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Florida's fishery: casting blame

Too many people catch too many fish. On that, recreational anglers and commercial fishermen agree.

But who is to blame for the precarious state of our fisheries is a question the non-fishing public will decide in next month's general election when a constitutional amendment to limit net fishing in Florida waters either sinks or swims.

Amendment 3 will appear on the ballot Nov.

8 and, if passed, will limit the use of gill and other entangling nets in Florida waters.

Supporters of the amendment say it is necessary because the waters have been overfished. The Save Our Sealife campaign, led by a coalition of environmental and sportfishing groups, was born as much out of citizen frustration with the way fisheries are managed as with environmental necessity.

"This is our last and only chance to stop the overfishing and damage to Florida's marine life," said Ted Forsgren of the Florida Conservation Association. "Our marine resources deserve no less than the protection already provided by California, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina."

The state's few thousand commercial fishermen, meanwhile, say it is an unnecessary and simplistic solution to the complicated problem of protecting the state's marine environment.

Some environmentalists, like Ross Wilcox, chairman of the Florida Audubon Society's Marine Resources Committee, view the amendment as just one step in a long, hard battle to protect the state's marine environment.

"The option presented by the ballot initiative is certainly not a perfect remedy to the state's marine resource problems," he wrote in a report that helped persuade Audubon officials to join the coalition supporting the amendment. "There is not a conclusive scientific consensus that the enactment of the proposed constitutional amendment will address in a comprehensive or equitable way the fisheries management needs in the state of Florida."

While the amendment may not be the preferred alternative, Wilcox wrote, passage would result in several distinct benefits.

Certain marine animals, including dolphins, turtles and manatees, would not be injured or killed as often.

Bycatch would be reduced.

Certain species of fish at the base of the food chain would be protected, and subsequently, predators from snook to eagles would have more food.

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Total 1991 recreational catches _ 107-million pounds _ amounted to about two-thirds of the commercial catches _ 158-million pounds.

A large portion of that commercial catch, some 45-million pounds, consisted of shrimp, lobster, crabs, etc. _ most of which will not be affected by the amendment.

The majority of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Common restaurant fare caught by Florida offshore commercial fishermen with hook and line, such as grouper, will not be affected either.

The species at stake, the veritable backbone of the inshore net fishery, is black mullet. An old Florida favorite, especially when smoked, mullet made up more than half of the 41-million pounds of inshore fish netted in 1991.

Commercial fishermen also net bluefish, jack crevalle, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel and spotted sea trout in numbers greater than 1-million pounds per year. And although Spanish mackerel are a favorite target of many anglers, nothing gets sport fishermen's tempers going like sea trout.

Recreational anglers have caught 80 percent of the sea trout, according to historical statistics _ which have their limitations, but nonetheless, are the only numbers available.

Over the years, both the commercial and recreational sectors have had to abide by stricter regulations in an attempt to rebuild the diminishing stocks.

Spotted sea trout are by far the most popular inshore sportfish. They are relatively easy to catch, available to any novice. But they are fragile animals and don't fare well when stressed, be it by an angler's hands or a net, and subsequently, have a high mortality rate.

In cold weather, sea trout tend to bunch up in deep holes where they can be caught, one at a time by an angler, or netted by the dozen by a commercial fisherman. That's why state officials recently voted to shut down trout season during January and February when the fish are most vulnerable. But officials held off passing tighter recreational regulations pending the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote.

Nets and "bycatch'

Nets are one of our oldest fishing tools. Humans have been using them for thousands of years, and there is a simple reason why. They work. Sometimes, all too well.

Commercial fishermen use two types of "entangling" nets in Florida waters. The first net type encircles the fish and, as they try to escape, snags them by the gills, hence the name "gill" net.

A trammel net, in comparison, has walls of two or more nets. Fish swim through a wider mesh net and become trapped in the second net, with smaller mesh.

Unlike a hook and line, a net catches many fish at once. As a result, fishermen cannot always predict what will wind up in them.

Marine biologists call this incidental capture "bycatch."

The ratio of this "bad catch" to "good catch" varies from industry to industry and region to region.

Sometimes, commercial fishermen can pick through their catch and release the undesireable species alive. Sometimes, they can't. The dead carcasses of the non-targeted species, be it a sea turtle or a catfish, are dumped over the side.

These incidental deaths have become a key point in the debate over the future of Florida's inshore commercial net industry. Many recreational anglers fear their favorite sportfish are being killed needlessly. Over the past years, marine biologists have attempted to study bycatch and the effect it has on marine life.

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In 1992, researchers from the University of South Florida watched and recorded the incidental catch of Tampa Bay's gill-net fishery. On 80 different occasions, the researchers followed the commercial fishermen from a "discreet" distance and watched as they set their nets. But before the fishermen could retrieve their nets, the researchers interceded and offered $75 for the opportunity to examine the catch.

