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Angry Protests Attack Red Grouper Proposal

False alarm.

That's how many Floridians describe a federal proposal to suddenly slash red grouper bag limits and impose a closed season on all groupers.



NMFS allots roughtly 80 percent of the Fulf red grouper catch to commercial fishermen--not counting fish that boats such as MGB bring back to the dock illegally.

The emergency plan is based on data purporting to show that recreational catches of red grouper soared by 130 percent in 2004 despite four hurricanes that kept thousands of anglers at home.


Now, in an unprecedented action, nine U.S. congressmen from Florida sent a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service stating that the dramatic increase data is “suspect.” The federal lawmak-ers said a closure would cause an “undue hardship.”


And on a state-level, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed unanimously to oppose a closed season, a prohibition that would apply to all groupers and cause many million dollars of economic losses as well as an upheaval among anglers.


But perhaps the strongest ammuni-tion against the NMFS proposal comes from the government's own data for the first four months of 2005. The new year's estimated recreational catch is down more than 50 percent from the same months in 2004's spike that triggered the suggested changes for non-commercial users.


“So there was no emergency in the first place, and there certainly isn't one now,” said one sportfishing advocate. “How could they possibly chop into the recreational catch, anyway, when the commercial longlines and other market fishers gobble up 80 percent of the catch?”


Some anglers grumbled that the government's proposal simply represented a desire by NMFS and commercial interests to allocate an even higher share of the red grouper catch to industrial interests and gradually remove recreational users from the fishery.


Federal public hearings were scheduled for June 28 in Naples and June 29 in Madeira Beach near St. Petersburg and on July 14 before the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. See for details and continuing developments.


Florida anglers are urged to contact leaders on all levels to protest the NMFS proposal.


They also should applaud congressmen who signed the letter of protest: Adam Putnam, Ander Crenshaw, Jeff Miller, Kendrick Meek, Connie Mack, Ginny Brown-Waite, Michael Bilirakis, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Tom Feeney.


While federal fisheries managers ponder ways to rebuild red grouper stocks, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement officers are staying busy keeping up with poachers. One case, which involved the commercial fishing vessel MGB, is a classic example of market fishers exploiting Florida's natural resources for private gain.


While inspecting the vessel near St. Petersburg, officers discovered 262 undersize red grouper, several short gag grouper, 63 shark fins minus the required carcasses, 13 cobia (seven over the boat's limit) and undersize amberjack. They also cited the boat for possession of red snapper without the required federal permits and no Restricted Species Endorsement. Besides the federal infractions, for which charges were filed in federal court, MGB apparently violated state licensing laws.


Anglers: Think Twice Before Giving Away Fishing Rights


The good thing about being a sportfisherman is, one fish can make your day.


New data fails to support NMFS.

The bad thing is, the government knows you feel this way, and uses the knowledge to run right over you when it comes to management decisions.


Most of us will accept a one-fish bag limit for a particular species, if we know it is necessary for the future of that fish. When the state of Florida lowered the recreational snook limit to one on the Gulf Coast a few years back, it did so largely in response to public acceptance that such a change was needed.


One bonefish? Anyone who's chased that forked-tail ghost with a fly rod can attest that a single, 8-pound Biscayne Bay or Florida Keys fish is material enough for months of good fishing stories. And that's a fish we don't even keep. Most guys pride themselves on handling a bonefish as little as possible, ensuring a safe release.


A lot of this behavior is performed on a purely personal level, not in reaction to limits.


All this is good and well, and sportsmen deserve a collective pat on the back for thoughtful acts like this.


Unfortunately, what you may get is a kick in the teeth instead.


Anglers: Think Twice Before Giving Away Fishing Rights.

The federal government has been poised to cut the recreational red grouper limit on the Gulf Coast from two to one per person, at the same time continuing to allow a few hundred privileged commercial fishers to haul in fish by the ton.


We've seen in recent years what a one-fish recreational limit on greater amberjack has done: Pretty much nothing. Commercial boats—some masquerading as charterboats—continue to whale away at the stocks. Same thing is bound to happen to red grouper.


Fishery manager types talk proudly of 10-year plans to bring a fish population up to a level at which it may produce sustainable yields for fish markets. But what if the public wants a population that produces impressive yields? Big, strong fish that are fun to catch, expanding populations, fish returning to old shallow-water reefs long devoid of life.


Some of the same dark forces have been poking around our swordfish nurseries in an attempt to scoop up an international “quota” that the U.S. supposedly must catch or else give away to other nations. Recreational fishers didn't complain when the government limited them to one sword per person, no more than 3 per boat a few years ago. Shoot, that seemed like a lot of fish. But now with stocks apparently showing signs of recovery, longliners desperately want a renewed shot at the fish. No one to our knowledge has yet broached the question of, why not alloc

ate that quota to the recreational sector? Would it be unclassy to ask that?


Similar drill with yellowfin tuna: 3 per person, while commercial boats whack 'em senseless in the Gulf of Mexico and along the upper U.S. Atlantic coast.


Spiny lobsters? Staring down the barrel of a fishery in decline, there are market-fishing advocates who would like nothing better than to eliminate the traditional sportsman's mini season held each summer.


You should react to insults like this with outrage every bit as passionate as your love for your favorite fish. You should be mad as hornets.


Fishery managers talk proudly of 10-year plans.

It is not your place to quietly rationalize one-fish days in order to prop up an industry that has left fishery after fishery in ruins.


Probably the worst offense is, at a time when fishery managers should be trending away from allocating privileges to small segments of society, they're steaming in the opposite direction: giving away individual fishing quotas and limited-entry permits. Government is granting a select few individuals the “right” to catch and sell fish on a permanent basis, even going so far as to allow permit-holders to sell the permits.


It's the craziest scam we've ever heard of: The government hands out money to commercial fishermen (which is what those permits represent), while at the same time cutting the fishing rights of citizens.


Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise, given that the commercial entities influence a lot of the decisions at the federal level, with lobbying power that stretches right up to Capitol Hill.


Florida's net ban galvanized the public like never before in this state, but that was a fairly straightforward, singular issue. The stuff that's coming down the pike this year is far less transparent, much more insidious, but every bit as important.


You should be proud when you release that one great fish, or bring one home for the table. But at the same time, when the system that makes the rules is hurtling headlong into the privatization and plunder of a public resource, you should shout about it to anyone who will listen: senators, representatives, state and federal fishery council members.


If you're a man or woman of few words, and only say one thing, make it this:


If it's a one-fish limit, it should be a one-fish limit for everybody.



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