Shrimping issues: Don't fence me in, please
Florida's east coast commercial fishing industry has taken another federal hit. Instead of the usual suspects - environmental regulators striving to impose more catch limits or out-of-bounds zones - this time the hammer is being wielded in the guise of homeland security.
According to Florida Today newspaper, an article under the great headline "Brevard seafood industry tangled in security net," a shrimp company that fishes out of Port Canaveral may be forced out of business because of a dictate to have 24/7 security patrols to control the flow of illegal drugs into the country.
A Florida law, passed in 2001, requires that docks and berths at government-owned seaports should be regarded as restricted areas. Fencing and guards are required to control access.
Port Canaveral officials are willing to pick up the tab for the fences, but want to charge the Cape Canaveral Shrimp Co. up to $650 per day for the patrols. The fishery is mostly in the rock-shrimp business.
What is ironic is that the port was created more than 50 years ago as a fish industry mecca, with the port hosting a slew of fish houses. Today, only two fish houses remain, while the other have been replaced by cruise ships, restaurants and gambling vessels.
The new rules are due to go into effect Feb. 1. Fishers question why the rules are being enforced only now, five years after their passage. Port officials said it took them this long to catch up with the laws and they have no choice but to enforce them
In another ironic twist to this tale, "the Port of Tampa, the only other government-owned port in Florida with fishing operations, introduced similar measures about two years ago," and according to Florida Today, "the Tampa Port Authority has picked up the tab for the extra security."
It's not as if the shrimpers and other commercial folk can just pick up and move up or down the coast a bit. Again from Florida Today: "Port Canaveral is the only port between Key West and Jacksonville with commercial fish houses, say those in the industry. Without a local port to offload catches, fishing boat operators will feel a strong economic incentive to avoid working the waters off Brevard County."
There are some economic factors involved in fishing, like fuel and availability to a port. Some fishing boat captains have said it's just not feasible for them to take a long haul to shrimp in one place, and since the waters off Cape Canaveral have some of the best rock shrimping in the crustacean's range from North Carolina to the Florida Keys, there is a real threat that consumers won't be able to get their lobster-like treats.
And irony No. 3 is that only commercial fishing operations have to adhere to the new security measures. A marina is under construction next to the Port Canaveral fish houses, and it doesn't require guards or fencing.
Another hit on an already battered industry which is at about one-third of its harvest during its heyday 10 years ago. About 6 million pounds of seafood were unloaded at the port in 2004; 1994 saw 19.5 million pounds hit the docks.
Sea turtle lovers tend to hate shrimp trawlers. Turtle fans for years fought the shrimping fishery over the use of TEDs, or Turtle Extruder Devices.
Shrimpers trawl for their catch near the surface in warm waters. Turtles are near the surface in warm waters. Shrimpers often catch turtles in their big nets and, before the catch can be hauled onto the boat, the turtles can drown.
TEDs, to vastly oversimplify the matter, are tunnels in the nets which allow turtles to swim out of the net and return to the freedom of the sea. Shrimpers fought the protection measures, saying the tunnels allowed much of their valuable catch to escape, too, but authorities eventually persuaded the industry to adapt to the rule change.
So based on the longstanding shrimp trawl-turtle controversy, it's a pretty odd thing to read what's happening offshore of southern Siesta Key.
According to my buddy Bob Ardren of the Pelican Press, a shrimp trawler is patrolling the offshore Gulf of Mexico waters with the intent of catching sea turtles. To date, the "take" has been eight, and everybody is happy.
Before you start to fume about those folks in Sarasota, read on.
That part of the key is undergoing a $12 million beach renourishment project. As Bob puts it, "The program spews thousands of tons of new sand on Turtle Beach. The sand being pumped onto Turtle Beach is coming from a site about 8 miles offshore, where it's being dug up from the Gulf bottom by a huge dredge. Traditionally, a few sea turtles get taken in the course of these projects, meaning they get caught up in the dredge and killed.
"So Sarasota County and the dredging company have a shrimp trawler dragging its big nets in front of the dredge, scooping up any turtles in the area, tagging them and releasing them some distance away.
"In the past, the trawlers were called in only after turtles were killed by the dredge, but this project is taking that process a step forward and trying to be preventive."
As a Sarasota County official put it, "Call it a new industry standard."
Sounds like somebody is actually thinking ahead down south.
Although I'd love to take credit for prompting the following, based on a column a few weeks back regarding manatee mortality and the proposed downlisting of sea cows in the state from "endangered" to "threatened," I believe Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was speaking to others.
Here are some of his comments regarding manatees.
"Please allow me to clarify a point of miscommunication that has sparked controversy throughout the state. Over my dead body will the FWC manage the manatee population to follow any path other than full recovery, and I am confident my fellow commissioners would echo that statement.
"Despite widely publicized misinterpretation of parts of the proposed manatee management plan, the FWC does not project a 50-percent decline in the manatee population and does not plan to manage the species to achieve a 30-percent decline The plan is to identify every realistic measure we can take to enable the manatee population to remain stable or continue increasing.
"The FWC has hundreds of dedicated employees fighting tooth and nail to help manatees recover from past losses. What they are doing is working, and that is why the manatee no longer qualifies for listing as an endangered species. Manatees no longer are in imminent danger of extinction.
"It's true that manatee mortality was at a record level in 2006, but we must be careful not to read too much into that information. That single fact does not mean the manatee is slipping toward extinction. Last year's known deaths of 416 manatees may simply indicate we're getting better at locating carcasses, or it may reflect some other factor, or it may indicate nothing at all.
"The FWC has earned Floridians' confidence. It has a proud history of snatching victories from the jaws of defeat - not vice versa.
"The high manatee mortality rate in 2006 sheds light on where we need to concentrate protection efforts in the future. The FWC will respond appropriately and aggressively."
There you have it.
Brevard and Duval counties lead Florida's rock shrimp harvest. In 2006, Duval had 1,369,442 pounds go through the fish houses there, while Brevard saw 1,208,853 pounds, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.