Off Florida, a fight over a kettle of fish

Sport fishermen decry a US decision to bar them from grouper grounds in Gulf this winter

Red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico has become one of the nation's most sought-after fish, coveted both by commercial fishermen and rod-and-reelers in Bermuda shorts.

But in an effort to safeguard the grouper, fishery management officials have driven a wedge between the two. In July they proposed closing the Gulf grouper grounds to sport fishermen this winter - while leaving the waters open for commercial operators.

Predictably, epithets are flying dockside, and some anglers are gearing up to protest at upcoming fishery meetings. More important, the dispute hauls to the surface a growing struggle between local "recreation economies" and national fish markets in a high-stakes game over protecting America's fish.

It's only recently that fishery managers have become concerned about recreational fishermen, says Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Traditionally, commercial overfishing is what causes fish stocks to tumble - such as the collapse in the 1990s of cod in the Gulf of Maine. But as professional fishermen look for new species and fishing grounds to maintain their livelihoods, they are increasingly clashing with sport fishermen. The decision by federal managers to shut down recreational grouper fishing not only pits angler against angler, but also federal interests against state ones.

As a sign of the turmoil, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service, in a rare decision, has refused to enforce the closure, in part to safeguard a recreational fishery that brings an annual $26 million to Florida's docks. Fishermen have piled on, saying they'll boycott catch surveys in protest.

"Things are getting pretty heated down here right now," says Randy Wilson, a Tampa Bay charter captain.

Florida's Gulf Coast grouper has a big impact on the state economy. The commercial fleet there supplies 92 percent of native grouper to the national market. Sold whole at the docks for $3.50 a pound, a wide-grained fillet sells for $16.99 at a fish counter in Raleigh, N.C.

Meanwhile, some amateur anglers travel to the Gulf Coast to spend $800 a day for a group to fish for the feisty, google-eyed giants. In recent years, many of Mr. Wilson's customers have been North Carolina-based Marines on leave.

Complicating the debate is the different way the two camps perceive value. Professionals look into their creel and see dollar signs; recreational fishermen care less about volume and more about the experience.

"It's difficult to compare value when the nature of recreational fishing is very different from the nature of a commercial trip," says Mr. Smith.

Anglers take only a small piece of the total fish pie, Wilson says. In the Gulf, recreational fishermen haul in about 18 percent of the allowable catch of 5.3 million pounds; commercial captains take the rest, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Every charter captain on this coast, you could take what we catch in a week and we'd be short of what one real good grouper boat is going to bring in," says Wilson.

Some sport fishermen suggest the answer is to treat wild native fish not like a commodity of an endless ocean, but like carefully managed wild game - a prize only for the hunter. Their logic: Just as Americans may have to go hunting in Nebraska to get pheasant for a feast, so should they have to travel to Florida to chase grouper for the table.

"The public trust doctrine dates back to Roman law, and, under that, marine resources belong to all the people, and the people who should have access to it first are the common people," argues George Geiger of Sebastian, Fla., a sport fisherman and member of the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission.

Others favor a new system of stock management that looks more toward the future than what was caught last year - perhaps transferrable quotas that could be auctioned off to different constituencies.

"Seasonal limits are terribly inefficient," says Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard.

In 2004 alone recreational fishermen more than doubled their allotted catch of 1.5 million pounds of red grouper over 2003. That impact on the stocks is enough to warrant a temporary closure, federal managers say.

"The notion that this closure is not equitable is simply inaccurate," says Roy Crabtree, the National Marine Fisheries Service southeast regional manager.

Sport fisherman Mac Currin of Raleigh acknowledges the growing tension between the two fleets - and the looming challenge for fish-stock managers. The grouper story, he says, mirrors what happened off the New Jersey shore several years ago when recreational fishermen caught too much winter flounder, or fluke - some 5 million pounds too much.

"The commercial guys were saying, 'Look, we're limited to strict quotas and at the end of the year the recreational guys have caught more pounds than they should have.' To commercial guys, that's just fish down the tube," says Mr. Currin.

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