Anglers from across the west coast of Florida will gather Wednesday in St. Petersburg in hopes of convincing federal officials that a series of proposed grouper regulations are unfair to recreational fisherman.
"I just don't understand," said Dave Bayes, manager of a Seminole tackle shop that caters to offshore anglers. "A recreational fisherman can go out and catch one 5- to 10-pound red grouper but a commercial longline boat can go and catch 6,000 pounds in one trip? Where is the fairness in that?"
Bayes, like many recreational anglers, thinks federal officials favor the commercial sector.
"It is like the insurance industry," he said. "The big companies have lobbyists to make sure they get what they want."
Traditionally, recreational fishermen have been a disorganized lot. The Florida chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association changed the political landscape in the early 1990s when it successfully fought to have gill nets banned from state waters.
Fast forward 15 years, and now the CCA is urging members to turn out to fight the federal proposal to shut down recreational grouper fishing in the gulf for three months next year.
"If grouper are in such bad shape, then why in the world do we have an industrial-scale longline fleet out there fishing while the recreational fishermen have to stay home," said Ted Forsgren, director of the CCA's Florida chapter. "This is a publicly owned resource and the current allocation is far from fair and equitable."
Gag grouper reproduce during the winter months. The CCA wants federal officials to shut down the commercial fishery as well from Jan. 15 to April 15 and protect the spawning stocks. Currently, commercial fishermen only have a one-month closure.
Forsgren believes federal officials should move the longline boats to deeper water.
"Off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, longline boats are prohibited inside of 50 fathoms," Forsgren said. "Here off Florida, they only have to be outside the 20-fathom line."
Forsgren also questions the manner in which federal officials divide the red grouper stocks between the commercial and recreational sectors. Commercial fishermen take roughly 81 percent; recreational anglers, 19 percent. (The ratio is roughly 40/60 for gag grouper).
"If the CCA pushes to have the allocation changed or push the longlines out to 50 fathoms, I think a lot of fishermen will stop longlining, switch to bandit rigs and target gag grouper," said Dean Pruitt, a commercial fisherman from Madeira Beach. "I don't think that fishery can handle any more pressure."