May 16, 2011
It has invited overcapitalization to the point where market fishermen have financed bigger boats and a type of gear that's now the global pariah of fisheries: the longline.
As sportfisherman quietly forfeit red grouper bag limits, bottom lonline boats, like this one loading up on bait in Madeira Beach, are poised to gain a greater proportion of the fishery.
The system that manages grouper landings in the Gulf of Mexico favors commercial industry over private citizens. It has invited overcapitalization to the point where market fishermen have financed bigger boats and a type of gear that's now the global pariah of fisheries: the longline. Stealthy, deadly, undiscerning.
Meanwhile, recreational anglers are on the verge of being regulated out of the fishery.
When you scan the 367-page federal plan for red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, you get the feeling that maybe things are all right. Through acronyms and alternatives and bio-oceano-socioeconomic reports, biologists and statisticians tell us they are confident 10 years of deprivation will atone for untold decades of overfishing. A diet plan for fisheries, basically. After that, things will be hunky dory.
There's the temptation to sit back and relax. After all, the plan comes from a $700 million federal juggernaut: the National Fisheries Management Service (NMFS). Before 1976, when Congress passed the landmark Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act (at the time absent Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens) the U.S. did very little to manage saltwater fisheries. Yet there were boats fishing red grouper well before that time, back as far as the 1850s, when Cuban handliners sailed into the area. In the mid 1950s, records show fishers were taking 16 million pounds of red grouper per year—more than double current levels.
Try as we may, it's probable that no one will ever get a fix on what a healthy grouper stock looks like. The feds offer sustainable catch rates, year-to-year, and biological indices such as gonad weight and the ratio of males to females in the fishery.
One old-time grouper fisherman I spoke with, Walt Worthington, retired in Carrabelle, actually left commercial grouper fishing to work Gulf oil fields in 1978. At the time, he noticed production on the longline boats was falling off, as was the average size of the fish.
Of the remaining grouper in the Gulf, federal allocation among “user groups” is clumsy. Using snapshot data from 1999 to 2001, NMFS divied up 81 percent of the red grouper to commercial fishers, and 19 percent to recreational fishers.
The Magnuson Act—the voice of Congress—stipulates that allocations must be “fair and equitable to all fishermen...and carried out in such a manner that no particular individual, corporation or other entity acquires an excessive share of such privileges.”
A bigger picture, from 1990 to 2000, showed a ratio of 75 percent commercial to 25 percent recreational.
Somewhere between 1990—when NMFS approved the first-ever Gulf Reef Fish Management Plan—and today, the feds, one, whittled away at historical recreational participation in the fishery; and two, locked in the assumption that the current scheme is best from an economic standpoint.
Where'd those fish go? An “entity”—namely the commercial grouper fleet—has unquestionably acquired an excess share of privileges.
Coastal Conservation Association Florida is likely to commission an independent review of the economics of recreational grouper fishing. A similar study, completed last year, revealed startling benefits of recreational striped bass fishing along the northeastern U.S. coast—to the tune of $6.63 billion, versus $250 million for commercial catches, when transactions down the line are considered.
That NMFS has not fully accounted for the value of sportfishing is lamentable; we're left with an allocation which, as of November 2005, had wrenched the recreational red grouper bag to one fish, with season closures looming. That's down from five fish, year-round, as recently as two years ago.
Fortunately, a court has now ruled that NMFS' interim rule closing all-grouper recreational takes for November and December is “arbitrary and capricious” and could apply only to red grouper rather than include gags, which are one of the top targets for sportsmen in these two months.
That still leaves unsettled what will be the regulations in a permanent rule to be hammered out by federal authorities in months ahead.
And then there's the gear.
The bottom longline is used by 138 U.S.-flagged vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, most based out of west central Florida.
It is far and away the most devastating tool of the commercial fleet, accounting for 3.5 million pounds of red grouper in 2003. That's more than half of the grouper allocation (6.56 million pounds) for the entire commercial and recreational fleet combined. (Remember the 2004 allocation for the entire recreational fleet—countless hundreds of boats—was 1.25 million pounds.) Fish traps—set to be prohibited in 2007, for reasons of bycatch and loss—and vertical, hook-and-line gear are also used in the commercial fishery.
In 2002, responding to an apparent unfolding crisis in red grouper, the Gulf Council stood poised to prohibit longlines inside 50 fathoms—essentially removing the gear from the fishery.
Such a move, applauded by this magazine and many conservation groups, had precedent: In 1990, the Council prohibited longlines in less than 20 fathoms along the Gulf Coast of Florida to Cape San Blas, and shallower than 50 fathoms west of that point, “so as not to allow the gear to become established in the red snapper fishery,” said Steve Atran of the Council.
Before that time, the Florida Legislature had banned bottom longlines in state waters with little opposition. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council prohibited the gear in federal waters of the South Atlantic.
Only on a swath of the west Florida continental shelf—red grouper country—were bottom longlines still fishing, and then only because, as Atran explained, reds weren't thought to be in any trouble. Until the 1999 stock assessment. If the subsequent stock assessment hadn't shown a somewhat better picture of red grouper stocks, in 2003 bottom longlines would've basically gone the way of drift gill nets. (These assessments bounce around more than your 401k.)
