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Habitat loss is biggest issue threatening the future of most fish stocks

Guide Steve Papen, left, and client Rob Zakresky boat a 58-pound gag grouper, a tightly regulated but much sought-after species.

Courtesy of Steve Papen

Guide Steve Papen, left, and client Rob Zakresky boat a 58-pound gag grouper, a tightly regulated but much sought-after species.

Matt Taylor was frantic. The chief executive officer of Savage Yachts had been besieged by e-mails from spearfishermen threatening to boycott his company. His crime: one of his employees wrote an opinion piece in the St. Petersburg Times they did not like.

“I probably received 200 e-mails,” said Taylor, an avid blue-water angler. “Some of them were pretty bad.”

The guest column that triggered the uproar among a small but vocal few was fairly innocuous. R.P. Hite, a fisherman from Apollo Beach, urged his fellow anglers to “support rebuilding of overfished species, protect and enhance water quality and habitats and support proactive ways to prevent overfishing.”

Hite's column also urged anglers to support a more conservative approach to fishery management, which apparently angered the e-mailers.

A subsequent call to action, circulated to members of the local spearfishing community, began: "Meet our new enemy. His name is R.P. Hite." Taylor, the yacht broker, said one of the e-mails referred to Hite, the chief operating officer at Savage Yachts, as a "terrorist."

Hold on a minute. Enemy? Terrorist? Shouldn't these labels be reserved for people who fly planes into buildings?

A little background

The real issue here is grouper, a species often referred to as a "sport fish" but which should be more accurately characterized as a "meat fish." Anglers and spear fishermen don't want to catch and release grouper for sport. They want to catch and kill grouper to eat.

This species is one of Florida's most valuable resources. For years, various members of the grouper family have been targeted by the state's commercial fishing industry and more recently, with increased effectiveness, by the state's recreational anglers.

The nearly dozen species of grouper that have recreational or commercial value are managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency many sport fishermen say is too large, cumbersome and slow to act.

Complicating matters is the fact that fisheries management, practiced anywhere in the world, is more art than science. Think about it. How do you count the fish in the sea? The answer is you don't. You "sample" a small percentage of the stock, plug the numbers into a complicated computer model, and make a guesstimate using "the best available science."

Fishery managers probably could come up with a better way to assess fish populations, given unlimited resources, but it is hard to convince elected officials and the public to invest more taxpayer dollars in the process given the fact that we are fighting two foreign wars and digging ourselves out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Turning on each other

So recreational anglers wring their hands in frustration, complain about bad science, outdated data and the damage done to the local economy. Occasionally, they also lash out at their own, re: the unfortunate Messieurs Hite and Taylor.

But accusations and innuendo do nothing to further The Cause. In the end, gross hyperbole does more harm than good.

Take, for example, a recent rumor concerning President Barack Obama.

Several talk-show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, repeated information from an online column (which was later deleted) that accused the administration of seeking to ban sportfishing.

The claim was investigated by the St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com team, which gave the statement a "Pants of Fire" rating — a designation awarded the most egregious of factual errors.

But while recreational fishermen argue among themselves about catch rates and who gets what slice of the pie, a far more serious issue has gone relatively unnoticed. The Florida Legislature just gutted the state's growth management laws, a move that could ultimately have a devastating impact on coastal habitat.

Ask any marine biologist or oceanographer to name the No. 1 issue threatening the future of most fish stocks and they will not point to recreational anglers, commercial longliners or spear fishermen. The answer is habitat loss.

Most of our recreational and commercially valuable species spend some point of their life cycle in the estuary. Fish such as grouper need the sea grasses and mangroves to survive. Lose the habitat and we lose our future.

While these words may seem incendiary to some, it is a journalist's job to speak truth to power — which in this case is not the elected officials or federal fishery managers, but you, the recreational angler.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach of the Green Bay Packers, had some advice that served him well against complex football defenses, but it can also be applied to the complicated world of modern fisheries management: "People who work together will win."

It is as simple as that.

Habitat loss is biggest issue threatening the future of most fish stocks 05/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2011 8:09pm]

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