I recently had a chance to attend the Middle Keys public comment session of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Also in attendance were representatives from the Organized Fishermen of Florida, the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, and several local fishermen.
It was an interesting meeting, as Fishery Council representatives explained, or attempted to explain, possible upcoming changes in limits and catching practices for different species. Acronyms were as common as dock snapper at feeding time, and all the scientific jargon reminded me a bit of my old days as a marine biology major at the University of South Carolina.
There are some proposed changes that may come down from the federal fishery managers that could have a drastic impact on Keys fishermen, both sport and commercial. New management strategies like annual catch limits were discussed, and fishermen questioned the science behind these new strategies and amounts. It didn’t seem that anyone was impressed by the answers and the “best available” data being put forth.
There was also discussion about the continued use of shorts in attracting lobster to traps, as well as trap practices, species exclusions, and taking a new look at loosening the restrictions on kingfish.
Like I said, it was an interesting meeting. It was quite educational in the sense of realizing all the rules and regulations our local fishermen must obey… also in the sense that these rules and regulations are an ever-moving target.
Regarding the “best available” scientific data issue, it’s obvious that while the fishery managers are making decisions about our local habitat, our real data exists in our waters… and nobody knows more about this than our local fishermen! They’re out on the water every day, and nobody knows the habitat the way they do. In fact, our fishermen are some of our area’s most ardent environmentalists. They have a vested interest in ensuring that our local fishery survives and thrives.
Over my quarter-century here in the Keys, I’ve gotten to know many of our local fishermen, both commercial and sport. They are a hard-working group of people and a key component of our local economy. The recent downward spiral in lobster prices echoes this point rather well. If fishermen aren’t making as many trips or putting out as many traps, then the fuel docks suffer, the marine service industry suffers, the trap supply and maintenance providers suffer. So do our local restaurants and watering holes as well as the bar and wait staff that work there.
It’s an old economic adage that a dollar spent in the Keys circulates seven times. In the scenario above, it’s easy to see that saying as it comes to life in front of our eyes. People like to think of the Keys as a tourist-driven economy, and they often forget that our fishing industry is as large a part of our economy as it is. Maybe it’s not glamorous, and maybe fishermen don’t get as many magazine covers as do pretty beaches and five-star resorts. But our fishing industry built Marathon and the Keys long before our visitors began arriving.
And between low prices, higher costs, the hard work, and the ever-changing regulatory landscape, it’s a wonder that our commercial fishermen are able to survive. And our sport fishermen have to wonder what the new limits and species closures will mean for their businesses.
Former President John F. Kennedy said, “For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” What will the future hold for our fishing industry? I’m certain of one thing: there will be a lot of changes still to come. And I’m certain that not all of them will be good for our local fishermen.