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Turtles may be protected at expense of grouper eaters

Worry over loggerhead turtles could keep grouper off menus.

Times files

Worry over loggerhead turtles could keep grouper off menus.

Publix supermarkets have sold fresh grouper for decades. It might cost $12 a pound or even $15, but it comes right from the Gulf of Mexico, caught by West Florida fishermen.

"They don't want one pound of imported grouper. Never have. Never will," says Gibby Migliano, whose SaveOn Seafood distributorship supplies most Publix stores in Florida.

But now, widespread access to domestic grouper may go the way of Ybor cigar factories, St. Petersburg's Webb's City and other erstwhile bay-area fixtures.

Federal fishing regulators, worried about disturbing deaths of loggerhead turtles, may decide this week to curb grouper fishing on an unprecedented scale.

Recent studies show that longline grouper boats, which drop miles of hooks to the bottom, inadvertently catch and kill way more loggerheads than previously thought, and that loggerhead nesting has declined.

Since loggerheads are deemed "threatened" by the Endangered Species Act, fishing managers say they can't dally with the slow, incremental restrictions they often resort to.

Fishermen, environmentalists and regulators are in rare agreement that the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, meeting in Mississippi, will probably crack down on long­liners — perhaps by forcing them so far beyond their typical fishing grounds that many will go out of business.

Longline boats currently catch 60 to 70 percent of the red grouper that Publix and many Tampa Bay restaurants rely on.

Imports from Mexico can fill the breach, but import quality can be spotty.

Some restaurants, such as Frenchy's and Salt Rock Grill, won't care because they own mini-fleets that don't use longlines.

But the mass market for local grouper is mainly filled by longliners. Any major restriction could sap the supply chain.

"My customers are based largely on domestic production and they will be crushed" if long­lining disappears, Migliano says. Local grouper "will turn into a luxury item. And right now, nobody is buying luxury items."

Several members of the management council expressed hope that, over the long run, they might craft a bundle of lesser restrictions that collectively could reduce the turtle take — like changing bait, narrowing fishing seasons or setting up strict longline quotas.

Commercial fishermen and the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, are trying to get money from Congress or private foundations to help longliners convert to "bandit boats" that send a few lines straight to the bottom and stay there only a few minutes until something bites. Since hooked turtles are drowning on longlines that lay on the bottom for hours, bandit boats present much less of a threat.

But such changes would require months, if not years, to research, implement and test for effectiveness. Council members say they don't have the luxury to wait that long.

A consortium of environmental groups has already filed formal notice of its intent to sue if the council fails to minimize turtle deaths immediately.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is preparing a "biological opinion" on turtle deaths, due out in a few months. The Endangered Species Act could require an immediate halt to longlining if that report determines that the turtles are "in jeopardy."

"I'm still waiting to see if anybody comes forward with a suite of management actions that solves the problem," says council member Edward Sapp, a retired Gainesville insurance agent. "But until I see it, I think we are probably going to take some drastic measures."

One proposal would reduce the current longline fleet of roughly 100 boats to more like 20, by establishing a new permit. Another would restrict longliners to water that is 300 feet or deeper. Some studies indicate that loggerheads rarely bottom forage at that depth.

The problem is that red grouper rarely live that deep either, and red grouper are the bread and butter of the longline fleet.

Some fishermen contend that loggerheads have simply become more plentiful in recent years, which could account for the higher catches.

The gulf shrimp industry used to killed up to 50,000 juvenile turtles a year. That mortality has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s because of escape hatches installed in shrimp nets and because hurricanes and foreign competition have put many shrimpers out of business.

It takes about 35 years for female loggerheads to reach reproductive age, so any shrimp-related population increase among the loggerheads hasn't shown up yet in the nesting count.

All that is supposition, though, and the Endangered Species Act does not allow regulators to proceed on supposition.

"We would like the council to move quickly to close the fishery this year" until a permanent solution can be found, says Vicki Cornish, of the Ocean Conservancy. "We have to stop the bleeding."

Turtles may be protected at expense of grouper eaters 01/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 3:52pm]
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