CLEARWATER — For the past few years, Brian Lewis and his son-in-law have caught about 25,000 pounds of grouper that made its way between buns and tartar sauce at Frenchy's restaurants.
Come January, though, the rules of commercial fishing are going to change. Some boat owners will gain a big advantage — so much so that they can make money without leaving the dock.
Others like Lewis will get the short end of the stick. Their costs will jump because they will have to pay their competitors for the right to fish.
This is the new world of "individual fishing quotas,'' where select boat owners will own a fixed share of the total allowable grouper catch.
Shareholders can try to catch the fish themselves. Or they can lease their percentage of the annual federal quota to someone like Lewis, who will do the work, then fork over part of the cut.
Quota shares for 2010 are already leasing on the Internet for 75 cents to $1 a pound for the right to catch a red grouper worth $3 when the fisherman sells it. Adding another $1 to his existing costs could eat up his profit, Lewis said.
Having to pay competitors for the right to fish "is un-American,'' he said. "Why are they owed a living and to hell with everybody else?''
"Individual fishing quotas'' do run against the American grain of rewarding the person who does the work. The government creates a monopolistic market that can boost the price of fish to consumers.
On the other hand, individual quotas may simply be necessary.
Wild fish populations around the world have declined, or even collapsed, as technology improves and worldwide appetite for seafood grows.
Protecting scarce fish stocks with collective commercial quotas often boomerangs badly, by creating "fishing derbies.''
Knowing that the federal government will halt fishing when the quota fills up, boat owners scramble to catch as much as possible as quickly as possible. Fish flood the glutted market.
For example, halibut boats in the Pacific Northwest could catch their annual quota within a few days. Fishermen would race to sea when the season opened, even in treacherous weather. After individual quotas took effect, search and rescue operations dropped by half.
That's because individual quotas usually end fishing derbies. Boat owners can fish until they meet their personal quota, so they space trips throughout the year. If too many people fish at once, the price drops, so some hold off and wait for prices to rebound.
One thorny question remains: Who gets the shares?
Usually, regulators try to divvy up shares to mirror historical catch rates. People who caught the most in the past get the biggest shares.
It seems reasonable enough, but it favors old-timers over newcomers and locks in historical patterns that may not hold true.
In the Gulf of Mexico, American red snapper were typically caught from Texas to the Florida Panhandle. Fishing derbies got so bad that the fleet once filled its collective quota by February and regulators halted red snapper fishing for the rest of the year.
In 2007, the government assigned individual quotas based on how much each fisherman had caught in the past.
But fish don't always follow tidy historical patterns. Several years ago, red snapper spread like weeds to the eastern gulf. All of a sudden, Central Florida grouper fishermen were catching thousands of red snapper. At times, snapper were so thick the grouper couldn't find the bait.
The problem is that grouper fishermen own only a few shares of snapper quota. To sell snapper, they must buy or rent shares from their competitors to the west — and the economics are daunting.
A snapper share rents for $3 or so a pound for a fish that only brings $4 or so at the dock.
Grouper fishermen grit their teeth and pay the price because nobody wants to toss fish back. But it sticks in their craw.
"Many people are now making twice as much money renting their shares rather than fishing,'' says St. Petersburg fisherman Martin Fisher.
"The guy risking his life is making 90 cents (a pound) while the guy sitting on the couch is making $3.''
Grouper are the bread and butter for the Tampa Bay area's commercial fishing industry. Fishermen can make spare change on baitfish, stone crabs, amberjack and snapper, but grouper is the primary target that keeps boats and fish houses in business.
Regulators first began discussing individual grouper quotas in 2004 and made that the cutoff year for establishing a boat's catch history. Regulators didn't want fishermen to increase their pace to build up catch histories. When the individual quota system was approved last August, only catches through 2004 counted toward doling out each person's share.
That left out Brian Lewis, who bought his boat and permit in 2004, unaware of regulations coming down the pike. His permit had very little catch history.
The only way he can keep fishing next year is to buy someone's shares permanently, which could cost about $140,000 on today's market, or lease them for about $25,000 a year, which would eat up most his take.
While the cutoff year devastated latecomers like Lewis, it favored owners of long-line boats who piled up big catches before 2004.
Some of those boats have been sitting idly at the dock for the last few years because of changes in fishing economics and rules to protect turtles. By next year, the long-line fleet will have dropped by half to about 60 boats.
Yet because of their pre-2004 catch history, some of those idle boats will earn their permit holders grouper shares worth six figures on the open market.
By increasing costs to some fishermen and eliminating market gluts, individual quotas tend to make fish more expensive for consumers. Conversly, regulators don't have to close the fishery for months at a time, so fresh product is available year-round.
Individual quotas have their flaws, acknowledged Roy Crabtree, Southeastern administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But regulators have few alternatives.
Population studies indicate gag grouper are seriously stressed. In 2011, the allowable commercial catch for gag is expected to drop from 1.4-million pounds to 300,000. Without individual quotas to prevent a mad fishing derby, Crabtree said, grouper fishing could easily shut down by April or May to protect gag.
"It would be very difficult for the industry as we know it to survive.''