Longline fishermen, who produce most of the Tampa Bay area's fresh grouper, took a big hit Tuesday.
The reef fish committee of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted to banish longliners from their traditional fishing grounds for five months this year to protect loggerhead turtles that are drowning on their lines.
The proposal would restrict longlining to water 300 feet or deeper, on the belief that loggerheads, a federally protected species, usually don't feed on the bottom that far out.
But neither do red grouper, the primary species that ends up between buns at local restaurants. Tourists and locals who savor West Florida's signature fish can expect shortages of domestic fish and a new wave of imports.
The restriction would probably begin in May or June, as soon as regulators can draft and publish the rule according to federal law.
The full 17-member management council, meeting in Mississippi, will take a final vote Thursday, but people observing the discussion expect the restrictions to pass.
"I don't see any indication that any council member believes that less than this is going to be sufficient to satisfy requirements of the Endangered Species Act," said Dave Allison, spokesman for the environmental group Oceana.
Pressure for restrictions mounted in October, after a federal study indicated that longliners were catching about nine times as many loggerheads as previously estimated. Loggerheads are listed as a threatened species, and their nests have been declining for several years.
Over the next year, the management council may consider a combination of lesser restrictions such as changing bait, closing off areas of the gulf to long-liners and cutting the current longline fleet of 100 or so boats down to about 20.
But that could take months of discussion and experiments to measure effectiveness.
Tuesday's vote is an "emergency" action, said council member Julie Morris. "We are working to have more permanent action and hope to have it in place by the beginning of 2010."
The industry won't survive that long, said Bobby Spaeth, who owns a small longline fleet as well as Madeira Beach Seafood, where most Madeira Beach longliners dock their boats, buy ice and bait and sell their catch.
Commercial fishermen don't make enough money to go five months without work, Spaeth said. A few of the most skilled long-liners can catch gag grouper in 300 feet of water, Spaeth said, but if they can only fish that far out, they will quickly bust this year's tight gag quota and regulators will shut down all grouper fishing for the rest of the year.