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The Real Story of Chicken Little

When Ronald Reagan said the words the American people should fear the worst were, “I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help you,” he could have easily been looking ahead to fisheries management in the year 2012.

It was 7 years ago that captain George Strate of the Mayport Princess party boat got on my radio show to warn me about federal intervention in fisheries management. When he tried to convince me there were forces at work that wouldn’t be happy until all the hooks were out of the water, I thought to myself I’d better not let George back on the air for awhile, as he had clearly become “Chicken Little.”

Well, you know what? George was right. Federal fisheries management has become our worst nightmare. And yes, I’m now aware there are groups acting under the guise of environmentalism that think all the hooks should be taken out of our waters.

Let’s get one thing straight right now. Fishermen are liars. In fact we may take the art of lying to ourselves to a whole new level. Only a fisherman can spend 6 figures on a new boat, 4 figures on fuel bait and ice, go out on the ocean, and then come home with 2 red snapper, 1 grouper, and brag about providing food for his family. What he won’t do is spend his hard earned dollars, as well as his weekend if he is unable to justify it, with a few pounds of fresh fish for his family dinner.

The data the government is using to choke the life out of Florida’s fishing industry is bogus. They absolutely do not know how many fish there were before they arrived on the scene.  They have twisted the Magnuson Stevens act to fit the agenda. How else can you explain them droning on endlessly about how we have to “rebuild fish stocks to historic levels,” while the same law says they have to consider the economic impact of affected  coastal communities?

Really? Would somebody please tell me what “historic levels”  mean? The SAFMC wants to tell me how many snapper there were in the 1960s. What they don’t want to hear is that my surrogate daddy was a commercial snapper fisherman in the 1960s, and neither he, or the market he sold his fish to, ever turned any records over to any government agency about what was caught, and sold. While we’re talking about him, I find it interesting that the SAFMC is so worried that we’ve taken all the big (old) fish out of the population. To hear them tell it, the ocean was full of untouched oversized red snapper.  Then would they please explain to me why the vast majority of the snapper the old timers reported caught and sold in 1960 were 4 to 8 pounds?

Three things of which I’m certain.

1 ) We absolutely crushed the red snapper populations in the ’70s and ’80s. We had navigation equipment that enabled us to target areas holding red snapper, and once we found them we were relentless. We also had lax commercial licensing requirements, that allowed many of us to sell our fish to pay for our habit. I’m none to proud of the fact I once kept 101 snapper with a combined weight of 93 pounds. I am proud all of that changed in 1992 when the 2 fish 20-inch size limit came into being. If the SAFMC looked at the trend of the population from 1992 on, I’d be out catching my 2 snapper this morning instead of sitting here. The 2 fish 20-inch recreational limit with close monitoring and adjusting of the commercial harvest would have resulted in a healthy red snapper population forever.

2 )  If Florida could take over fisheries regulations for our federal waters we could rebuild our sportfishing industry next week, with an accompanying boom to our state’s economy. If we passed year round limits of 1 red snapper over 22 inches, 1 gag, black, or scamp grouper over 24 inches (keeping current 4-month closed spawning season as is), 5 sea bass over 13 inches, 5 beeliners over 13 inches, 5 triggerfish  over 14 inches, not only would we rebuild the fishery, the average weekend fisherman would go home with more bottom fish than any time in my memory. Once we are seeing the fruits of these efforts (and they would be substantial), we could adjust commercial limits to maintain sustainable populations.

3 ) If the SAFMC is actually listening to the fishermen, here’s how they are interpreting our reports. If we report bad fishing they rush to close the fishery. If we report rebuilding stocks, they announce a new 3-year study. Yes, Chicken Little, the sky is indeed falling.

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  • FSJim

    You did it again Richard! Nice piece.

  • CAPT DENNIS YOUNG

    CAPT RICK ALL OF YOUR COMMENTS ARE VALID AND HIT THE MARK. IN 1992 WE KNEW THE 20 INCH SIZE LIMIT WAS WHAT WE NEEDED TO REBUILD THE SNAPPER FISHERY AND IT DID! BACK THEN WE WORKED IT OUT WITH JUST 3 NMFS REPS AND 4 HEADBOAT/CHARTERBOAT CAPTS AND SOME COMMON SENSE. MY HOW THE MONARCHY HAS GROWN! I WOULD SUGGEST THAT THE 20 INCH LIMIT IS STILL THE WAY TO GO, IT WILL REDUCE THE CULLING ISSUE. AS A CHARTERBOAT CAPT I COULD OPERATE AND RECOVER MY BUSINESS WITHIN THE LIMITS YOU RECOMMENDED IN YOUR ARTICLE! ' THANKS FOR STEPPING UP AND EXPRESSING WHAT MOST OF ARE FEELING! CAPT DENNIS YOUNG

  • Rick Ryals

    Thanks Dennis

    It's guys just like you that keep me awake worrying about this stuff. For you and I fishing isn't our vocation, or our hobby, it's our way of life.

    I'm so sick of feeling badly about the future of our fishing. I can understand why so many have given up the fight. Unfortunately for my Grandkids and I, we can't give up. If I can't teach them what I've learned at sea, I have so little to pass on. Fishing is not what I do, it's who I am. ;

  • edd

    You fail to realize that once you see dwindling stocks of fish, the fishery is already in collapse. Want to help the fisheries in Florida, get the politics out of fishing regulations. Fisheries biologist spend years studying one or two species or one fishery, (sometimes their entire lives) .Some of them come from commercial fishing families or were fisherman themselves. But every time the biologists present their data and try to speak they are drowned out by politicians and commercial fishing interests. Invoking voodoo from blaming fisheries management problems on the government just passes the buck, and this idea of people wanting no hooks in the water is ludicrous.

  • John Davis

    what you don't realize is the RED Snapper crashed at the turn of the century which led to the downfall of a huge snapper fishery based out of Pensacola which was made possible by the invention of an ice making machine by a Army captain stationed in the panhandle. I am a 64 year old veteran who was a fishery major while attending a University. I also have fished since childhood. I used to cut grass as child so I could afford to go bottom fishing on a headboat based out of carrabelle. Also I commercially fished for red snapper in the 1970's. While on the subject I saw the grouper crash and the way fisherman (both commercial and recreational) kept denying it until it will take a long time for the stocks to rebound (probally decades). In the 1970's almost every fishery was showing dangerous signs of overfishing.