Fishermen to seek federal aid

By Cindy Lane | sun staff writer 

CORTEZ – Commercial fishermen plan to travel to Washington D.C. this month to ask lawmakers to keep their businesses afloat, in the wake of a gear ban and looming regulations intended to save sea turtles.

They want regulators to lift the temporary ban on longline grouper fishing gear that became effective in May, and compensate those whose gear and vessels would be excluded from the fishery under new permanent longline rules, said Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishermen’s Association.

The ban, which has put Gulf of Mexico longline fishermen out of work for more than three months, is scheduled to last through October, when it could be extended another six months. That would leave local restaurants and stores without locally-caught grouper until next spring, and impact bait, ice and fuel suppliers and gear and tackle dealers, he said.

“We’ve got to get this fishery reopened by Oct. 1 at the latest,” said Spaeth, a Madeira Beach seafood dealer. “The ripple effect is starting to happen to people who take our fish to other areas. Days are critical right now. There’s no production coming in. All the infrastructure is going to collapse. If something doesn’t happen in the next month, I’m not sure my company’s going to make it.”

A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez also is in danger of going under, according to manager Karen Bell, who testified at a Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council hearing last month that only two of the company’s six grouper boats would qualify to fish under new council rules. Cortez fishermen Glen Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association, would lose three of his six grouper boats under the new rules, he told the council.

The council voted for regulations that would restrict grouper fishing to Gulf waters at least 210 feet deep from June to August, restrict the number of baited hooks on a longline to no more than 750, and make longline permits available only to boats with minimum average annual catches of 40,000 pounds.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to approve the rules, designed to minimize accidental interactions with threatened loggerhead sea turtles, which sometimes drown after being hooked on longlines. Fishermen dispute statistics on the number of turtle deaths caused by longlines.


More than 60 commercial vessels that have been catching grouper on longlines in Gulf waters will not qualify to fish under the new rules, according to the Southern Offshore Fishermen’s Association and the Gulf Fishermen’s Association.

For them, the industry groups plan to ask lawmakers to develop a gear conversion program that will compensate them for their longline gear so that they can purchase vertical gear.

Vertical gear has fewer hooks and catches about a third of the grouper caught on a longline, Spaeth said. Longlines can trail hundreds of hooks on the sea floor for five to 10 miles for at least an hour before being reeled in.

“Vertical is a whole different fishery,” he said. “It’s precision fishing with a rod and reel. You’ve got to get right over the fish.”

Some fishermen are skeptical about converting their gear, saying that the longline fishermen who will qualify under the new rules will leave little grouper left for vertical fishermen.

“We can vertical fish, but that isn’t much when the longliners are out there catching everything,” said John Yates, who fishes out of Cortez.

The program should cover converting vessels too, Spaeth said, adding that the smaller vertical fishing catch makes small vessels more cost effective than large longline boats.

In addition to new gear and vessels, longliners will need training and time to learn the ropes, he said.

“Our goal is to not lose any fishermen through displacement or bankruptcy,” he said.

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Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 8:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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