Sunday, March 18, 2018

Symposium: What awaits our gulf?

ST. PETE BEACH — In the 1970s, when William T. Hogarth was a young graduate student at North Carolina State, he spent many mornings on the beaches of the Outer Banks.

"We would find the carcasses of striped bass that had been caught by fishermen and left to rot," he said. "That told me that we had to do something to change the way people thought about fish and fishing."

In the years that followed, Hogarth, now the 73-year-old interim regional chancellor for USF St. Petersburg and the director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, found himself the target of criticism from both recreational and commercial fishermen.

"I've been in the crosshairs more than once," said Hogarth, who spent more than a decade working in the upper echelons of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "In the end, the most important thing is still the fish."

But a little dialogue can go a long way in advancing the cause of fisheries conservation, Hogarth added. That's why he has teamed with noted ocean artist and marine biologist Guy Harvey to host the first Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Symposium beginning this morning at the Guy Harvey Outpost (6000 Gulf Blvd.) on St. Pete Beach.

Hogarth wondered if he would be able to fill the 300 seats, but the conference reached capacity just days after it was announced to the public. A Guy Harvey film festival is still open to the public (see box).

"I guess it is a good thing," Hogarth said. "Fisheries management is a hot topic."

Hogarth said he has been trying to bring the recreational and commercial fishing communities together for four years to discuss gulf issues.

"People said it couldn't be done …" he said, "not under one roof."

He believes the timing is right. Two years after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster, fishermen throughout the Gulf of Mexico are still wondering what long-range effects the oil spill and its subsequent cleanup will have on the region's fisheries.

"BP has a lot of money for fisheries research," Hogarth said. "The question now is how those dollars will be spent."

The lineup for the two-day symposium reads like a veritable who's who in fisheries management. In addition to Hogarth and Harvey, speakers include former National Marine Fisheries Service chief Eric Schwaab, Gil McRae, director of Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, as well as Bob Spaeth and Bob Gill, two of Florida's most successful commercial fishermen.

But in the past decade, another player has entered the fisheries fray. Environmentalists, once allied with recreational anglers, are now often at odds with sport fishermen.

The Pew Environment Group, an organization often vilified by recreational anglers, released a study last week that showed that the Southeast's fisheries would be worth millions more if not for overfishing. Two Gulf stocks, red snapper and gag grouper, could have added $46 million to the economy had those species not been overfished, the study states.

"The ocean is a big place," Hogarth said. "But the thing that most people don't understand is that it is not full of fish."

Fish populations, such as red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico and black sea bass in the South Atlantic, are finite resources. "There is not an endless supply," Hogarth said. "And every year, more and more people are recreational fishing."

One possible solution, he said, is more farm-raised fish. "The U.S. is behind the rest of the world on this," he said. More farm-raised fish for consumers will take the pressure off many wild species and, in turn, benefit anglers.

"We can produce a better product, without harmful chemicals," Hogarth said. "The U.S. could become the world leader in aquaculture."

Some of the nation's leading proponents of aquaculture, including the University of Florida's Kai Lorenzen and Wildlife Foundation of Florida's Brett Boston, will be part of a panel discussing the latest advances in this evolving fisheries science.

But this symposium will not be just be idle talk. Recommendations made during the symposium will help determine how monies from a $20 billion BP trust fund will be distributed to researchers.

"This is a big opportunity not only for Florida but the entire region," Hogarth said.

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