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New rules may snag grouper catch

The company was good. The ice cold sangria went down like Kool-Aid. And the grouper sandwiches? Absolutely a key part of the Tuesday afternoon jaunt for four friends, some of whom were playing hooky from work.

"If you can't sneak out to the beach for some grouper and sangria, why live here?" asked Michael Hopper, 40, of St. Petersburg, as he sat on the beachside deck of Frenchy's Rockaway Grill at Clearwater Beach.

New regulations that profoundly affect commercial grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico could change that quintessential Florida experience: There could be higher grouper prices or shortages when the regulations take effect, probably in the next year.

The passionate debate over the pending rules, which will push longline fishermen farther out to sea, also points out a larger conflict. You could simply say there are too few fish and too many people who want them: either to catch, eat or protect.

It has happened before.

In the 1980s, Paul Prudhomme's wildly popular blackened redfish led to massive catches, severely depleted stocks and eventual regulation. Then, shark steaks became trendy, and several species suffered from fishing pressure. Regulations reducing their take were enacted. In the 1990s, swordfish, a staple at upscale restaurants around the country, became an environmental cause, and 700 chefs nationwide removed the fish from their menus. Regulation followed.

The red grouper debate has run a similar course, and the dynamics illustrate a state in transition. Pitted against one another are gritty fishermen who have earned a living from the sea for generations, an ever-more sophisticated environmental lobby and the demand from people who expect fresh local fish on the menu or at the market, or who want to catch it themselves.

"It's basically a fight over how to reshape everything to accommodate growth when you have a finite resource," said Jack Rudloe, a marine scientist and environmentalist who lives in the Florida Panhandle.

Since 1970, the state's population has more than doubled. The number of recreational boats has more than quadrupled, according to vessel registration records.

While the commercial grouper industry takes the majority of gulf grouper that is caught, according to state figures, annual landings have remained essentially stable in the last three decades at about 7.5-million pounds. In recent years, a growing portion of that has been red grouper. That's attributable to the popularity of longline fishing (with lines 2 to 6 miles long laid on the ocean bottom), and to consumer demand for the fish.

The Gulf of Mexico Marine Fishery Management Council, an arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service, passed rules July 11 that reduce by 45 percent the number of pounds of red grouper that commercial fishermen are allowed to harvest from the gulf. The council also voted to prohibit longline fishing in waters less than 300 feet deep _ essentially banning longline fishing for red grouper since they live in much shallower water. Those rules will undergo review and likely be enacted sometime in the next year.

Commercial fishermen say they are taking the blame for a situation they only partially created. Recreational fishermen say they are trying to keep the commercial guys from wiping the gulf so clean you can't go out and catch a few fish on a nice day. And environmentalists want everyone to step back, let the fish regenerate and keep harvests at reasonable levels.

"There's a competition for resources," said Peter Hood, a biologist with the gulf council. "People are going to want more fish, locally caught fish. And you have more and more anglers going out there and catching fish."

Tim Nachman, who runs Nachman's Native Seafood in Redington Shores, said the recreational fishermen cause many of their own problems and are quick to blame commercial interests.

He believes that many recreational fishermen complain about the lack of fish in shallow water, within about 35 miles of shore, where commercial fishermen are not allowed to use longlines. Each of those "weekend warriors," Nachman said, can take up to five grouper, which are large fish.

"Why does a recreational person need five grouper?" he asked.

The pressure from recreational fishermen is a force to be reckoned with. This year, the state issued nearly 915,000 recreational saltwater fishing licenses.

Mark Hubbard, who runs a charter boat out of Madeira Beach, said the number of charter boats has increased threefold in the last decade. But it has never been enough to shut down a fishery, he said.

That, he said, has come from the commercial industry. It happened when a market emerged for amberjack, which used to be a plentiful, good-fighting fish for charter boat patrons.

A reliable catch is important for those who take people fishing for a living. Larry Michalec, 52, on vacation from Indiana, took a half-day trip on the Florida Fisherman II, a party boat that docks in Madeira Beach. He was hoping to catch a grouper, and he did.

"The biggest fish of my life, and I had to throw it back," he said ruefully.

That's because his red grouper was 17 inches long. Fishing rules designed to boost the stock require a length of 20 inches. He made due with a stringer of gray snapper.

Robert Spaeth of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association said the commercial sector is going to be accused of irresponsible fishing when other species of grouper _ probably black and gag _ are diminished as commercial fishermen turn to those fish to fill their holds.

The industry will have to switch from longlines to vertical lines to catch those grouper, and he doubts commercial fishermen will be able to catch enough to meet demand.

"As soon as we get an increased landing in gags, the sky will be falling and they'll regulate that," he said.

Overfishing and regulation killed the redfish market, too. Back in 1987, blackened redfish was the rage. It was a featured item on the menu at the Wine Cellar in North Redington Beach.

"For a year or so, people would ask for it," said Kai Sonnenschein, general manager of the restaurant. "Then, that went away and there were other wonderful fish to eat."

Along with regulation, the fickle public palate also factors into fish stock depletion and rebound. Spaeth said that when the shark fishery essentially was shut down, people lost their taste for it. Now there is a limited shark harvest, but no market for the meat.

"There's a big problem marketing shark," said Spaeth, president of Madeira Beach Seafood. "We got people trying to give it to us."

It's typical, he said, of how things work.

Spaeth is not the only one who predicts the continuation of the cycle of stressed fisheries and more regulation.

At the public hearing on the red grouper rules that was held in Sarasota, several people talked about the inevitability of fishery declines.

"Basically, whatever you do is a Band-Aid," Armando Suarez, a spear fisherman from Lutz told the council. "Whatever you do, we're going to be here in another year about another fishery that's on the point of collapse.'

FISHING PRESSURES

During the last three decades, there have been increasing pressures on Florida's fisheries. Simply put, there are competing interests that want to catch, eat or protect them. The latest species that has suffered depletion as a result of these forces is red grouper, most of which is caught by commercial fishermen. While the total commercial grouper catch has remained essentially constant since 1970, the commercial industry began using the longline fishing method _ laying two to six miles of line on the Gulf bottom _ to catch more red grouper. The Cuban commercial fishermen fleet had taken a substantial number of reds from the Gulf until regulation in the mid-1970s ended their ability to do that.

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