Fish or Cut Bait?
In typical knee-jerk fashion, the federal government has taken a sledge hammer to a problem best addressed by the precision used by a diamond cutter. In an effort to restore the population of red snapper, a total ban on fishing may be imposed in some areas off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Why? Because of “accidental catch.” Even if you’re fishing for grouper, say, you can’t control if it’s a snapper that winds up on the hook.
So, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council has proposed a ban on fishing, not just snapper fishing but fishing, in the areas outlined by these four alternatives. Some are obviously broader than others, but we’re not talking about commercial fishing. The ban would include head boats, as well as individuals who just want to go out for the day and enjoy a sport in which they have likely invested a great deal of time and money.
The reason given for all this is that older red snapper are the most fertile. They are also the tastiest, and the SAFMC has determined that they have been overfished to the point that there are only about 3% of the red snapper that were in off the south Atlantic coast in the 1950’s. That number is subject to heated debate, but the only way to assure that the stocks are replenished, they say, is to ban all fishing to prevent the “accidental catch.”
Maybe for years.
Off the coast here, fishermen could still get out to some of the closer natural and artificial reefs where fish congregate. But when you look at some of the larger proposed restricted areas, it’s obvious that the sport fishing industry down around, say Cocoa Beach could be just devastated.
So what might happen if a ban such as this were to go into effect? Well, first to go would likely be the party and head boats that take sometimes dozens of people out to fish. Bottom fishing is most of what they do, and that’s how you catch grouper and snapper. Charter boat captains, too, would find themselves without a place to go for some of the most popular fish in the area. Some would survive fishing the river and ICW, and nearshore fishing in our area of Florida might still be able to support a few, but many would just throw up their hands and give up. And it would serve to make criminals out of people who just wanted to enjoy a day fishing who might wander into the restricted area. They don’t draw those shaded areas on the ocean. For many, it would be just easier to not go.
But if people stop fishing, they’re not buying bait, and gas for the boat, and ice and sodas and snacks to take with them. Eventually, they’re buying fewer boats, which would probably be difficult right now but certainly not impossible. And if you’re not going to fish, there’s no need to pony up $35-$40 for a fishing license, though some might because you now need one to stand on the beach and fish. One of the state’s attempts to generate revenue where there is precious little, but that’s another column.
And, as is usually the case in issues such as this, the estimates of how many breeding snapper are actually out in the ocean vary wildly. Those who are pushing the ban say the populations are a tiny fraction of what they once were, but fishermen simply point to their catch, which has been plentiful, and say “what shortage?” One has reams and reams and reams of paper covered with charts and graphs and formulae to back up what is probably at best a guess, the others have anecdotal evidence based on what they see every day. Each is dismissive of the other. The truth, as they say, is out there, but it’s a big ocean, and it is likely somewhere between the two extremes.
Fishing offshore is just part of the Florida lifestyle for many who live here, including me. Having the ability to run 10 miles (or less) offshore and enjoy world-class fishing is part of what makes our area unique. I’m not opposed per se to protecting the red snapper species so that generations to come can continue to enjoy the lifestyle, as well as the simple pleasure of a snapper fillet, lightly floured and seasoned and pan fried in vegetable oil with a little butter for browning and flavor. But there has to be a better solution than a complete fishing ban on wide swaths of the Atlantic Ocean.
The ban may save the fish, which may or may not actually need to be saved, but at what cost?