Gil Muratori teaches a unique class in fish etiquette

He's part of a National Park Service experiment in south Florida to send first-time fishing violators to a school instead of fining them.

Gil Muratori fits the part of a fishing boat captain. He is perpetually tanned, smiles out of a face weathered from being at sea four days a week, and likes to repeat the mantra: "If you're too busy to go fishing, you're too busy." He also has the stories to confirm that he has spent the past 28 years plying the waters off south Florida rather than sitting in some corporate cubicle. Like the time a shark latched onto his arm, which required 35 stitches. Or the times he has been pricked by poisonous catfish. And the innumerable times his hands have been on the wrong side of a balky fishhook.

Now Mr. Muratori is using his nautical experiences – both good and bad – to teach what may be the nation's only federally sanctioned class in proper fishing etiquette. In an unusual experiment, the National Park Service hired Muratori recently to lecture people who break the rules when fishing in Florida's Biscayne Bay. The idea is to teach first-time violators about the catch limits on striped mullet or the appropriate season for snook and stone crab, rather than slap them with fines.

In that sense, the new "fisheries education course" here is similar to the driving-school classes in California and other states that allow scofflaws to avoid citations and marks on their record by sitting for a few hours in a classroom.

"You're a lot smarter if you learn from someone else's mistakes rather than making your own just once," says Muratori.

By all accounts, Muratori is well suited for the job. When he came to Miami from Chicago on vacation in 1980, he never went back – in part because of a newfound passion for the sea.

Almost every day since, the man who takes constant ribbing for his "fishy" first name has been plying the waters off south Florida in his skiff or taking others out to fish. The gregarious septuagenarian has long served as president of the South Dade Anglers club and frequently speaks at schools to "explain" his sport. His intimate knowledge of local fishing grounds, and almost every species that lurks beneath, have proved invaluable in tutoring the oceanic offenders.

"Mr. Muratori has a good presentation," says Jorge Martinez, a fisherman from Homestead, Fla., who has taken his class. "I learned a lot."

• • •

Certainly plenty of ignorance exists on the high seas. Richard Curry, ocean reef and science program manager for Biscayne National Park, says he started the first-of-its-kind fishing school because he noticed that many of the violations boaters were committing were simply the result of not knowing the rules on minimum fish sizes and bag limits. Nor did some skippers even recognize the kinds of fish they were catching.

His solution: enforcement through education. "Why not give them the opportunity to learn regulations rather than slamming them with a fine?" Mr. Curry thought. "It works for drivers, after all."

It probably worked for Mr. Martinez, too. When he was cited for hauling in four undersized fish on his brother's 21-foot boat, he attended Muratori's class and learned the minimum allowable size for lane snapper (8 inches versus the 16 inches for the mutton snapper he thought he had been catching).

The class provided an evening's entertainment – and, most important, allowed him to dodge a $400 fine. "It was going to be a hundred bucks for each one," says Martinez. "I just got them confused with another fish. They looked very similar."

Martinez, who goes fishing once a month, is grateful to the ranger who issued his citation. "He called me about the course and said they would drop the charges if I came," he says. "It was kind of fun."

The problems facing the Biscayne Bay National Park, a 180,000-acre expanse at the top of the Florida Keys, are no different from those at many other marine locations around the US: overfishing, too many people on the water, and environmental degradation through pollution and overuse. Its resources, along with its fish stocks, are finite, which is one reason Curry and Muratori feel it is important to get their message across a little more subtly than taking the sledgehammer approach. Currently, the park's eight rangers are issuing an average of 15 to 20 citations a weekend.

"Obviously, if you're catching 200 fish over the size limit, then you're going to see a judge," Curry says. "But for first-time violators, the idea is to encourage them to become better fishermen and be aware of what the benefits of the regulations are to them."

For that reason, any boat users in south Florida, not just fishermen who have broken the rules, are welcome to attend the class. The school is funded by a $148,000 three-year grant from the National Park Service, which is closely monitoring its success. Organizers hope to take the show on the road at some point, holding classes for any group that wants one, and to offer them in Spanish: Many of the violations given out in Biscayne Bay go to immigrants unaware of local regulations.

• • •

On a typically humid south Florida night, Muratori comes prepared to lecture a new crop of marine offenders. He brings an assortment of props – fishhooks, rods, bait, weights. He's also armed with a few salty stories.

But, first, it's time for a slide show. About a dozen violators and other people attend the inaugural course, held in a small classroom at the University of Miami. Steve Saul, a marine biologist with the National Park Service who compiled the curriculum, gives a brief tutorial on how to identify different fish.

He flashes "dead and alive" pictures of many species to point out distinguishing characteristics – the different spots on a black versus a yellowfin grouper, for instance. He and his colleague, park ranger Vanessa McDonough, also lead the class through the labyrinthine regulations on size and bag limits.

Then it's Muratori's turn. Warming to his subject, he passes around barbed hooks - exhorting his audience to take care while handling them – and proceeds to explain why "circle" hooks are preferable to the classic 'J' shaped ones: They harm the fish less, which is crucial for catch and release. "Taking only the fish you're going to eat gives you a reason to go back out there," he says. "But the fish you throw back has got to survive."

He moves on to fish handling – a subject he's learned something about the hard way. "It was my own stupidity when the shark bit me," he says. "I was holding it, incorrectly and it got me. But you can't punish the shark for being a shark."

Muratori shows a scar on his forearm. The students wince.

Then he recounts another bad encounter – with the spikes of a catfish – before finishing with more mundane advice: Don't forget the sunscreen. "If you wait until you're on the boat to put it on," he says, "it's too late."

It's time for the test. Martinez, the fisherman, looks back over his notes to answer questions about size regulations. He ends up passing. "I won't be making those mistakes again," he says of the reason for his federal citations.

Which is just what Muratori and park rangers want to hear.

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