With federal regulators poised to cut the gag grouper catch by 45 percent, commercial lobbyist Bobby Spaeth and recreational lobbyist Dennis O'Hern suspended their usual rivalry and hired a Nova Scotia scientist to challenge Gulf of Mexico fishing data.
Much to their glee, biologist Trevor Kenchington quickly delivered: Landings statistics in the government's own computer model suggest that the gag population might be healthier than federal scientists thought.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which sets the rules, delayed a cutback vote scheduled for this week in Baton Rouge. Instead, the council invited Kenchington to Louisiana to hear what he has to say.
"It's a miracle,'' said O'Hern, who runs the Fishing Rights Alliance. "We were dead men walking. We were a month away from execution. Now we breathe the air of freedom and truth.''
Kenchington or no, the grouper battle is far from over.
Scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service are sticking by their belief that gag may need heavy-duty protection. Grouper fishermen may yet see unprecedented restrictions.
But the fact that an eleventh-hour, hired gun can so rattle the regulatory process underscores a lamentable drawback to fishery management in the gulf:
By law, regulators must base their decisions on the "best available science.''
But sometimes, factors unique to Florida can turn "best available'' into a roller coaster.
Fishing managers in New England can track the cod catch back 100 years, which makes for nifty trend lines into the future.
In Alaska, big commercial boats carry government observers and videocameras that record salmon, halibut and pollock as they come over the transom.
Gulf of Mexico statistics are murkier.
Until 1984, grouper records weren't even divided by species. Red, gag and others were lumped into one catch-all category: just plain grouper.
More importantly, Florida issues about 40 percent of the nation's saltwater fishing licenses. Recreational anglers, by nature, muck up data collection.
Commercial fleets unload at fish houses, where the catch can be counted and measured. Scientists can sample fish ages by examining ear bones.
But nobody knows how much recreational anglers catch. Regulators conduct boat-ramp interviews and telephone surveys, but recreational trend lines always rely on surmise and assumption.
"The recreational fishery is composed of thousands and thousands of fishermen. They fish at random times every week,'' said biologist Thomas McIlwain, who chairs the management council. "We just don't have good enough information.''
Take dead discards — the undersized fish that die after anglers throw them back.
The government's gag assessment model, first constructed two years ago, presumed that recreational anglers discard and kill huge numbers of gag. This carnage was a critical factor in the declaration that gag are being fished at unsustainable rates.
Unfortunately, the model mistakenly included legal-sized fish in the dead discard weight. After all, who's going to throw back a bunch of legal fish? So the assessment had to be recalculated.
Then someone noticed that the model assumed that discards were all caught in deep water, where mortality is higher. Another revision.
Last September, scientists revised the figures yet again. The model had failed to convert discards from kilograms to pounds.
Model revisions are common. But constant tweaking forced delay after delay as the management council grappled with how to cut back on gag.
The original assessment, published in 2006, was based on data collected through 2004. Any cutbacks the council makes now will start in 2009 and could last at least through 2011.
Gag data will be seven years old before the next full stock assessment leads to new rules — and one major monkey wrench already begs for explanation:
Between 2004 and 2006, gag landings plummeted almost 60 percent, something the stock assessment model did not predict.
The management council needs to figure out what caused that drop, which is one reason they plan to slow down and hear from Nova Scotia.
A puzzling drop
Trevor Kenchington, 53, cut his fishery management teeth advising the New England scallop industry, but he is no stranger to Gulf of Mexico matters.
Spaeth, who represents the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, hired Kenchington nine years ago to challenge cutbacks proposed for red grouper.
Spaeth turned to Canada, he said, because he thought U.S. biologists were too cozy with the government.
"They don't want to challenge each others' data,'' Spaeth said. "They're all working on grants. That's just the way it works. Trevor's got no dog in this hunt.''
Kenchington advised the council to throw out data from Cuban fishermen, who once caught most of the gulf's red grouper. That change, and others, led regulators to soften proposed cuts.
"If he thinks it's wrong, he'll call it wrong. He's not a diplomat,'' said Bob Gill, a Crystal River fish house owner who sits on the council. "But he does put it into jargon you can understand.''
This time, Kenchington noted that the latest gag landings are lower than the model originally predicted. In fact, they fall below a theoretical threshold that signals over-fishing.
That could support what fishermen and bait shop owners have been telling the council for months: Fuel costs are so high, we can't afford to hunt grouper. Don't whack us any more.
On the other hand, low landings might stem from a darker cause. What if people aren't catching gag because the stock itself is plunging?
"It could be a really bad thing,'' said NMFS regional administrator Roy Crabtree. "I generally feel better when fishermen are catching a lot of fish. That tells me fish are out there.''
The NMFS science center in Miami and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are now scrambling to examine "abundance'' statistics.
These include underwater cameras that actually count fish at certain locations, as well as measurements of how many fish are caught per trip.
Though the management council has already broken a legal deadline for setting gag restrictions, they are adamant that they will delay any vote until their June meeting at the earliest.
"We have to protect the fish,'' said Mississippi council member Kay Williams. "But I hope for the sake of the economy that (Kenchington) has found something.''
Closed gag seasons could halt red grouper fishing as well. You can't hunt one species without harming the other.
A 45 percent gag cutback could halt recreational grouper fishing from January to April, the height of the tourist season.
A tight commercial quota could wipe out gulf grouper sandwiches from August through December and bankrupt much of the fleet.
But if managers go too easy and the gag fishery collapses, West Florida could go grouper-less for decades.
Who's who in Gulf of Mexico fishing management
Various groups have direct and indirect effects on fishing rules and species management in the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a rundown of who they are:
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
• Headquarters in Tallahassee, science center in St. Petersburg.
• Sets rules in state waters (out to 9 miles).
• Enforces fishing laws.
• Licenses fish houses and charter boat captains.
U.S. Commerce Department
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
• Fishermen's Advocacy Organization, Dunedin
• Gulf Fishermen's Association, Clearwater
• Southern Offshore Fishing Association, Madeira Beach
NMFS Southeast Region
• Covers Texas to North Carolina, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
• Headquarters in St. Petersburg.
• Helps set reef fish and shrimp rules as liaison between NMFS headquarters and gulf management council.
• Directly manages migratory species like shark, swordfish and kingfish.
• Investigates fishing violations.
• Collects data.
• Protects habitat and endangered species.
• Issues fishing permits.
Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council
• Covers Texas to Key West.
• Headquarters in Tampa.
• Makes fishing rules in federal waters, with approval from NMFS.
• 17 members, balanced between commercial, recreational and state interests.
• 11 laypeople nominated by the governors of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida and appointed by U.S. Commerce secretary.
• Five members who represent the fishing agencies of each state.
• Southeast NMFS administrator.
• Coastal Conservation Association Florida, Orlando
• Fishing Rights Alliance, St. Petersburg
• National Association of Charter Boat Operators, Panama City
• Environmental Defense, Texas
• Gulf Restoration Network, New Orleans
• Marine Fish Conservation Network, Tampa
• Ocean Conservancy, Austin and St. Petersburg
• Oceana, St. Petersburg
Lobbyists on grouper issues