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Tampa Bay area fishing industry awash in trepidation, misinformation due to Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Charter captain Dane Karcher, who speared this cobia 6 miles out two weeks ago, worries the oil spill could ruin his business.

Special to the Times

Charter captain Dane Karcher, who speared this cobia 6 miles out two weeks ago, worries the oil spill could ruin his business.

MADEIRA BEACH — First, the price of gas went up. Then the economy crashed. And if that wasn't enough to make you hang up your fishing rod, one of the coldest winters on record kept anglers in port for months at a time.

"Now we have this oil spill to worry about," said Dane Karcher, who runs several charter boats out of Pinellas County's John's Pass. "It seems like fishermen just can't catch a break."

Karcher, like many who make their living from the sea, is worried that if the constant flow of oil from BP's sunken Deep­water Horizon operation in the Gulf of Mexico cannot be stopped, he might have to find another line of work.

"This is my livelihood," said Karcher, 35, who has run charters for 14 years but has worked around the water since he was 10. "We are all pretty worried."

Karcher has already had one out-of-the-area customer cancel a trip and several others have called to ask if it was okay to fish.

"The crazy thing is the water has never been better," said Karcher, an avid free diver who was recently down exploring a reef. "The gulf is full of life, but all this talk of oil has people really scared. Nobody knows what is going to happen."

Dave Bayes, who manages Dogfish Tackle in Seminole, said the oil spill has caused him to hold back on seasonal orders.

"This time of year I always order cast nets," he said. "But now, because of the spill, I am not going to buy as many. If the oil gets here, it could shut us down."

Like a hurricane

Dogfish Tackle is one of the few fishing supply stores in the Tampa Bay area that caters to offshore anglers. May is the month when blue-water anglers stock gear.

"I have quite a few customers who trailer their boats up in Louisiana to fish for yellowfin tuna around the oil rigs," he said. "One of them called up the other day and canceled an order for three rod-and-reel outfits, $450 each, because now they aren't going because of the spill."

Bayes has been through this before, during hurricane season.

"Everybody is holding their breath," he said. "It is like being in the path of a storm. It is out there spinning away in the gulf, and nobody knows where it is going to go."

Fishing the Loop

Anglers on the west coast of Florida pay attention to the "Loop Current." This river within the gulf begins with water flowing north through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico, where it loops clockwise back south and flows through the Florida Straits.

A variety of pelagic species — including tuna, marlin and wahoo — ride the Loop Current and provide sport for blue-water anglers who sometimes troll offshore for days at a time.

"We have guys come through here that supply some of the offshore boats," said Mike Drake of Marlin's Dockside at John's Pass Marina. "But now, instead of running supplies back and forth, they are getting ready to clean up oil."

Drake, who sees his share of anglers from other countries come by the fuel docks, has had to dispel some persistent myths.

"We had one couple in from London who thought the whole Gulf of Mexico was covered with oil," he said. "Even if the oil never hits us, this area will still have a black eye because of all the media attention."

Larry Blue, another charter boat captain who works out of John's Pass, said he is tired of trying to explain to potential customers that the fishing is fine.

"It is like hearing about something happening in Washington, D.C., and then being afraid to go to New York City," he said. "They think the whole gulf is ruined."

But veteran angler Chris Turner is not giving up hope.

"The Gulf of Mexico is awfully big," he said. "There is a lot of water out there, and it might just miss us. But it all depends on your perspective. I'm the kind of guy who always thinks the glass is half full."

Tampa Bay area fishing industry awash in trepidation, misinformation due to Gulf of Mexico oil spill 05/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:48pm]
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