Charter boat captain Sam Maisano remembers the good old days when February was the time to head offshore and catch grouper. "We have never had any problem catching big fish," said Maisano, who keeps his 32-foot, twin-engine Donzi docked behind Gators Cafe and Saloon on John's Pass. "There are grouper out there, but most folks don't want to book a trip unless they can keep something to eat." Maisano, like many who make their living off the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico, is doing his best to survive the current "perfect storm" that has crippled offshore fishing. First, the economy crashed. Many folks just don't have discretionary cash to spend on fishing charters. Then in January, Tampa Bay got slammed by a string of cold fronts that led to fish kills and had even the most seasoned of salts shaking in their boots. And now, charter boat captains and recreational anglers find themselves in the middle of a two-month grouper closure. "This is the worst that it has been in more than a decade," said Dave Bayes, who manages Dogfish Tackle in Seminole. "People are scared. They don't know what is going to happen next."
Maisano and Bayes, like many in the fishing industry, are frustrated with the current federal regulatory process, which relies heavily on government-sponsored research but doesn't put much stock in the thoughts and observations of everyday anglers.
"The problem is (fishery managers) don't listen to the professionals, the people who are on the water, day in and day out," said Larry Blue, who runs the charter boat Niki-Joe out of John's Pass. "The research may look good on paper, but out in the field it is often a different story."
Blue is not alone in his sentiments. Fishermen across the country are calling for a fundamental change in the nation's fishing laws.
On Wednesday in Washington, D.C., anglers, charter boat captains and marine industry representatives from all over the country gathered on Capitol Hill to voice their concerns over what one group called a potential "train wreck" in fisheries management.
"Massive closures are extreme measures that I don't think were envisioned by anybody," said Ted Venker of the Coastal Conservation Association. "They need to concentrate more on data collection so they can be managed properly. Anglers are willing to accept regulations. But when they seem arbitrary and unfair, you will see push-back."
Also this week, the CCA and other industry heavy hitters, such as the American Sportfishing Association, the Billfish Foundation, the Center for Coastal Conservation, the International Game Fish Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, wrote Jane Lubchenco, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regarding a series of controversial actions that many believe may soon cripple the recreational fishing industry.
"At stake are more than 500,000 jobs that depend on recreational saltwater fishing and $250 million a year in excise tax and fishing license revenue. …," the letter stated. "The recreational fishing industry is faced with massive fisheries closures, and the attendant job loss, because the appropriate investment in recreational fishery economics data and angler catch data has not been made. …"
"Recreational fishing accounts for only 3 percent of the marine finfish harvested by weight," continued the letter, which was signed by the leaders of each of the previously mentioned organizations, "yet it produces 56 percent of the jobs from all saltwater fisheries."
Maisano, like many of the working fishermen interviewed, said he thinks the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that implements management measures, relies on flawed data.
"Because of the economy and the weather, people are just not catching as many fish," he said. "But still we have these closures. Things are not as bad as they make them out to be."
Tom Kane, who also charters out of John's Pass, agreed with Maisano.
"Like anything else, fish go in cycles," he said. "You might have a couple of good years followed by a bad year. Mother Nature does a pretty good job of regulating our industry."
Meanwhile, Dogfish Tackle's Bayes said he hopes things settle down soon. Like many anglers, he'd like to see a more regional approach to fisheries management.
"Our grouper fishery is different from the one they have in Texas," he said. "The same goes for red snapper. … The fishing here isn't the same as it is in the Panhandle."
Florida manages its inshore species in this regional manner. There are different regulations for trout and snook, depending on where you are in the state.
"I think I am speaking for all anglers when I say that we welcome regulations," Bayes said. "We want healthy fisheries. But make them sustainable so there will be something left for my son to catch some day."