Hernando fishermen hope stone crabs rescue troubled season

HERNANDO BEACH — As the sun beats down on the docks behind him, Joe Bari is enjoying the soft breeze of a fan beneath a fabric canopy. With stone crab season just days away, he's hurrying to ready the 5,000 crab traps that he and his crew will begin dropping into the Gulf of Mexico starting Oct. 5.

It's been a tough summer for Bari and others who work in Hernando Beach's commercial fishing community. Although the area suffered no direct effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in April, their lives continue to be affected months after the oil stopped gushing into the gulf.

"It's been pretty screwed up since the oil spill," said Bari, 51. "You talk to people around here and a lot of them are hurting. Nobody seems to be able to come up with any real answers."

Bari, who has been a commercial fisherman for 30 years, said that although the damage from the oil spill is not as apparent here as that found in Louisiana and other states, Hernando County's commercial fishing industry continues to struggle.

While supplies of grouper, shrimp and blue crabs never dwindled in the regions of the Gulf of Mexico where the local captains fished, selling their catches at profitable prices is a problem that continues for many fishermen.

Despite promises by British Petroleum to reimburse affected fishermen for the losses, Bari said he's still waiting for about $15,000 in compensation from his loss of work. He hasn't heard from BP in weeks.

"I've pretty much given up on them," he said. "I've got too much work to do getting ready for stone crab season."

Justine Carufel, who, along with fiance Jerry Storey operates the 30-foot fishing vessel Sarah Lynn, said making ends meet since the oil spill has been a struggle. The couple normally trawl for shrimp in July, but they gave up because of the poor quality of their hauls.

Although they can't say for sure that the weak and dead shrimp they were pulling up in their nets were a direct result of the oil spill, they suspected something was not right.

"July isn't the best month for shrimp, but when the ones you do bring in aren't looking good, it makes you wonder," Carufel said. "What we were seeing wasn't worth the gas to catch."

Like Bari, Carufel and Story are focusing on the coming stone crab season. If everything goes well, they could salvage their year financially.

Troubles for local fishermen began in January when a series of hard freezes made fish and bait scarce. Then, in April, came the oil spill.

Hernando Beach Seafood owner Kathy Birren said that the combined effects of the freeze and the oil spill have driven off many of the boat captains who regularly docked at her facility.

Some of have moved on. Some may have quit altogether, she said.

"It comes to a point for some people where it's just not worth it anymore," Birren said. "This is a tough business that's been made tougher by the things that have happened in the gulf."

In June, Birren began drawing attention in the Hernando Beach commercial fishing community to what she called "a growing catastrophe" in the wake of the oil spill. Those who were still fishing in areas not affected by the spill were having trouble finding buyers for their catch because of a perception among customers that all gulf seafood was tainted.

Birren and her supporters lobbied state officials to push back the deadline for buying expensive commercial saltwater fishing licenses and permits for an additional 90 days to help struggling fishermen.

The long-term effects of the spill, economically and environmentally, remain unclear. And that worries Birren and her husband, Ron, who own five grouper fishing boats.

"It makes you wonder if there will even be a gulf fishing industry in the future for my kids," Birren said. "They may have skimmed the oil off the surface, but it's the stuff that's under the water that's going to be around for a long time. How will that affect us five or 10 years down the road?"

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

Hernando fishermen hope stone crabs rescue troubled season 09/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 8:54pm]

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