KEY WEST, Fla. — In the next few months, visitors to Chef Lupe's restaurants in the Florida Keys won't be able to order his signature sandwich: local crunchy grouper made with corn flakes.
On Jan. 1, a new four-month ban on grouper fishing goes into effect to protect the species during its primary spawning season. Fishery managers and ocean conservancy groups say several types of grouper have been overfished for decades and need protection.
Unfortunately for many in the Keys, the ban also coincides with the island chain's peak tourist season. Charter boat captains, as well as commercial fishermen, say the regulations are "Draconian'' and economically devastating.
"It's a bitter choice between sustaining the fishery or sustaining someone's livelihood,'' said Andy McDonald, the wholesale manager at the Islamorada Fish Co. "But if you don't sustain the fishery, there will be no livelihood.''
During the ban, which runs through April 30, commercial and recreational fishermen won't be allowed to keep shallow-water grouper -- including gag, black, red and yellowfin -- caught in federal and state Atlantic waters from North Carolina to Key West. The ban also extends into state waters on the Gulf of Mexico side of Monroe County.
"This couldn't come at a worse time,'' said Andy Griffiths, who owns a three-boat charter operation near Key West. "My business already is off 80 percent because of the economy.''
BARELY GETTING BY
Griffiths, who has downsized from six boats, said he is now offering trips at 1990 prices -- just enough to pay the captain and mate and keep the boats running to prevent deterioration. His clients, hearty fishermen who book overnight trips, come to the Keys primarily to catch grouper.
Charter boat captain Bill Kelly, who served on the South Atlantic fishing council, said he's been in business 30 years and 2009 was his worst season.
He's not alone. Skip Bradeen, who is well known in the Keys for his twice-a-day radio fishing reports, said his business was so bad in 2009 that he opened a piano bar. Both say the ban will keep away some clients when they need them most.
The ban also couldn't come at a worse time for the Keys' commercial fishermen, who are reeling from low demand and low prices for their big ticket items: spiny lobster and stone crabs. Hal Osburn, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, said many commercial boats had been supplementing their dwindling incomes by catching fish such as grouper to stay afloat.
The ban's ripple effects are expected to reach consumers, restaurants, seafood retailers, tourist-related businesses and state coffers.
The price of grouper, already $17.99 per pound at several grocery chain stores in the Keys, could go higher when the supply goes down.
The grouper ban was triggered in 2007, when the National Marine Fisheries Service said gag grouper was being harvested too fast to sustain the stock.
Due to a beefed-up federal law, the reauthorization of the 1976 Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, fishery managers had to take action to protect the species identified as overfished.
Originally, the grouper ban was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009, but it was put on hold for further analysis after fishermen and others against the ban put up a fight. This time around, there will be no reprieve.
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