MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. – Travis Palladeno, a veteran charter fishing captain on Florida's Gulf Coast, flips through his appointment book and bemoans the blank pages. Restrictions on some of the most popular — and tasty — sport fish are so strict right now, fewer people want to go out.
The limits on such sought-after fish as grouper, red snapper and black sea bass are in place as scientists try to figure out how to restore species they say have been overfished for decades. Charter operators and recreational anglers say the rules are unreasonable and diminish an industry already dinged by higher gas prices, last year's BP oil spill and the recession.
"Three years ago, things were rolling along so well that I was looking at spending $350,000 to have another boat built because my business was great," said Palladeno, who estimated bookings for his 45-foot vessel have been cut in half over the last year. "That phone used to ring constantly, and it doesn't anymore."
For Florida, where saltwater fishing is a $5.6 billion annual industry and supports an estimated 55,000 jobs, any limit on fishing hurts. But this year has been worse than ever. Fishermen on the state's east coast weren't allowed to bring in any red snapper for the entire year. On the Gulf side, where gag grouper is king among recreational anglers, the season was open only two months in 2011, with only two per trip allowed. They are among a litany of restrictions the government put in place in federal waters — starting 9 miles out — all along the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Most states fall in step with the federal regulations in their waters closer to shore.
In Mississippi, where the coastal economy was also hurt by closures of parts of the Gulf to fishing after the oil spill, the restrictions are keeping many of the "weekend warriors" from putting their boats back in the water, said Ben Bloodworth, a longtime fisherman who lives in the Biloxi area.
"There is definitely an economic impact there, everything from the bait and tackle, the gas and the beer and food they take out there," said Bloodworth, who publishes a regional fishing magazine.
In Florida, there is vast mistrust and bad blood among the recreational fishermen, the government and environmental groups, and the animosity over restrictions has spilled over in loud public meetings in recent years. Anglers constantly complain that what they see out on the water doesn't jibe with the science the federal government uses to close fisheries or limit the catch.
Florida has nearly 2,300 miles of tidal shoreline plays host to roughly a quarter of all saltwater anglers in the country every year. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 2 million people fished off the state's coasts in 2006, the last year for which the agency conducted a study, racking up more than 23 million fishing days. Texas, with around 1.1 million anglers and 15.1 million fishing days, was a distant second.
"What we're seeing is a loss of business, a loss of customers and a loss of a way of life — that's the direction it's going," said Bobby Aylesworth, who runs a St. Petersburg bait distribution company his father and uncle started in 1944, now one of the largest in the country.
The federal government became heavily involved in regulating fisheries with the congressional Magnuson-Stevens Conservation and Management Act in 1976, but most trace the current problems to the law's latest reauthorization in 2006. That's when Congress ordered the agency to end overfishing immediately and have catch limits in place by the end of 2011. The result was a flurry of restrictions in recent years as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the states moved to comply.
Determining what species are overfished, though, is a convoluted process incorporating science, computer modeling and catch surveys reported by telephone and at the docks. Fishermen complain they are far from accurate.
Analysis of the data takes place during a series of public hearings involving state biologists, university researchers, anglers and other stakeholders. Catch limits proposed then have to be approved by the regional marine fisheries committee.
"Fundamentally in saltwater in the federal system, there is no trust at this point," said Michael Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association, a trade group that has been around since the 1930s. "Until there is trust, I don't think we're going to have a system that works nearly as well as it should."
Roy E. Crabtree, the southeast regional chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he understands the frustration.
"The crux of the problem is that there are a lot of uncertainties and gaps in the science," Crabtree said. "It's not an easy matter to estimate how many grouper there are out in the Gulf of Mexico. You can't just walk out and count them all. ... But I think the bottom line is that the fishermen want more certainty in the science than we have right now. Unfortunately, to get to the amount of certainty they want would be very costly."
Crabtree said he believes the rules are working.
"I think we're getting to where we're supposed to get to, which is much healthier stocks," he said. "It's just painful getting there."