Commercial longline grouper fishermen, facing a devastating shutdown because of loggerhead turtle deaths, gained a possible reprieve Friday — but only in the long run.
Backed by an unusual alliance of fishermen and environmentalists, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council approved a proposal that would permanently cut Florida's longline fleet by about half and close off a large chunk of fishing grounds during summer.
While these cutbacks would slash current fishing practices, they are less severe than a previous emergency' proposal that would push longliners so far offshore that few, if any, could stay in business.
But how these conflicting rule changes would affect turtle deaths, fishing practices and the retail grouper market is anything but clear.
The short-term emergency rule, which the management council passed in January, could take effect as early as June and stay in place up to six months.
That could shut down or greatly restrict longline boats, which catch more than half the domestic grouper sold in restaurants and seafood counters.
The permanent proposal, which would allow year-round longlining with fewer boats, could not take effect until December at the earliest, said Roy Crabtree, Southeastern administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But under some circumstances, longliners could be back in business as early as July or August, suffering only a one or two-month shutdown.
That's because the Fisheries Service is also preparing a "biological opinion'' under the Endangered Species Act to assess how dangerous a pared-down longline fleet would be to loggerheads.
The Fisheries Service discovered in October that longline boats, which lay miles of hooks along the Gulf bottom, were inadvertently drowning more loggerheads than previously thought. Loggerhead nesting along Florida coasts has also declined in recent years.
If the "biological opinion'' finds that the proposed long-term restrictions will adequately limit turtle deaths, the Fisheries Service could lift the interim shutdown soon after it begins.
"Nobody wants to put people out of business if we don't have to,'' Crabtree said. "There are people out there who are no fans of longliners, but generally when it comes to putting people out of business, the (management) council takes that seriously.''
The council will meet again in June to take a final vote on the permanent rules.
As currently proposed, the rules would limit longlining to fishermen who caught a yearly average of 40,000 pounds of grouper and other reef fish between 1999 and 2007.
Fifty-seven boats, based mostly in Pinellas County, meet that standard.
From June through August every year, longlining would be banished from water shallower than 215 feet deep.