TAMPA — There they sat, side by side at an Italian restaurant, swapping stories, smiling and laughing, scheming about how to save the Gulf of Mexico's troubled grouper fishery.
Before that day two years ago, the chances of seeing the leader of the west coast's commercial fishing industry and one of the most vocal members of the recreational fishing community breaking bread would have been one in a million.
For years, the two groups, or "stakeholders" as they are often referred to by fishery managers, had an adversarial relationship.
"The feds would cut up the pie, leave one little piece for the fishermen and say, 'Here you go, fight over it,' " said Dennis O'Hern of the newly formed Gulf Partnership for Marine Fisheries. "But we've wised up. Instead of working against each other to pick through the scraps, we are going to join forces and get a bigger piece of the pie."
O'Hern, the driving force behind the Fishing Rights Alliance, and Bob Spaeth, the voice of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, began their dialogue two years ago when they shared a ride from the airport to a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in Texas.
"We were sitting there for 45 minutes, and we realized that we had more in common than we thought," Spaeth recalled. "But here we were beating each other up all the time for nothing."
While some of the other sportfishing groups have focused on the way the federal government allocates allowable catch between the two user groups, O'Hern has spent his time looking at the big picture, the health of the overall fishery.
"Nobody has ever questioned the science," O'Hern said. "All we are asking is that before they pass rules that will cost our local economy millions of dollars make sure that it is for the right reasons."
The National Marine Fisheries Service has a team of scientists in Miami responsible for assessing the health of grouper and other stocks. These "stock assessments," as they are called, are usually accepted without question.
But this year, Spaeth and O'Hern pooled their organizations' resources to hire an independent scientist, noted Canadian biologist Dr. Trevor Kenchington, to review the federal government's latest report on gag grouper.
The Gulf Council, which regulates the federal waters that begin 9 miles offshore, tentatively approved regulations aimed at reducing gag grouper landings by 45 percent.
The council cited biological studies that indicate recreational anglers are catching too many gag grouper. The proposed regulations, if approved, would hit the recreational grouper industry particularly hard by limiting anglers to one gag grouper per person per day, and a three-grouper aggregate limit. The current regulations allow for a five-fish aggregate bag limit.
Perhaps more important, the fishery would be shut down from Jan. 15 through April 15, the height of tourist season, beginning in 2009. The current closed season is Feb. 15 to March 15.
But in March, fishing rights groups scored a major victory when an advisory panel to the Gulf Council questioned whether there is a scientific need to change gag grouper regulations.
In a 13-1 vote, the council's reef fish advisory panel recommended no action be taken on gag grouper.
"(Kenchington) looked at their own numbers and found some serious flaws," O'Hern said.
While Kenchington's findings were enough to prompt the Gulf Council to put a proposed change to the gag grouper rules on hold, the issue is far from settled.
"The Magnuson Stevenson Act says that the 'best available science' needs to be used when making any management decision," O'Hern said. "But it doesn't say that the 'best available science' has to come from the National Marine Fisheries Service."
Spaeth, who has challenged the federal government before and won over shark regulations, said many in the scientific community are hesitant to challenge the status quo.
"They all belong to the same fraternity," he said. "When it comes to fisheries science, it is still a good ol' boy network."
O'Hern and Spaeth said the new Gulf Partnership for Marine Fisheries will raise money to hire independent scientists to review federal data if the need arises.
"Our experts will not be beholding to the National Marine Fisheries Service for grant money," Spaeth said. "They will be true independents."
Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.