisheries scientist representing the Coastal Conservation Association. "But you’ve been blindfolded and put in the back yard with a piñata and if you hit it, everything will be all right."
Fishing’s future murky
Fishermen are worried about the future under the new rules, which remind them of the 1995 state Constitutional amendment that banned mullet gill nets, but without the retraining programs and compensation for the banned gear.
In addition, the longline ban is still in effect at least through October, and can be extended another six months, potentially leaving local restaurants and stores without locally-caught grouper until next spring, and leaving fishermen out of work.
Fishermen have no choice but to continue fighting the ban, Brooks said, adding, "I hope we can hang on until October."