Floridians worry that fish traps may work too well

Scientists say the devices could deplete crucial reef fish stocks. Opponents want traps banned by 2002.

Producing more for less is a tried-and-true formula for business success. But if your business is commercial fishing on Gulf of Mexico reefs west of Florida, too much efficiency could land you in the poorhouse.

Scientists, conservationists, and even many fellow commercial fishermen are concerned that fishermen using a certain kind of gear may be getting too good at their business, depleting to dangerously low levels the very resources on which their livelihood depends.

At issue is the use of fish traps.

Large enough to allow full-size groupers and snappers to enter, the traps also let in other fish - including undersize groupers and snappers as well as other tropical reef fish important to the coral habitat. Some die in the traps. Others are hauled up from the depths, into the boat, and then thrown overboard. How many survive is unclear.

But what is clear is that fish traps are becoming the most despised fishing gear since tuna nets were blamed for drowning dolphins. The traps have already been banned in many coastal waters - and they're on their way out in the Gulf of Mexico, too. Yet pressure is mounting to outlaw the devices sooner rather than later, concerned that the traps may contribute to the kind of collapse of fish stocks that happened in New England in the 1970s.

"Fish traps are the poison pill of the reef fish community," says Alexander Stone of Reef Keeper International, a Miami-based conservation group. "The fish trap is a totally indiscriminate catcher and killer of fish. It doesn't matter how small they are."

Fish-trap opponents say some traps break loose of their floats and continue killing fish for years. And they say the act of pulling traps up from the bottom can damage fragile coral.

Fishermen counter that fish traps are an effective and legitimate type of fishing gear and that any negative impacts of traps have been exaggerated. In addition, fish traps offer lobster and stone-crab fishermen an additional source of income when the lobster and crab fisheries are closed.

Their boats are well equipped for hauling the traps up the surface, and they say that a ban on this activity would impose a significant financial hardship. For the most part, though, commercial fishermen seeking groupers and snappers use the old hook-and-line method or set long lines of baited hooks out across sections of the sea frequented by those fish.

Unlike fish traps, the hooks and bait sizes prevent most juvenile fish from being caught before they reach the legal catch size. And the so-called by-catch of other, unwanted types of fish is also minimized.

Fishermen must apply for a permit to use traps. Ninety permits are currently issued, and each permit holder may use up to 100 traps. Most trap fishermen drop 50 to 75 traps, officials say, but overall there could be as many as 9,000 legal traps in Gulf waters today.

Fish traps have been controversial for a long time. Officials in Florida banned the use of fish traps in all state waters in 1980. (Florida state waters extend out nine miles in the Gulf of Mexico and three miles into the Atlantic Ocean.) And the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council banned their use in 1991 in all federal waters (which extend beyond state waters) from North Carolina to the east side of the Florida Keys.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which regulates federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, recognizes that traps are a problem. It voted to ban all traps, but not until 2007.

Trap opponents earlier this year persuaded the council to move the ban up to 2002. But that vote was vetoed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which ruled that the council had failed to adequately document its case against traps. "It is probably one of the most controversial fishing gears that are out there," says Doug Harper, a fish-trap expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "There are claims and counterclaims that are continually made, but there isn't a whole lot of scientific data to validate those claims either way."

But the tide may be turning in favor of an earlier trap ban. Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, says that scientists have recently gathered significant evidence that fish traps have contributed to a wholesale depletion of reef fish and their habitat in Gulf waters near the Keys.

He says divers recently spent hours videotaping underwater life on a heavily fished reef near the Dry Tortugas. Not a single grouper or snapper was seen during the sessions, he says.

"When you see that everything is missing, you realize that something is wrong with this picture," Mr. Causey says.

"I think we have the right information right now [to justify a fish trap ban in 2002]," Causey says.

But Causey and others say it remains unclear when the council and the fisheries service may reconsider the issue. Kim Davis of the Center for Marine Conservation says she is hopeful new data may prompt a reexamination of an accelerated trap ban.

She says federal officials are facing a new type of pressure to act decisively to protect coral reef ecosystems.

"Increasingly, fisheries managers are having to answer not only to commercial and recreational fishermen, but to people like [SCUBA] divers - people who aren't consumptive users of the resource," Ms. Davis says. "In the Florida Keys, where the tourist industry associated with diving and snorkeling is [a significant source of local revenue], that is meaningful."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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