The Council s
witched gears after the 2002 stock assessment, and various procedural delays prompted NMFS to intervene with the current 10-year rebuilding plan, which—surprise, surprise—is friendly to bottom longlines.
The bottom longline system resembles the pelagic longline—which in many areas has been rightfully criticized for generating as much or more waste as it does saleable product. Surface longlines, with floating buoys and thousands of hooks, are prohibited in the Straits of Florida, DeSoto Canyon in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Coast from California through Washington. Longline closures in Florida nearly cut in half the quantity of protected marlin and undersize swordfish that had been killed as bycatch.
Bottom longline descriptions for reference are sketchy, but I've talked to some fishermen who use them. Lines run anywhere from 1 to 40 miles. They can be broken into separate segments for targeting fish-rich bottom, usually identfied as “hard bottom,” versus sand or mud. One crew member described using between 500 and 1,000 hooks per 3-mile set. Steel cable with attachment points for shorter leaders spins off a hydraulic drum, as the boat moves forward. The weight of the cable keeps the leaders, hooks and baits on the bottom. The lines fish, or “soak,” anywhere from 1 to 5 hours per set. Boats may range from 40 feet to 80 feet, with crews of three to seven. A longline boat might bring in 10,000 pounds of grouper on a multi-day trip, perhaps 100,000 pounds a year. “Vertical line” boats—basically a man fishing a powered reel, one drop at a time—might land 500 to 4,000 pounds per trip.
Because longline baits sit untended on the bottom, while targeted groupers pile up to be hauled in, species not wanted or not legal for market invariably end up getting hooked. The feds assume a 33 percent bycatch mortality rate, meaning about a third of what's caught is dead (for reference, 10 percent release mortality for recreational fishing). In deeper water, the mortality may be far greater; one observer, diving a spring in 180 feet, saw “literally hundreds of dead and dying shorts (mostly red grouper) floating” after the longline boat hauled in.
A 2001 report from NMFS, surveying logbook data from longline vessels, identifed 89 species of finfish and shark bycatch. Unfortunately, NMFS hasn't pinpointed to what degree bottom longline bycatch impacts various species. By comparison, the agency has claimed to know exactly what level of reduction in red snapper bycatch in shrimp trawls would support an increase in the total allowable catch for directed snapper fisheries.
The obvious question—thus far answered with echoing silence—is, in what shape would Gulf red grouper be in, were longline bycatch fully addressed? It's known that huge numbers of undersize, immature red grouper are tossed back when the lines are retrieved. A 1994 survey of 11 longline trips revealed an average of 277 red grouper landed per trip; of those, roughly half were discarded. The study noted that 12 percent of the discards, some 17 per trip, were dead, a figure widely thought to be a gross underestimate.
The only ongoing study we're aware of, funded by a grant through Mote Marine of Sarasota, hired as observer a former longliner with a violation (77 undersize grouper) on his record, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times. Try again.
What the constant laying and hauling of cable does to seafloor habitat isn't well-documented, but anecdotal reports from divers paint a bleak picture.
“I've seen it break off corals,” said Dennis O'Hern, executive director of Fishing Rights Alliance (FRA). “Imagine laying line around a roomful of chairs; pull it and when it gets tight it pulls all the chairs together. The longline doesn't lay there and magically go vertical, it drags along the bottom.”
The Florida Middle Ground and Flower Garden Bank off Texas are designated Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, and here longlines are prohibited, to protect unique coral habitats.
Plans to reduce or eliminate the longline fleet altogether are taking shape, the scuttled 2002 effort notwithstanding.
One scheme, forged by certain segments of the industry, has sought Congressional appropriation of up to $35 million to buy longline boats and gear, to be repaid with a “tax” on grouper landings by the remaining vessels.
Critics say it would basically buy out small operators and consolidate the same landings into the hands of a few large vessels.
“There's no conservation aspect to the thing,” said Ted Forsgren. “All it does is try to bail out those boats and companies that have built too much effort in the fishery; the ones that remain take a bigger piece of the pie. There's also a longline endorsement, part of the 30-year loan, so we'd be stuck with the fishery.”
Karen Bell owns Star Fish restaurant in Cortez, and her father and brother, of A.P. Bell, buy and ship fish from both longline and vertical line boats. “We have three bandit boats, one shrimp boat, one purse seiner and seven longline boats at our dock here,” she said.
Bell is also one of 17 voting members (three from Florida) on the Gulf Council. She is protective of her livelihood, but pragmatic in her view of Gulf fisheries.
“If some of them want out, let them get out,” said Bell, of efforts to scale back the longline fleet. “But if you don't like longlines, don't push them out to 50 fathoms where there are not red grouper; either do a gear or boat buyback, but do something.”
The commercial sector has been feeling its own pain in recent years, as seasons have closed as early as October, due to the fleet reaching the commercial quota. To address that, the Gulf Council recently voted for a 6,000-pound trip limit, pending NMFS approval. In past years trip limits were implemented only in mid-season, to brake effort and extend the fishing year.