ST. PETERSBURG - Ask most offshore anglers what they most often fish for and they will probably reply "kingfish and grouper."

Anglers have been catching their share of king mackerel in recent weeks. We are right in the middle of the spring run. The fish swim south in the fall to winter in the Florida Keys, then run north to fatten up during the summer months in the waters off the Panhandle.

Kingfishing has been nothing short of spectacular this past decade. But that wasn't always the case. Large-scale commercial netting nearly wiped out the kingfish stocks and the baitfish they prey on.

But thanks to one forward-thinking angler, government officials stepped in to stop the slaughter. Now, thanks to local hero Gene Turner, the west coast of Florida enjoys one of the most vibrant recreational king mackerel fisheries in the United States.

Next to kingfish, the most popular offshore species is grouper. Most local anglers target red grouper and gag grouper (sometimes mistakenly called black grouper) in waters 20 to 50 miles offshore.

However, during the past two years, recreational anglers have watched as regulation after regulation has been passed limiting their access to these popular species. While sport fishermen endure emergency closures and bag limit reductions, they wonder why the federal government has not taken more drastic measures against what most of the "rec" sector considers the most destructive fishing practice in the Gulf of Mexico, bottom longlines.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice, some commercial fishermen use miles of line and thousands of hooks to catch the bottom-dwelling grouper. Opponents of longlines believe the gear catches everything from sea turtles to sharks, in addition to millions of pounds of grouper.

Longlines are indiscriminate killers - they hook both small and large grouper - but the undersized fish don't stand a great chance of survival upon release. In fact, a common practice on many longline boats, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is to use undersize fish as bait. The commercial fishermen call these undersized grouper "red mullet" or "maggots."

The state of Florida long ago banished longlines from its waters. But the federal government has been slow to act. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce (which also oversees the Economic Development Administration and the International Trade Administration), has been criticized for favoring commercial interests.

The battle between the recreational and commercial sectors (with the NMFS waffling somewhere in between) has reached a boiling point. Federal officials are currently reviewing stock assessments for both red and gag grouper, after recreational interests, most notably the Pinellas County-based Fishing Rights Alliance, raised questions about the government's science.

The grouper issue will be discussed again in June when the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council holds its next regularly scheduled meeting. Not since the net ban has an issue so united the recreational fishing community. There's a petition circulating ( urging federal officials to reconsider proposed rules that most anglers believe are based on voodoo science.


Source: By Terry Tomalin;