Challenges abound for commercial fishermen

Commercial fishermen faced numerous challenges and drama in 2012, from the implementation of new fishing quotas to horrible spiny lobster and stone crab seasons.

Florida Keys commercial fishermen are calling 2012 one of the worst spiny lobster and stone crab seasons on record. Prices for lobster tails and stone crab claws have remained fair, but there is not a lot of product to be found.

“It’s just dismal,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “We will be lucky to salvage the seasons to a point in which they even become mediocre. We are coming off two solid years.”

Fishermen and fish house owners argue the poor season will have a ripple effect in the community, as the slumping fisheries are costing the Keys millions of dollars in lost revenue. Marathon fish house owner Gary Graves had to lay off nearly 20 people this year, he said.

There is plenty of speculation about possible reasons why the lobster and stone crab catch is so low, but fishermen and scientists have yet to pinpoint an exact cause.

Kelly plans to meet with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research scientists in both Marathon and Tallahassee to see if they can “isolate more specifically the cause,” Kelly said.

First year for fishing quotas

Weak stone crab and lobster seasons are not the only issues causing commercial fishermen consternation this year. This is the first year the National Marine Fisheries Service began implementing quotas for several species of fish, including ones that are found in the waters off the Florida Keys.

A limit instituted for yellowtail snapper created a considerable amount of drama for Keys commercial fishermen, as the commercial fishery was poised to close in the Atlantic Ocean in September but analysis showed the fishing stock was stronger than originally thought and the season remained open.

National Marine Fisheries Service announced in August that the annual commercial yellowtail quota in the Atlantic had nearly been reached, and that the fishery would be closed Sept. 11 through Jan. 1.

However, the Fisheries Service’s Southeastern Science Center in Miami reviewed commercial landings data earlier this month and found there were more yellowtail than previously believed, and that commercial fishing could continue.

Also, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Florida Marine Research Institute released a stock assessment for yellowtail in September that stated the stocks were healthy and not in jeopardy of being overfished. This report was the basis to increase in the annual catch limit in both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The Science and Statistical Committee for the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic fishery management councils recommended, federal fishery managers agreed, to an annual commercial harvest of yellowtail snapper that increased the yield from 2.9 million pounds to 4.1 million pounds.

Of that, South Atlantic fishermen will receive 75 percent of the catch, as the Atlantic is the more dominant yellowtail fishing area.

The same week federal fishery managers announced it would not close commercial yellowtail fishing, they announced the closure of the commercial harvest of black grouper and several other shallow-water grouper species in the Atlantic Ocean. The grouper ban went into effect on Oct. 20, as the annual catch limit for those species was expected to be reached by then. The ban on commercial grouper harvest will run until May 1. Recreational harvest of the groupers will be allowed.

New coral species could be listed on endangered species list

Fishermen could face new restrictions on where they can place traps or trawl, as the National Marine Fisheries Service announced earlier this month that it is considering listing 66 new species of coral on the Endangered Species List and increasing the severity of the listing and protections for two other federally protected species of coral found in the Florida Keys.

Elkhorn and staghorn coral, which have historically been the main reef building corals in the Keys, will go from the less dire listing of threatened to the more severe listing of endangered on the Endangered Species List.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would mean habitat protections, recovery planning, prohibitions on harming corals, and most importantly, prohibition of federal actions that could jeopardize the corals.

The proposed listing also would impact any potential dredging and widening of the Key West shipping channel, as mountain star coral — proposed for the Endangered Species List — are found in great abundance along the channel.

The city is considering widening the channel to make room for bigger cruise ships.

The Army Corps of Engineers and others involved in the potential dredging project would have to consult NOAA about coral impacts before any dredging could occur, said Jen Moore, a NOAA coral biologist involved in the listing.

Before the proposed listings are finalized in late 2013, there will be a 90-day public comment period during which NOAA will hold 18 public meetings. There will be a meeting in Key Largo and in Key West in January, NOAA officials said.

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