In an effort to protect loggerhead turtles, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted Thursday to banish long-line grouper fishermen to waters at least 300 feet deep for part of the year and to forbid longlining altogether for the rest of the year.
Longliners, who catch 60 percent of the gulf's commercial grouper, say the restrictions will put them out of business. Red grouper, the main target of long-liners, rarely venture beyond 300 feet deep.
"It's un-American," said Randy Lauser, a 22-year fishing veteran known around the docks as "Randy on the Brandy," after his 38-foot-long boat. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
The emergency restrictions will take effect as soon as regulators can draft and publish them, probably around May or June. They may remain in effect for a year while federal scientists grapple with how to allow more fishing while also keeping turtles safe.
A recent study indicated that longliners, who lay miles of hooks along the gulf's bottom, are inadvertently catching and drowning many more turtles than previously thought. Loggerheads are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Council members said lesser measures might allow more longlining in the future, including bait changes, shorter leaders and closed seasons. But those measures could take months, if not years, to study and implement.
Pushing longliners out to 300 feet or deeper "is kind of a temporary stopgap measure," said council member Roy Crabtree, who is also regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We couldn't come up with anything else to do in short term."
The council's reef fish committee had recommended Tuesday that the 300-foot rule stay in place for five months. The full council, which was meeting in Mississippi, extended that for up to a year, plus added another wrinkle that restricts grouper fishing even more.
For part of the year, some longliners target "deep water" grouper like yellowedge, speckled hind, warsaw grouper and snowy grouper. Those species have a tight collective quota, which is typically filled about June or July.
After the "deep water" quota is met, longliners still could fish beyond 300 feet for gag grouper, because it lives all the way to shore and is considered a "shallow water" species. But the longliners would also kill a lot of deep water species in the process.
So the council decided to ban all longline fishing in the eastern gulf once the deep water quota is met.
How consumers feel the pinch depends on how the industry evolves.
Longliners catch about 80 percent of the red grouper sold at Publix and other seafood counters.
Other commercial fishermen, known as "vertical line" fishermen, catch much of the gag grouper that is often served at local restaurants.
Frenchy's restaurant and Salt Rock Grill have their own mini fleets.
But the fish houses that provide ice, fuel, bait and dock space to the commercial fleet primarily buy from Florida's 100 or so longline boats, centered primarily in Madeira Beach and Cortez in Manatee County.
"About 80 percent of our revenues come from all different kinds of grouper," said Bill Houghton, vice president of Maderia Beach Seafood, Tampa Bay's largest fish house. "If this goes through … there will be no way to maintain this business."