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Grouper fishing hitting the skids

CORTEZ — It might not be long before fishing boats at AP Bell Fish Co. are grounded.

Job security is also in jeopardy for the Cortez company’s 17 employees.

Karen Bell, office manager for AP Bell Fish Co., said the business is re-evaluating its operations due to fishing restrictions placed on commercial grouper in May. Others in the fishing industry say the new regulations are creating havoc that will result in job losses and higher fish prices.

In order to protect sea turtles, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration temporarily banned the use of long fishing lines from May 18 to Oct. 18.

It’s a measure the fishing industry and conservationists are divided over as it pits a protection of livelihood against the protection of a threatened species. Conservationists say the emergency action was crucial to protect sea turtles, a threatened species, from being snagged in long fishing lines.

“While we figure out what to do about it in the long term, we needed to prohibit the use for a short period of time to make sure the damaging actions to sea turtles is stopped,” Julie Morris, council member of the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council.

Those in the seafood industry, however, say the ruling is extreme and is hurting business.

“We’re close to tying all the boats up. None of the boats have made any money since this (restriction) has happened,” Bell said. “We’re going further and further into debt.”

Bell said fishermen are bringing in about 600-2,500 pounds a vessel, down from the average 4,000-6,000 pounds they took in with long lines.

“At this rate, the employees won’t have any work,” Bell said.

Glen Brooks, a commercial fishermen based in Cortez, said the grouper they’re harvesting with required vertical lines instead of long lines isn’t covering the $2,000-$2,500 expense of sending commercial fishing vessels each trip in the Gulf.

“We’re not sure how much longer we can keep going,” said Brooks, president of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association. “We’re not catching enough to cover the expenses.”

The long line fishing ban went into effect after a study estimated 861 sea turtles were captured on long fishing lines from July 2006-December 2008.

The study conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service observed 21 cases in which sea turtles were captured and an estimated 861 turtles snagged. Of the 861, the study estimated 410 were released alive, 246 were dead or unresponsive and 205 had an unknown status.

Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said sea turtles go after the bait on long lines and can only hold their breath for less than an hour.

“They were taking far more turtles than we anticipated,” Crabtree said.

Long fishing lines used for grouper can run from 3-12 miles long, but an average long line is 5-6 miles with about 1,000 hooks, according to William Ward, who serves on the Gulf Fishermen’s Association board of directors.

Under the new regulation, boats fishing in water that’s 300 feet deep or less have to convert to vertical lines, which have two to four hooks a line.

“It’s a lot more labor intensive, a lot longer hours to try to catch even the fraction of fish you would with a long line,” said Ward, who is a former fisherman. “The impacts on the industry will be drastic as far as the economic impact on fishing production, and on wholesalers and restaurants.”

Restaurants expect grouper will be limited and more expensive.

“It’s definitely going to impact the domestic supply as they have to work that much harder to catch,” said Mike Shannon, general manager of Beach House Restaurant in Bradenton Beach.

Shannon said it may lead some restaurants to import grouper from fishermen from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.

“If things tighten up on the import side it may very well lead to higher prices,” said Shannon, who said filleted grouper could be priced at $8-$9 a plate, up from $5-$7.

Gary Truedelle, bar manager at Rotten Ralph’s, said it’s still early for the Bradenton Beach restaurant to see the impact on the menu.

“We don’t know yet until the so-called stuff hits the fan, but I’m sure it’s going to raise the prices,” Truedelle said.

However, Truedelle said he doesn’t expect higher prices to turn consumers off to grouper.

“It’s one of those situations where if you want it you’ll pay the price,” Truedelle said.

The Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council and NOAA will meet in August to revisit the regulation and discuss a permanent ruling after the temporary restriction expires Oct. 18.

Crabtree said both groups are working with fishermen and conservationists to find a middle ground on the new rule and gear allowed.

“Anytime you pass regulations that affect fishermen’s livelihood there’s going to be a certain amount of tension,” Crabtree said. “At the same time we have a legal obligation to protect sea turtles. The council is trying to balance the need between sea turtle protection and production of fisheries. That’s a tricky balance.”