TAMPA — For decades, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen have fought over the dwindling fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico.
It has always been "us against them" as far as the sport fishermen were concerned. But now a controversial proposal by federal fishery managers has driven a wedge into the normally unified recreational ranks.
"It is the old strategy of divide and conquer," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, which represents thousands of the state's recreational fishermen. "They are trying to split us up so they can give away more of a public resource to private individuals. It is irresponsible."
Most of Florida's commercial fisheries lie in federal waters, which begin 9 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The major stocks — grouper and snapper — are managed by the Tampa-based Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which includes representatives from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
For years, the fish limits have been split between the commercial and recreational sectors, with the percentages varying from species to species. But under the new "sector separation" proposal, recreational anglers would be subdivided into two categories — "for hire" charter boats and private recreational boats.
In the fishing world, where seasonal closures are a hot topic, the sector separation issue has been a real sleeper.
But today, hundreds of fired-up fishermen are expected to gather at Tampa's Crown Plaza Hotel to voice their concerns over a proposal many feel will limit their access to sport fish in local waters.
"This is an obscene power grab," said Dennis O'Hern, executive director of the St. Petersburg-based Fishing Rights Alliance. "It does nothing to solve any fishery problems. … It merely enriches a few at the expense of many."
Madeira Beach's Mark Hubbard, whose family has operated a fleet of party boats in local waters for more than 50 years, would stand to benefit if the new allocation system goes into effect. But Hubbard, and others like him, still oppose the plan.
"In the long run, this will not be good for anglers," said the operator of Hubbard's Marina on John's Pass. "If they split us up, we will lose our voice. This is a slippery slope."
Hubbard and other sport fishermen fear sector separation is the precursor to an individual quota or "catch share" program for recreational anglers, similar to what is already in use for many commercial fisheries.
"Before you know it, you will have to buy a tag for every fish you catch," Hubbard said. "It is just not right."
Bob Zales II, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators, runs several boats in Panama City — an area known for its red snapper, a tightly regulated species that some say prompted the move toward sector separation.
Red snapper season has grown shorter in recent years. Federal officials shut down fishing once they determine that recreational anglers have filled their allotted quota. This year the fishery, once open year-round, lasted less than two months.
"It is hard to make a living when you can only fish a couple of months out of the year," said Gary Jarvis, a Destin charter boat captain and one of the primary proponents behind the sector separation movement. "Our customers are recreational anglers, too. They just don't have boats so they hire somebody to take them out. The argument that we are trying to steal fish is just not true. These are recreational fish going to recreational anglers."
Jarvis said that if the fish caught on charter boats are counted separately, federal fishery managers are more likely to get an accurate picture of what is actually caught.
"We are professionals, and because of our financial motivation, we will take data collection to another level," Jarvis added. "There have been attempts to make the recreational sector more accountable, but they haven't worked. Under this plan, we will be responsible for our own landings."
Jeff Barger, regional fisheries project coordinator for the Environmental Defense Fund, another leading proponent of sector separation, said the federal fishery managers need to adopt another approach or many charter boats would go out of business.
"You just can't keep cutting the number of days people can fish," he said. "That is no way to run a business.
"We need better records, more accountability," he added. "The data is horrible and it is costing us fishing days. All the (charter boats) want is their own sector so they can be responsible for their own catch."