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It's open season on grouper again

Fans of Florida's favorite fish felt few pangs. And enforcers of the monthlong ban say fishermen complied.

Fans of the grouper sandwich hardly noticed. Restaurants found other sources of Florida's favorite fish or just replaced it on their menus.

Even some commercial fishermen _ the ones with the biggest boats and best equipment _ didn't feel the sting of the federal government's ban on commercial grouper fishing.

But Ed Maccini and commercial fishermen like him suffered the brunt of the first-of-its-kind ban on catching grouper in the gulf. In place for the past month, the ban ended at 12:01 a.m. today.

Maccini spent some onshore days calculating how much the ban cost him: about 17 percent of his annual income. That's six weeks without pay during the height of the tourist (read: grouper-eating) season.

"These people talk about a one-month closure," Maccini said. "That's on the assumption that you came in on the 15th (of February) and go out on the 15th (of March), which is rather hard because you have to work around the weather."

The ban was placed on commercial fishermen because national marine fisheries officials feared grouper was suffering from its own popularity. Officials hope the annual monthlong ban will help replenish the gulf's supply.

The fisheries officials who enforced the ban, in place from Texas to South Florida, said fishermen respected the ban.

"I don't know of any violation from the commercial fishermen," said Gene Proulx, special agent in charge of enforcement in the Southeast for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some in the fishing and restaurant industries had predicted high market prices for grouper throughout the ban, but a number of factors helped keep grouper affordable throughout the past month.

First, grouper still was available from foreign fishermen who did not have to follow U.S. rules.

Some U.S. fishermen with the proper equipment still were allowed to deep-sea fish for grouper, and although fishing 100 miles offshore forced those fishermen to spend more money to catch fish, they received about the same amount of money for their catches.

"The boats that could, went to deep water, and the ones that couldn't sat at the dock," said Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association.

Grouper already was expensive before the ban. In mid-February, it was selling for $10.99 to $12.99 a pound retail, and, Houghton said, "people will only pay so much."

So while the consumer was insulated from the grouper ban, fishermen such as Maccini were on the front lines. The ban will be from Feb. 15 to March 15 annually because that's in the midst of grouper spawning season.

But it's also tourist season, and the start of Lent.

"I had my best year ever last year," Maccini said. "But they shut us down during the best time of year. They don't take any consideration."