MADEIRA BEACH — Waiting to unload a boat full of fish last week, veteran crew member Tennessee Dave Kerrick sipped a beer and summed up the anger and resignation that is sweeping Pinellas County's grouper docks. "Everybody else is going out of work because of the economy; we are going out of work because of flipping reptiles."
To protect loggerhead turtles, federal regulators voted last week to push the grouper fleet's 100 or so longline boats out to water that is at least 300 feet deep. Turtles rarely forage out there, but neither do a lot of keepable fish.
Longliners figure they are done for.
It's no surprise that the Endangered Species Act might carry an immediate human cost — just ask Oregon lumber workers about spotted owls, or Montana ranchers about gray wolves.
And some people think a vanishing longline fleet will benefit fish as well as turtles. Longliners catch tons of grouper by stringing millions of hooks along the bottom. Sometimes their lines tear up coral, rock and other fish habitat.
"It's going to be a good thing for grouper fishing and long overdue," says Ted Forsgren, a recreational fishing advocate. "Twenty-five longline boats catch more red grouper than all the recreational fishermen."
But along the docks, none of that matters. These 300 to 400 people work long, gritty hours so the rest of us can savor a tasty white delicacy. They view things in a straightforward manner:
Work hard. Catch fish.
Now they see their way of life coming to an end.
And all for a "flipping reptile."
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Paul Doyon frankly admits he was a petty thief as a younger man, in and out of jail. Six years ago, he hired on as a deckhand on the Michelle Marie, baiting hooks, pulling up fish, shoveling ice, whatever needed doing.
It kept him out of trouble, and soon he developed skills. Within three years, he was captaining the boat and bringing back his 6,000-pound grouper limit. That ranks him, at age 39, among the fleet's best 20 or 30 captains and nets him about $35,000 to $40,000 a year, he says.
"This is over, dude, this is over. I've got a wife and three kids, a house payment and a truck, and now I'm screwed."
Like many "high-liners" Doyon usually fishes in water between 180 and 240 feet deep, where big red and gag grouper hang out. Pushing him beyond 300 feet simply won't do.
No red grouper live that far out. Gag and scamp sometimes show up between 300 and 400 feet, but the bottom slopes away quickly out there, leaving only a thin strip of fishable area that can't support many boats.
Because the new restriction probably won't take effect until June or so, Doyon and other captains said they will now fish full steam, trying to build up financial reserves.
Instead of eight to 14 days at sea with time to see the family in between, they will dump their fish, ice up and head back out. More fish will drive prices down, but what's the alternative?
"The first thing I'm going to do is work like an animal," Doyon says. "After that … I don't know."
His wife, Christine, who now stays at home taking care of kids 13, 7 and 17 months old, figures she will have to go to work. "It's horrible," she says. "I don't believe in day care."
Mainly she worries about Paul. Today's job market won't be kind to a man with few skills and a criminal record.
"He a very prideful man. It's going to break him," she says. "He did everything he was supposed to do, and it's all going to be taken away. It's not right. It's not right at all."
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Ed Maccini, captain of the J.U.M.A., says he's never seen so many turtles in the gulf, probably the result of restrictions and a decline in the shrimp industry which used to kill up to 50,000 loggerheads a year.
"Why isn't this a success story?" he wonders. "If there were no interactions, wouldn't that sound the alarm? You'd be saying, 'Where are all the turtles?' "
• • •
Longline boats employ two or three deckhands. A month's wages might range from $1,000 to $2,500. Forget mortgage payments, health insurance or an IRA. Many sleep on the boat. Some, like Drew Cunningham, struggle with substance abuse.
"I got nothing else to do," says Cunningham, 36. "You are going to create a lot of homeless people."
Fran Guillou says he put a daughter through college in the old days, when fishermen faced fewer regulations and made more money.
Now he rents a friend's Florida room, with no heat.
"They keep taking everything away," he says. "What are you going to do? You can't be a brain surgeon at 57. They are killing us."
• • •
Martin Fisher sells seafood at Saturday Market. Much of his product comes from his two "vertical line" boats, sometimes known as "bandit rigs."
That's the traditional method that predates longlining. One- or two-man crews anchor over specific spots, send a few lines down and wait for something to bite.
These days, good bandit boats might bring 1,500 or 2,000 pounds a trip, one-third as much as a longliner.
Regulators hope some longliners will convert to bandit fishing, but the methods are distinct. A bandit fisherman must stalk prey and anchor in deep water, fighting wind and current to hover over one small spot.
It's like telling cattle ranchers to go out hunting to get their meat.
The best longline captains might get up to speed in two or three years, Fisher says, and by then, the gulf should hold more grouper.
In meantime, he says, people thrown out of work should get compensation and retraining.
"The government steps in and subsidizes farmers, they subsidize timber. Look what they are doing with the auto industry," Fisher says. "There is absolutely no reason these guys should have to suffer to take care of this problem."