Species under siege: sea turtles and fishermen

Can both the loggerheads and the livelihood of those who harvest from the sea be saved from extinction?


As the sun goes down in the small village of Cortez, so may the livelihood of its commercial fishermen. With new regulations and the recent ban on longline fishing, it is even harder to break even on a trip to the Gulf of Mexico to fish for grouper.
Published: Monday, July 13, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 12, 2009 at 8:34 p.m.
CORTEZ – Walter Bell had already sent two fish packers home for lack of work. The others lingered, silently eating watermelon on the empty concrete slab of the decades-old fish plant that still anchors this community.
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"We’re eating watermelon. We should be working," Bell, 85, said.
On typical July days last year, workers would clamor to unload, clean and pack as much as 12,000 pounds of grouper at the family-owned A.P. Bell Fish Co., founded by Bell’s father.
Less than half that catch trickles in now, supplemented by mullet and bait fish. Now, men return from weeks at sea, their fish boxes far from full; their faces grim with fear of the future.
The fishermen of Cortez have been in limbo since May, banned from using longline gear while the federal government develops new regulations for grouper fishing in the shallow waters where sea turtles forage.
Longliners fear the looming regulations will be so onerous that their community, which has survived here for more than a century, will perish.
But also at stake is the loggerhead sea turtle, whose two-million-year existence is threatened by the very fishing methods that sustain communities such as Cortez.
Scientists know little about loggerheads, but most believe nesting trends show they are in steep population decline. The turtles, named for their large heads, are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. About 90 percent of loggerheads in U.S. waters nest on Florida beaches. Many of them also forage for squid and jellyfish on shallow reefs.
Longlines have 1,400 hooks strung on a cable that can span up to 7 miles long. If a loggerhead goes for a baited hook, it can get snagged and drown.
While the ban on longlining is in place, fishermen are using gear similar to the rod and reel, or buoys like giant fishing-pole bobbers. The difference is like harvesting corn with a combine or picking it by hand.
To prevent the demise of loggerhears, regulators are considering reducing the number of longline permits from about 100 to 35 or fewer. They could also allow longlines in shallow waters only in the dry season when turtles are less likely to be around. The restrictions are still developing, with approvals targeted for August.
If longliners, who supply the Bells with 80 percent of their grouper, cannot figure out how to make a living with the new restrictions, they will have to seek jobs on land. But without grouper, the fish company would likely close, severing the thread that makes Cortez one of the state’s last commercial fishing villages.
Livelihoods vs. turtles’ lives

Cortez fishermen have overcome other hardships: devastating red tides that kill fish, development pressure in spawning grounds, the ban on gill nets in 1995 that nearly wiped out mullet fishing. Whether the village can withstand another blow is uncertain.
"The original families that settled here in the 1880s are still here," said Roger Allen, director of the Florida Maritime Museum, dedicated to Cortez history. "If these people can’t maintain their homes here, we lose what is truly unique to Florida. You don’t recover from that kind of loss as a culture."
But an ecosystem also never recovers from the loss of a species.
"You can’t allow an endangered species to disappear and become extinct for money. I know it’s a job, but there has to be a balance here somewhere," said Suzi Fox, a Cortez resident and scientist who also heads a group of about 100 volunteers who count sea turtle nests on Anna Maria Island.
Since she started volunteering with the turtle watch 19 years ago, she has seen nesting plummet from highs of 400 a year. Last year, she rejoiced to see 147.
In the past decade, state biologists have documented a 41 percent drop in loggerhead nests on Florida beaches. Even if human threats disappeared from the turtles’ habitat, they may still be headed toward extinction, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in June.
The longline industry is considered an obstacle to the turtles’ continued survival, but there are many others, including coastal development, pollution and other fishing industries.
The fisheries service allows an estimated 4,700 loggerhead sea turtles to be killed each year by all fishing industries nationwide, according to a permit analysis by the environmental group Oceana.
Longline fleets were killing an estimated 380 sea turtles a year in the Gulf, snagging them at a pace nine times higher than regulators assumed, according to recent federal observations.
In Cortez, Fox feels wedged between the potential loss of the culture she loves and an animal essential for balance in nature. The volunteers make Fox optimistic about the turtles.
"More than anything I feel such sadness for these people that are losing their livelihoods. I think the sea turtles are going to be OK," she said.
The sense of injustice is sharp in Cortez, where fishermen have long fought hard to preserve their identity against the state’s lax development rules. During the building boom, fishermen pooled their money to buy bayfront spawning grounds, saving mangroves and wetlands from bulldozers and condominiums.
Meanwhile, the state spends about $30 million a year on beach renourishment, which also kills sea turtles, and allows coastal development on beaches where sea turtles nest.
Fishermen under pressure

Like soldiers considering surrender, they shake their heads almost in resignation, sensing regulators unfairly target small operators.
"I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to almost give up," said Karen Bell, office manager for the fish company. "It’s just so disheartening that this country doesn’t value what we do. Fishermen and farmers is what built this country."
The 1995 gill net ban appeared to spell doom for Cortez because scores of fishermen made their living using the nets to catch mullet. The ban — meant to reduce bycatch of other, less prevalent fish — put most of them out of business, and four of the community’s six fish markets closed.
A.P. Bell remained because it diversified, Karen Bell said. The fishermen learned how to longline or crab. Some went into fishing bait shrimp; others slogged it out catching mullet with less efficient gear.
Those who could not find a new niche on the water found other jobs on land or spiraled into depression.
Grant Lutz, a 25-year-old Cortez longliner, said he doesn’t have enough fingers to count the number of people he knows who got depressed and overdosed on drugs after the net ban.
Lutz considers his father an indirect casualty of the ban, too. He died at sea in 2000, trying his hand at crabbing while also working overtime hours at the Tropicana plant nearby.
When his father died, Lutz dropped out of high school, two credits away from graduating, to make money on the water.
"I was actually one of the top students in my class, but I had obligations. Family first," Lutz said, standing on the docks Wednesday. He was preparing for to set out on Thursday for two weeks of deckhand work for Captain Mike Davis aboard the Miss Gail.
The boat’s longline spool gleamed barren of cable on the deck of the boat, a 44-foot Thompson Trawler. Instead, clusters of yellow and orange buoys draped her railings. At sea, the buoys bear weighted lines that hold a maximum of 10 hooks each. About 70 hooks total can be set at a time, compared to 1,400 with the longline.
Lutz said he normally makes $1,200 to $1,400 a trip longlining.
"You can pretty much cut that in half," Lutz said.
Karen Bell called Lutz hopeful.
Since May, none of the former longline boats have returned to the docks with enough fish to turn a profit.
Bell has lent them money for bait, ice and food, even helped some cover basic expenses such as rent and car insurance. She is counting on them to break a learning curve with the new gear and start bringing in money again.
"We’re just using reserves that we have but we can’t go on financing a bunch of boats that are not making money," she said. "When they come in, they have their expenses exceed the value of their catch."
Glen Brooks, who owns seven boats that run out of A.P. Bell, said he is almost ready to quit. He has two children in college and another who just graduated high school.
"This is the last go-round. We can’t do it another month," he said.

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Published in: on July 13, 2009 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  

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