In Florida, the Seafood Becomes Less Local
From New York Times By DAMIEN CAVE: The postcard Florida experience: sun, fun and plenty
of local seafood. It was the latter that brought Gary and Vicki Haller
from Kansas to Wahoo’s here last week, with its waterfront views,
toucan colors and promise of fresh food “from our docks.”
Imported salmon being cleaned at Key Largo Fisheries.
“We live in cow country,” Mr. Haller said. “Here we eat fish.”
But the fish in his “belly buster” sandwich actually traveled farther than he did. It was Pangasius,
a freshwater catfish from Vietnam. The grouper and tuna were also
imports, according to Wahoo’s managers. And the “local” label on the
menu? It still applied, they insisted, because their distributor was
down the road.
Florida, from sea to plate, just is not the seafood buffet it once was.
Reeling from a record, fish-killing cold snap and tougher federal
limits on what can be caught, commercial fishermen and charter-boat
captains are struggling. Distributors and restaurants are relying more
and more on imported seafood — some of it clearly labeled, a lot of it
Federal fisheries managers say that a law reauthorized by Congress in
2006 now requires them to take more aggressive action against
overfishing. They cut back the legal catch for some kinds of snapper
last year, and 11 species of grouper are now off limits from January
through April on the Atlantic coast. It is the longest ban on record
for grouper and the first to include both commercial and recreational
In a state that bills itself
as “the fishing capital of the world” — with a commercial industry
worth $5.2 billion and a recreational one worth $4.4 billion —
thousands of anglers are angry.
“For a fisherman that works 12 months a year, you’ve just taken a third
of his livelihood,” said Tom Hill, whose family has owned Key Largo
Fisheries since 1972. “You’ve also taken away the ability of someone
who comes here to enjoy a local piece of fish.”
Last month, several thousand fishermen from all over the country held a “sea party” protest in Washington to demand that federal fishing limits be loosened.
They were especially concerned about a series of proposals that would
continue a ban on catching red snapper in federal waters, as well as
close off an area from North Carolina through the Florida Keys to
bottom fishing for all 73 species of fish in the “snapper grouper
The proposed area for closing has since been shrunk by the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council,
but fishermen who depend on the 6,161-square-mile area of water from
Savannah, Ga., to Melbourne, Fla., remain fearful of bankruptcy.
Robert Johnson, the owner of Jodie Lynn Charters in St. Augustine,
Fla., estimated that if the closing plans are approved this spring, at
least 600 boats and 1,800 fishing jobs would be lost — more if bait
shops, marinas and dockside bars are included.
“They’re not just saying you can’t catch red snapper; if that was it,
we might survive,” Mr. Johnson said. “But when you come in and say you
can’t even fish where they live because you might catch one, we can’t.”
Fishermen also argue that the science driving the fisheries’ decisions
comes from limited models that exaggerate declines in fish stocks and
the role fishing plays.
Jerald S. Ault, a marine biologist at the
and an expert in statistical assessment of underwater populations,
acknowledged that scientists were still struggling to assess the damage
from coastal condominiums and houses, which have destroyed many of the
mangroves where fish develop.
But he said that peer-reviewed statistical models showed clear reason
for concern. Populations of most of the snapper and grouper species
once so common in Florida waters are down 30 percent or more from their
historic highs, according to recent estimates.
Keeping hooks and nets out of the water is simply the clearest path to
improvement, Mr. Ault said. He noted that while the state’s commercial
fleet had declined by 11 percent since the 1960s, to about 24,000
registered vessels, the number of recreational fishing vessels had
soared to 944,000 in 2009, up from 128,000, in 1964.
“Unfortunately,” he said of today’s fishermen, “certain people have to
pay a price for other people not paying attention to the resource.”