Six-week Ban on Grouper Fishing will be Costly in Cortez, Fla.

The commercial fishing fleet here views the latest government ban of grouper fishing in the Gulf as the grinch that's about to steal Christmas.

Nov. 10—CORTEZ, Fla. — The commercial fishing fleet here views the latest government ban of grouper fishing in the Gulf as the grinch that's about to steal Christmas.

Fishery protectors, however, contend that commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico have for years overfished red grouper and that the six-week ban that begins Monday is needed.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced the closure from Monday through Jan. 1 as part of a plan designed to ensure the stock's long-term sustainability, but the ban will hit the local commercial grouper fishermen hard.

"They're going to have a long Christmas vacation," said Walter Bell, co-owner of A.P. Bell Fishhouse in Cortez. "They'll probably be looking for food stamps."

Fisherman Glen Brooks, who operates five boats out of Cortez, estimates the closure will cost his operation about $100,000 in revenue before wages, expenses and taxes are deducted. Approximately 20 commercial, grouper-fishing boats operate from Manatee County, Brooks said.

Mike Davis, another grouper fisherman in Cortez, guesses that his one-boat operation could lose $20,000 in revenue.

"It's not how much I'll lose, it's how much I'm going to go in debt," Davis said, putting that figure at around $12,000.

The government's 10-year rebuilding plan began in 2003, and it set reduced-quota catches for red grouper, which was declared overfished in 2000, and shallow-water grouper, a category that includes black, gag, scamp, yellowfin, yellowmouth, rock hind, and red hind groupers.

When either of these two categories of grouper reaches its quota, the entire shallow-water grouper fishery is closed. Shallow-water grouper accounts for the vast majority of all grouper landed and sold commercially.

The upcoming closure is the first since the rebuilding plan went into effect, except an annual month-long ban during heavy spawning.

"We have a mandate to achieve a 9.4 percent reduction in the commercial and recreational harvest of grouper," said Chris Smith, public affairs officer for NOAA Fisheries. "The reason is to help ensure that the grouper stock is sustainable."

Recreational grouper fishing is still allowed in the Gulf, Smith said, but fishermen are only allowed to catch up to a total of five grouper, including two red grouper.

Many fishermen knew about the possibility of a closure this season when updated fishing quotas went into effect in July.

"We had an idea," Davis said. "But we were hoping it would have been a month later because of the hurricanes." Most fishermen like the idea of a mid-December closure because they take time off for the holidays then.

The closure doesn't surprise Brooks, who has been keeping track of the numbers. So he tucked a little money away and postponed major repairs on his boats. He thinks he will only have enough part-time work for half of his full-time employees during the closure.

Impact on local restaurants is expected to be limited.

"It's more of an inconvenience," said Ed Chiles, owner of the SandBar, Mar Vista and Beach House restaurants. "It's not like it will hurt our sales."

Chiles estimates that his restaurants go through 600 to 1,000 pounds of Gulf grouper every week. Like other establishments, Chiles will promote other fish in the grouper's place, such as red snapper and swordfish. Or he'll substitute imported grouper if the quality is good.

The fishermen, unfortunately, have fewer options.

Eric Olschewski, who works as a deck hand with Davis, isn't sure what he'll do.

"I haven't quite figured it out," Olschewski said.

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