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NEW GROUPER RULES WOULD ADD STRAIN ON LOCAL INDUSTRY

Closure during tourist season makes shops, guides nervous.

On a typical Saturday morning, people stop by Dogfish Tackle on Park Boulevard to talk about fishing. Anglers love to brag about the ones they have caught, and those they will catch.

But things at the tackle shop have been quiet for the past week.

"It is like everybody is in a state of mourning," said Dave Bayes, the tackle shop manager. "People are talking about selling their boats. This grouper issue has just knocked the wind out of everybody."

Last week, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which regulates the federal waters that begin 9 miles offshore, tentatively approved regulations aimed at reducing gag grouper landings by 45 percent. The council cited biological studies that indicate recreational anglers are catching too many gag grouper. The council plans to hold a few public hearings before its final vote in April.

The new guidelines, if approved, could adversely impact the area recreational grouper industry. The new rules would limit anglers to one gag grouper per person per day, and a three-grouper aggregate limit. The current regulations allow for a five-fish aggregate bag limit.

Perhaps more important, the fishery would be shut down from Jan. 15 through April 15, the height of tourist season, beginning in 2009. The current closed season is Feb. 15 to March 15.

"It is just going to kill our business," Bayes said. "I have never heard people so depressed about regulations before. It is one thing to reduce the bag limit, but the closed season is what really is going to hurt. They are taking away the opportunity to fish. I don't know if our local industry will ever recover from a blow like that."

Grouper, a collective term for the red and gag most anglers catch, is the premier sport fish on the west coast of Florida. Anglers invest thousands of dollars to pursue this bottom-dwelling game fish that is prized for its firm, white flesh.

"That is all I do," said Kevin Hammer, a recreational angler from Clearwater who sells seasonal produce. "During this time of year I am not that busy at work, so sometimes I fish two, three times a week."

Hammer said he spends a minimum of $200 per offshore trip (for gas, tackle and bait).

But Hammer said he feels sorry for the area fishing industry, particularly the charter boat captains who rely on the tourists for much of their income.

"What do you expect them to do? Go out and catch grunts?" he asked. "Nobody is going to pay $900 for a grunt trip."

Lance Brooks, whose Treasure Island charter boat The Southern One specializes in offshore fishing, said he is going to have to buy an inshore boat to serve clients.

"This has been a tough year," he said. "I lost $15,000 worth of charters in September and October because the wind was blowing and nobody could get out. Combine that with fuel prices ... I don't know what to do."

Brooks, who once fished commercially, disagreed with the federal government's position that grouper are in trouble. "That might have been true three years ago," he said. "But the fish have come back and come back strong. The fishing now is the best it has been since '98 or '99."

Skyrocketing fuel prices have forced many anglers to limit their trips offshore, thus already reducing the fishing pressure. It can cost $500 for many twin-engine boats to run to the grouper grounds and back.

"It cost me $1,000 to fill my boat," said Perry Warner, a recreational angler from Clearwater. "That makes grouper one expensive fish to bring home and put on a plate."

Hammer, who is on the water several days a week, said he has noticed fewer boats on the water. "I think it is safe to say that fuel prices have cut the effort in half," he said. "There just aren't that many people going out to fish anymore."

Mike Irwin, whose Indian Rocks Beach-based Contagious Charters also targets grouper, said the federal government is pointing at the wrong culprit when it comes to declining grouper stocks.

"They want to know where all the grouper are going? They need to start looking at (goliath grouper)," he said. "They are just eating everything."

Goliath grouper, a federally protected species, have voracious appetites and can grow to several hundred pounds. Many anglers believe the species has recovered and is now causing other stocks to crash.

"The goliath grouper are a huge problem," said Brad Kenyon, an avid diver and fisherman whose Palm Harbor-based Boat & Motor Superstores cater to the offshore crowd. "They are blaming the recreational sector for bad years in '05 and '06. But this is '08, and the grouper are back. They need to get some up-to-date science."

Bayes likened the current situation to playing the lottery.

"If you want people to play but say you are going to limit the prize to $10,000, people are going to stop dropping their dollars on the counter," he said. "You take away the opportunity to win, people are going to stop playing."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8808.

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