At loggerheads on grouper

Loggerheads drawn by longline grouper bait sometimes drown. Will changing the bait help? The answer now is maybe.

LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN | Times

Loggerheads drawn by longline grouper bait sometimes drown. Will changing the bait help? The answer now is maybe.

The rubbery texture of squid, well known to calamari aficionados, may shape the future of Florida's grouper industry.

Durable and cheap, squid is the bait of choice for longline fishermen. They drop millions of hooks into the Gulf of Mexico every year and pull up the fresh grouper that tourists and locals dote on.

As it turns out, loggerhead turtles also nail that squid every so often, then drown while the miles-long grouper line rests on the bottom.

That's a big no-no.

Loggerheads are environmentally "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act. Some environmental groups are calling for a halt to longline grouper fishing. Federal regulators are preparing revisions to fishing rules that could kick in next year. One drastic possibility would push the commercial fleet's 100 or so longline boats into water that's too deep and too far offshore to make a buck.

So suddenly, squid is getting new attention.

A 2007 study of the Mediterranean and southeastern Atlantic swordfish industry indicated that loggerheads were four to five times as likely to get hooked on squid bait as on mackerel.

Mackerel is softer, and turtles are more nibblers than gobblers. They take a bite of mackerel and it breaks apart before they get to the hook. They latch onto the squid, and it stays intact, so they keep nibbling and nibbling until the barb catches them.

A 2005 study by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the North Atlantic also showed differences in baits, though nowhere near as dramatic. In that study, switching from squid to mackerel seemed to reduce the turtle catch by about 30 percent.

Could eliminating squid as bait reduce the gulf's loggerhead catch as well?

"I am optimistic about squid," said Julie Morris, a New College professor who sits on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets fishing rules and will take up the loggerhead problem at its January meeting in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

"One idea is not to use squid bait," said Roy Crabtree, southeastern administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We do have some evidence," that it might reduce turtle catch. "Though I don't know how well that is documented."

Therein lies the challenge for fishermen and regulators.

Several ideas to protect the turtles are kicking around. Closing off certain fishing areas. Weaker leaders that a turtle could break but most grouper couldn't. Shorter leaders so turtles can spot the telltale mainline and realize that this ostensibly free snack comes with a price.

But none of these ideas — not even eliminating squid bait — is backed by solid evidence that it will work in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, the Atlantic studies involved long lines that float on top of the water, because that's where swordfish and tuna feed. Grouper longlines sink to the bottom, where they soak for hours.

Trevor Kenchington, a Nova Scotia biologist who often advises the longline fleet, notes that squid is particularly useful in grouper fishing because crabs and other small bottom dwellers can't nibble it away as easily as they wipe out softer bait. Squid bait usually hangs around the bottom long enough for a grouper to come along.

Softer baits would reduce that efficiency, he says. To fill their quotas, longliners might have to fish longer and put more hooks and lines in the water, "driving up the overall number of turtle interactions, which is what we don't want to do."

Experiments to test different fishing techniques would take lots of time and money. They require boats to carry neutral observers who count how many hooks go into the water and what gets caught. Regulators estimate than just one observer costs $1,000 a day or more, counting salary, liability insurance and data crunching.

Pacific salmon boats and other rich fisheries can underwrite scientific studies out of the value of their catch. But gulf grouper fishing is niche business. A captain and two or three crewmen rarely make $1,000 a day.

So regulators are flying a little blind and nobody's happy about it.

Changing fishing techniques to reduce loggerhead deaths "only works with observer coverage" to measure the result, Oceana representative Elizabeth Griffin recently told the management council. "Without it, you should shut down fishing."

The clock is ticking.

Loggerhead nests on Florida beaches have declined over the last half-decade. By spring, scientists within the National Marine Fisheries Service are expected to issue a formal "biological opinion" as to whether longliners are putting the turtles "in jeopardy."

If so, the Endangered Species Act could end bottom longlining, which produces more than half of Florida's fresh local grouper.

That's why the gulf management council wants to eliminate squid as bait or impose other changes soon — to avoid a draconian halt to fishing.

Imported grouper could fill the gap, acknowledges Will Ward, of the Gulf Fisherman's Association, "but do consumers really want a fish that has to go through customs, that's two weeks old or a month? Or a domestic fish that's a few days old?"

At loggerheads on grouper 12/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:36am]

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