By BILLY ARCHER, Panama City Fl.
“Fishermen drowning in regulations” and “Managing fishery an inexact science” (Jan. 23) are probably the two understatements of the decade.
My plight is exactly the same as all the charter boat/head boat owners in the Gulf of Mexico (from Key West to Brownsville, Texas) who fish for a living. The articles articulate how fishermen and fish are being managed. It also brings home the same shared frustrations of dealing with overregulation without regard to the “human component” of the resource (i.e., shortened seasons, crushingly low bag limits, high fuel costs and the worst economy since the Great Depression).
Like the other captains in this article, the current regulatory environment has taken my 40-year-old charter fishing business from being a viable year-round profitable operation to being barely a part-time job full of uncertainty. For lack of a better word, it appears the whole system of managing fish is “broke.” Or is it?
It is hard to find anyone who disputes that the red snapper fishery seems in tip-top shape and overregulated. The question that many of us would like addressed is, can we find a way out of this derby-style fishing system that is not sustainable and move toward finding one that is? I believe the answer is yes.
Clearly, the old way of doing business is broken and unsustainable. You have a finite resource being pursued by a growing number of people who like to catch fish. Give the fishermen involved the opportunity to explore a separate fishery management plan. It’s the choice of giving charter fisherman like me the ability to decide when and how we want to fish undefined a “days at sea” program.
Here is an example using the current bag limits for reef fish and a 48-day-season that starts June 1 and ends July 19. Under the current system of management, it’s a derby mentality. The clock starts at midnight June 1 and you make as many trips as humanly possible until the clock strikes midnight July 19. End of story. This is a dangerous way to operate and it promotes overfishing. If you have a catastrophic engine failure or bad weather, or even worse get sick yourself, it doesn’t matter because it’s a derby that we are locked into.
What if we had a say in when we fished? How about a flexible alternative to the derby style of fishing? A “days at sea” program would have the same bag limits and same number of days, just the ability work with our customers and go back to planning a day of fishing during the time of their, and our, choosing.
We do not have that now, not even close. Under today’s regulations we aren’t even allowed to keep red snapper, gag grouper and amberjack on the same trip. The only thing worse than that would be a closure. Most fishermen did not realize how close we came to that. If Florida had kept state waters open to gag grouper fishing in spring 2011, there would have been zero harvest of gag grouper both commercially or recreationally in federal waters anywhere after the state gag season opened in the Gulf. We are now dangerously close to that same scenario for red snapper. I’m sure some folks are thinking that it would be impossible to have grouper, amberjack and red snapper all closed.
I’m simply stating a fact that rules are being proposed that say when a sector overfishes its allocation, it will have to “payback” by law that amount from the following year’s catch. Here’s how that would work for red snapper.
Let’s say we get 10 fish for the 2012 red snapper season, but by accident we catch and keep 14. That’s 40 percent over harvest, so in 2013 we have to reduce our catch of red snapper by 40 percent. There is no way around it. If you are fishing for fun that might not be a big deal, but if you are fishing for red snapper as a means to pay your bills, it’s obviously your worst nightmare.
There are other measures being considered as well, but the bottom line is none of them mean more fishing days for anyone, and all of them are bad for the fishing industry.
It just doesn’t make sense. A biologist might have to estimate how many fish live in the sea? They should not have to guess how many fish are in my fish box. Everyone knows from the top down that the old status quo system of counting fish is outdated, broken and never did measure up from the beginning. That’s old news.
The good news is we now have cell phones, laptops and iPads, which are just some of the tools to get real-time data to the different government agencies that can use that information to make sound scientific decisions for our futures. The better the science is, the better the decisions, which is a definitive goal for many of us in the charter fishing industry. If the government insists on counting our fish, we must insist they do it correctly. Then the fishing industry can start enjoying the benefits to these sacrifices that have been made in rebuilding these fish stocks. Yes, it can work.
I’m not alone with these thoughts. There are hundreds of fishermen, boat owners and the like from every coastal state along the Gulf that want the chance to explore other options so we can avoid closures, not have to worry about payback, and help the science by collecting better data. They want options that will continue to rebuild our fish stocks, ensuring healthy fisheries for generations to come. We need to explore every possible option that gives back to each stakeholder a sound, science-based, viable fishery management plan.
A “days at sea” program might not be the perfect solution, but at least it gives us flexibility for our businesses that we don’t have now. Personally, I would like to bring value back to our fishing business and continue to offer fishing opportunities to the public in a safe and professional manner.
Billy Archer, a third-generation fisherman, is captain of the Seminole Wind.