A Fishy Bit of Environmentalism

Local fishermen say a proposed ban on fishing around Broward's coral reefs is a ploy by diving promoters to build business

Land boats known as Lincolns, Cadillacs, and Pontiacs, tagged in Ontario, New York, or Pennsylvania, are parked facing the gently rolling hulls of the fishing fleet anchored at Hillsboro Marina Inlet. In the warm sun, Capt. Brad Terry is open for business. Knife flashing, he slices thick, pink fillets of amberjack at a fishing table on the wooden walkway near his boat, the 43-foot Great Day.

The March morning has come and gone and with it the fishing tourists who hired boats for half-day ventures to hot spots over the coral reefs off Pompano Beach. Now the afternoon crowd is arriving, and Terry greets them with nods, smiles, an occasional joke, and a nod toward his hull. "We give you what the name says," he calls cheerfully: "a great day. Bring your own beer, that's all you gotta do. No license required. We try to keep it fun."

Visitors gather without equipment, bait, expertise, or license -- without anything but the money to charter the commercial sports boats, any one of ten docked at the inlet. The boat names commemorate nonworking lifestyles, or women: the Intoxication, Killin' Time, Naughty Girl, the Quetzal, the Helen 6.

Brad Terry, captain of the Great Day, could lose his business if the state bans fishing over coral reefs
Joshua Prezant
Brad Terry, captain of the Great Day, could lose his business if the state bans fishing over coral reefs

The livelihoods of the boat captains and their crews and the pleasure of tourists who pay them depends on this traditional, economic marriage of well-equipped guides and people who want to fish. But the marriage may soon suffer a forced divorce, at least in the minds of those who operate about 25 commercial boats in the county.

Under the banner of environmental do-goodism, a group of Broward business leaders wants state authorities to ban the fishing fleet and all private fishing, including spearfishing and lobster hunting, from about seven square miles of waters offshore. Calling themselves the Greater Fort Lauderdale Marine Protected Area Committee, the no-fishing proponents claim that fish populations along Broward's coral reefs are dwindling dangerously. The claim is based on anecdotal evidence and a National Marine Fisheries Service report that fifteen species in the South Atlantic are too heavily fished, including nine kinds of grouper and three of snapper.

The MPA committee's real goal, according to commercial fishermen, is tourism money at the cost of their livelihoods. The committee aims to promote the three coral reefs that parallel the beach to tourists as a world-class preserve for snorkelers and divers.

"If they stop us, the chamber of commerce will put out advertising that says, 'Come dive on the coral reefs where nobody fishes,'" guesses Ray Terry, Brad's brother and co-owner of the Great Day.

Committee members may or may not worry about fish populations, but without question they have economic goals. Among the 12 listed MPA committee members are several whose public or private interests could profit from a ban: Walt DeMartini, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Dive Association; Rex Hardin, a Pompano Beach city commissioner; Jack Jackson, a restaurateur; and the Watson brothers, Carl and Neal, who founded the committee. Carl Watson is president of the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea chamber of commerce, and Neal Watson owns a Bahamas-based diving business.

Joined by Reefkeeper International, an organization of professional lobbyists and environmentalists based in Miami, the MPA committee has petitioned the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) to enact the no-fishing ban over the reefs. A decision could come as early as May or June. (Representatives of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said to support the ban, did not return telephone calls; neither did FWCC Chairwoman Julie Morris.)

Although Carl Watson says the MPA committee has discussed the issue widely with those who fish commercially, he can't name individuals. And none of the fishing boat captains at the Hillsboro Marina, the biggest marina harboring commercial boats in Broward, says Carl Watson has discussed the ban with the no-fishing crowd. Ray Terry figures the pro-ban people don't want to discuss it with him or his colleagues. Instead they want to advertise the reefs as a diver's paradise and haul in the bucks.

"They're just feathering their own nests, and we've been caught off guard," he announces on a bright afternoon as other captains and crew gather nearby. "This is really about economics, it's not about fish depletion," he insists.

Baseball cap shading his leathery face, Terry can't talk long. Visitors are arriving to fish and with them the money that can help him pay for the Great Day and its maintenance. For half a day on a boat equipped to troll, visitors will split the cost of about $350. Trolling boats are licensed to carry no more than six people and are known as "six-packs." On the drift boats, which allow wind and wave action to float them across the fish, each person pays $35 to crowd aboard with 40 other people.

When the boats and their fishing enthusiasts finally begin the ride out of the marina, many salute the fact that the ride usually isn't long. Visitors aren't paying for a lot of travel time, they're paying to fish over the near-shore reefs. Only occasionally do boats move out farther to fish over artificial reefs or in deeper waters far off the reefs, where such big-game targets as sailfish can be found.

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