Buyout Trickery Afoot

He’s 77 now and still fishing commercially. Herman Conley started at age 7, trapping minnows and crawfish to sell to city folks.

Over those seven decades (!), he has seen it all.

His days as a gill netter go back to when men rowed their boats and put out nets 100 yards long. These were replaced by powerful, fast boats paying out thousands of yards of entanglement nets.

“I was active in this fishery but had already seen the huge decline in the fishery,” says Conley, “and when it was placed on the ballot I personally visited several voters in my district and explained as best I could what was happening and urged them to vote for the ban.”

Conley was among many veteran netters who actually favored the gill net ban, we’ve learned from many sources, although most of them felt safer being quiet about it.

The constitutional amendment prohibiting gill nets and limiting seine gear was adopted not because of an enlightened government, we should remember, but through a voter initiative backed by 429,428 certified signatures. The ban took effect July 1, 1995, and since then has revolutionized inshore fish abundance.

To compensate netters, the state agreed to buy back monofilament gill nets. Ironically, the ones bought back were the same big, overfishing nets that had made a mockery of the oldtimers’ modest gear.

Now, Conley and many others see the same sort of connivance developing in the longline grouper fishery. Longlines, you should know by now, are lines extending up to 20 miles or so, dangling many thousands of hooks. They take millions of pounds of grouper along with substantial bykills of other fish and animals.

Most longlines, however, are much smaller. But a scheme afoot, under the guise of conservation, is to buy out not the huge lines but the smaller gear, and thus consolidate the take in fewer hands, trending toward less competition, but the same total catch.

The buyout trickery is said to be supported by the government and by at least one U.S. senator.

From our viewpoint, the worst aspect of such a buyout is that it would carve in stone the very existence of longlines, when the right thing to do is ban them altogether.

The indiscriminate gear simply takes too many fish, too fast.

That’s why longlines were banned in all state waters long ago and later in Atlantic and many Gulf waters. And that’s why a longline ban in prime Gulf grouper areas was planned several years ago, but quietly taken off schedule by managers influenced by the commercial heavyweights.

A commercial fishery for grouper can be well served through hook-and-line “vertical” gear, though even this must be regulated carefully to avoid overfishing and to provide the overall public with the best use of the fish.

Certainly, a thriving non-commercial usage in which every citizen has identical limits should be met first, with any “fishable surplus” going to the market.

Instead, we have absurdly low limits and closures for John Doe and his family while industrial-style takers hog this public resource.

Those who may watch the next seven decades should not have to endure what Herman Conley has seen.

FS