ST. PETERSBURG — Federal fishing regulators indicated Wednesday they may ease proposed grouper restrictions because high fuel prices are already discouraging anglers.
For several months, angry fishermen and bait shop owners have testified at public hearings that people simply aren't fishing as much. So why slash their catch on the few days they do go out?
"Gas (prices) in Johns Pass make me sick to my stomach,'' Mark Hubbard testified Wednesday night. His family operates party boats out of Madeira Beach. "It costs us $20 a mile, just in fuel, to run the boat.''
Gag grouper is the favored offshore species of West Florida's recreational anglers and the second most popular commercial species. But federal scientists say they are being overfished at unsustainable levels.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is holding the hearings, tentatively decided in January to reduce the gag catch by 45 percent. For recreational anglers, that would mean no grouper fishing at all from Jan. 15 through April 15 and a one gag per person, per day, down from five.
A final decision could come as early as April, at the council's next meeting. But Steve Atran, a council statistician, told about 200 anglers at Wednesday's hearing that the council is taking their testimony to heart.
Members "feel that some of that 45 percent reduction has already occurred,'' he said.
On council instructions, he is trying to collect data that would support a smaller reduction. For example, one charter guide has receipts showing he took clients on 53 trips in the last year, down from 114 the year before.
A law enforcement agent for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that he sees 45 percent fewer boats offshore these days.
One unlikely alliance, usually at each other's throats on fishing matters, thinks they have enough ammunition to torpedo all the proposed gag reductions.
The Fishing Rights Alliance, a recreational lobbying group, and the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, a commercial group, jointly hired a Canadian fishery biologist to analyze the government gag data.
Because landings in both the recreational and commercial sectors dropped in 2006 and 2007, one formula in the gag study indicates that overfishing ended in those years.
Without a formal declaration of overfishing, the management council would be on shaky legal ground if it tightened current regulations.
Andy Strelchek, fishery biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Services, said Wednesday the formula in question is incomplete. Yes, gag landings are down. But that could be because fewer people are fishing, or because fewer gag are out there to catch.
The government lacks enough data right now to sort that out, he said.