On the Line

The Future of Commercial Fishing

Capt. Steve Dougherty September 15, 2015

Florida is rich in commercial fishing history, an industry that has helped shape many of the waterfront communities we call home today. Yet for a state so dependent on fresh seafood, it’s clear there’s a serious disconnect between fishermen who actually observe what’s going on firsthand, and lawmakers who comb through skewed data in attempts to manage so-called fragile and collapsing fisheries from behind a desk many miles from the coast.

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Today's commercial fishermen have to work harder than ever before, while facing almost insurmountable challenges.

Whether it’s through the implementation of catch shares, daily limits and trip limits, seasonal closures, areas closed to fishing, or areas with specific gear restrictions, not to mention numerous environmental factors and unstable fuel prices, and commercial fishing is becoming an increasingly difficult means to make a living. Further muddying the waters, while on their quest to recover stocks through what they believe is proper management, the politicians and fisheries managers in power are looking to make Florida’s small-scale commercial fishermen the newest endangered species as they head for the final fillet.

For many, the dream of fishing for a living is one that is hard to escape. However, no one ever thinks about the bad that comes along with having the ocean as your office.

A longstanding tradition for many Floridians, commercial fishing and the coastal communities it supports are rapidly diminishing, as harvesters and operators are subjected to overly restrictive regulations and increasing expenses, coupled with decreasing fish prices and a real estate boom looking to take over waterfront properties statewide. Yet the resilient anglers that make up Florida’s commercial fishing industry have no choice but to fish harder than ever and adapt to the growing number of challenges as they fulfill their lifelong dream of working on the water.

But it’s not only increasing state and federal regulations limiting commercial fishermen, but the United State’s seafood industry itself. In 2013, Americans consumed approximately 4.6 billion pounds of seafood, yet National Marine Fisheries Service reports that the United States imports up to 90 percent of its consumed seafood, of which half is farm raised. Additionally, approximately one-third of the United State’s annual commercial catch is sold and exported to foreign countries…seafood that is far healthier than the farm raised product we’re importing. Wouldn’t it benefit commercial fishermen and local consumers to sell locally caught seafood locally?

Unfortunately, a majority of seafood available to consumers in the Sunshine State isn’t from anywhere near Florida. Take red grouper for example, where approximately 80 percent of fillets available for purchase in the U.S. are imported from Mexico. Additionally, a recent study revealed that upwards of 30 percent of all finfish imported into the United States is illegally harvested, unregulated and unreported. So as politicians and fishery managers make it harder for local commercial fishermen to survive as they are bombarded with stringent rules and regulations, we continue to import seafood internationally from countries with little to no regulations in regard to the harvest or preservation of wild caught seafood.

With more recreational anglers on the water than ever before and a time when protection and conservation of our precious natural resources is more newsworthy than ever, commercial fishing often takes the brunt of the blame for what are proposed as overfished stocks. Florida’s small-scale commercial fishermen simply looking to support their families and work in an environment they love are portrayed as cruel killers raping the seas, yet incredulous fishery managers and lobbyist influenced by political pressure implementing unnecessary regulations and imposing the mandated export of U.S. seafood for increased profit are the real ones to blame.

While the recreational sector may believe otherwise, the truth of the matter is that in Florida waters the vast majority of the fresh bounty is taken with sustainable practices.

In the Florida Keys, yellowtail snapper are caught one at a time on hook and line with rod and reel or hand lines. Most commercial yellowtail harvesters spend days on the water west of Key West, but the fertile reef tract provides incredible catches throughout the entire Conch Republic. Additionally, many yellowtail fishermen are simply looking to fill the void during closed season for lobster and stone crabs—two of the state’s most valuable commercial fisheries that produce zero bycatch. Yet in the Florida Keys, lobstermen are facing dire times as state and federal fishery managers continue with their ongoing plan to aggressively reduce the number of traps in the local fishery.

Hailing from South Florida, commercial swordfishermen harvest the mighty broadbill under the cover of darkness in some of the harshest conditions. Setting a spread of free floating buoys with a single hook dangling beneath each buoy, these hardcore fishermen wrangle with the nastiest fish in the sea, one at a time, by hand, with little to no bycatch. And while longliners once depleted swordfish populations off the coast of Florida almost to the point of no return, there is a longline fleet out of Fort Pierce that belongs to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies fisheries with sustainable fishing practices. Here, strict traceability records, specific gear, detailed bycatch logs and NMFS observers make surface longlines much less detrimental than in years past. This is an undeniable fact, as recreational fishermen are experiencing an unprecedented swordfish boom.

For many, the dream of fishing for a living is one that is hard to escape. However, no one ever thinks about the bad that comes along with having the ocean as your office. There’s no retirement, no health care and no vacation pay. Instead, captains are required to purchase federal and state licenses and specific species endorsements. Additionally, through imposed fishing quotas and catch shares, fishery managers are aiming to consolidate fisheries nationwide to a handful of large-scale corporate owned producers. These government enforced programs privatize the system and give catch shares to the large corporations that are responsible for overfishing the resources in the first place! However, some communities are fully backing their local commercial fishing interests.

In Port Salerno, the county owned dock provides access to boat slips for the community’s small-boat commercial fleet and ensures the docks remain available for generations to come. In Key West, the newly opened Dock to Dish is the state’s first Community Supported Fishery (CSF). Here, a farm-to-table philosophy ensures consumers receive fresh, wild caught seafood that is never frozen, and never leaves a 150-mile radius from where it was originally landed. Dock to Dish members install an App and get notifications every day of what the boats bring in to ensure the freshest seafood possible. The only real way to get fresher fish is to catch it yourself!

So what can you do as a Floridian looking to support local fishermen and local economies? When you can’t get out and catch your own fresh seafood, purchase only locally caught fish from seafood markets and restaurants, and take a stand against farm raised and imported seafood so common around the state. Purchasing Florida seafood not only results in better table fare, but it also invests in the future of local economies. Finally, don’t be so hard on Florida’s hard working small-scale commercial fishermen. These are not the same crews from yesteryear who fished with few rules and regulations.

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