The researchers later said that they were "surprised by the specifity of the catch and the very low numbers of (non-targeted) species." The most abundant species were not sportfish as recreational anglers had feared. The nets contained the following species in descending order: mullet, menhaden, hardhead catfish, jack crevalle, sheepshead, pinfish, spotted sea trout, pigfish and striped mojarra.

While the sea trout occupied the seventh spot, the other species are not as highly prized. These species occupy a class known as "forage" fish _ meaning they are the food on which the predators such as snook and redfish prey.

However, certain forage fish, such as mullet and menhaden, play a vital role in the environment because they transfer plant matter into protein. Break this link in the food chain, conservationists fear, and the ecosystem will collapse.

Who catches what?

Keeping track of who catches what isn't easy. Data on recreational and commercial catches is gathered by different methods and maintained by different government agencies. Critics, such as Forsgren of the Conservation Association, say comparing the two numbers is a poor indication of what really is going on. However, it is the only data available.

Recreational statistics are compiled by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service. Researchers conduct dockside interviews, take telephone surveys, then, with a complicated mathematical process, estimate what is caught by many based on information gathered from a few.

Fishermen are known, upon occasion, to embellish their exploits and exaggerate their catch. So critics of the system say these federal statistics often are inflated.

Commercial statistics, meanwhile, are taken from the records of actual trips, collected by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Sportfishing interests charge that these statistics are low side because some commercial fishermen underreport their catch to escape taxes and stay within quotas.

The number of people actually fishing also is misleading.

State records show that in 1991, 6,103 commercial net-fishing licenses were issued. But only 4,864 of those license holders actually netted fish for commercial purposes. Of the 4,864 commercial fishermen who fished, 429 netted more then half of the 41-million pounds of fish harvested. Thus, a small number of skilled commercial gill fishermen harvest the majority.

The same holds true with commercial purse seiners, who capture small fish by the hundreds of thousands in huge nets shaped like a bag or "purse." The fish they target are not for human consumption but are sold to other commercial fishermen as bait for other species.

Twelve of the state's 58 purse seiners took 75 percent _ 20-million of 25-million pounds _ harvested in 1991. Recreational fishermen also target these bait fish with hand-held cast nets, but the harvest is negligible.

Many believe, though, that the same trend holds true for recreational anglers. The state issued 879,415 recreational licenses last year. There is an adage that says, "Ten percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish."

The state allows a host of exemptions to its recreational saltwater license law. Two different government surveys have put the actual number of recreational anglers at 1.3-million to 2.1-million.

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Red drum, commonly called redfish, have sportfish status in Florida, which means they cannot be bought or sold, but nonetheless are mentioned frequently in the Net Ban debate.

Red drum stocks came close to collapse in the 1980s, thanks in part to consumer craving for "blackened redfish." Commercial boats, operating in the northern Gulf of Mexico, netted huge schools until finally, in 1986, the federal government shut the practice down.

Florida never supported a large commercial red-drum industry, primarily because the species didn't congregate offshore in huge schools the way it did in the northern gulf. Recreational anglers caught most of the Florida fish, about 80 percent.

Following the federal lead, state officials shut down the harvest for everybody in November 1986, and it remained closed for most of 1987 and 1988.

When fishing for red drum commenced again in 1989, officials retained a three-month closed season for recreational anglers, but they also gave the species sportfish designation, which means it cannot be bought or sold. Recreational anglers also had to abide by a "slot limit," which meant they could only catch red fish of a certain size, and a bag limit of one fish.

So in 1993, Florida's Gulf Coast anglers caught and kept 185,284 redfish _ compared to 972,473 a decade earlier.

By shutting down the harvest for everybody, fishery managers stopped the species decline. Then by eliminating the commercial fishery and imposing stricter regulations on the largest consumer group, recreational anglers, they assured redfish recovery.

Texas, which banned gill nets in 1988, has had similar results. Recreational red-drum catch rates are the second-highest on record. Spotted sea trout populations also have risen to near record levels.

"This has lead to an economic boost in tourism and sport fishery expenditures with an estimated impact to the state of over $2.5-billion," wrote Hal Osburn, coastal fisheries policy director for Texas.

In a letter to the Save our Sealife Committee, Osburn also stressed that Texas fisheries are different from Florida's and that Florida fisheries should be managed in a manner that is best for its unique resources. For unlike Texas, Florida has the Atlantic Ocean and coral-reef ecosystems of the Keys.

But, Osburn concluded, "Banning nets in marine waters was the right thing to do in Texas. . . . We are proud of what we have accomplished, even as we turn our attention to preventing similar mistakes from occurring in other fisheries."

In Wednesday's Times: Both sides maintain that whichever way the vote goes, a ripple effect will be felt throughout the state economy.