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

The reason is a natural feast to be found near Broward's living coral reefs, which provide abundant food for fish and the lobsters that draw some divers in season. The reefs appear in three distinct terraces: The first lies in about 15 to 25 feet of water only some 200 yards offshore; the second runs at depths of 30 to 50 feet and lies farther out; and the third reef, at 60 to 100 feet of water, is no farther than a mile from the increasingly developed skyline of the Broward shore.

The proposed marine protected area would include two zones: one extending from the Pompano pier south to the pier at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, the other extending from the breakwater at Port Everglades south to the Dania Beach pier. The proposal excludes a 300-foot zone around each pier but extends the no-catch ban out to 110-foot depths, roughly one mile offshore.

Fishermen such as the Terrys and Skip Dana admit that fish populations are not what they were in the 1970s, when Broward County's population was only about 20 percent of today's 1.5 million residents. "The technology to catch them is better, more people fish, obviously it's not like it once was," says Dana, captain of 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

But boat captains insist more fish feed in the rich reef waters now than they did five or ten years ago -- statements that directly contradict the MPA committee's written report. Tight state regulations controlling the size and numbers of fish that can be taken legally have helped restore the populations, fishers say. "For example it's really hard to take a king mackerel," claims Dana. "The regulation is a minimum 24 inches from [tail] fork to nose, and no more than two fish per person."

To a man the Hillsboro boat captains say they favor the state regulations, especially the state's 1996 ban on net fishing. All regulations take time to work, and now the results are visible.

Marine Patrol Officer Lenny Salberg says commercial sport-fishing boats rarely break the law, punishment for which can result in money fines or even jail time. And state regulations are helping the fish population flourish. "In my 11 years [as a marine patrol officer], I've definitely seen the snook population increase dramatically," Salberg reports.

According to the fishers, there should be no conflict with divers, who have their own areas marked by buoys, areas off limits to fishing boats. "We don't get in their way, and there are plenty of fish to see around those buoys," Brad Terry says. So Terry remains baffled by the desire of already successful businessmen such as the Watsons to put an end to fishing over the reefs.

The Watson brothers, who founded the MPA committee last year, also created Oceanfest, a three-day annual festival to promote scuba diving that takes place in June on the beach at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. The brothers insist their motives are pure -- a richer environment protecting restored fish populations for their grandchildren.

But Carl Watson also admits that money plays a role in his thinking. "As president of the chamber, I'm looking at it from an economic standpoint," he says. "You'd bring in a lot of divers who would take pictures of fish, not spear them." Adds his brother Neal, the diver: "Somebody is going to have to make a small sacrifice. If you don't fish these areas for 18 to 24 months, you might have something like [John] Pennekamp Park in Key Largo -- the yellowtail [snapper] are so thick you can't see a diver to take a picture."

The proposal, however, would ban fishing forever over the reefs, not just for months. Its proponents say that fish populations would increase outside the no-catch areas, which would help fishers flourish rather than sink economically. And it would be great for people who fish off the piers, a good steady source of tourist income.

In the written proposal to the FWCC, the antifishing crowd includes an underlined, boldface statement that promotes Greater Fort Lauderdale beaches as unique for divers and snorkelers in Florida -- the only place where one can reach the coral reefs without a boat, by walking off the beach.

There's only one problem: Pompano Beach city law prohibits any swimmer from venturing more than 50 yards off the beach, says Marl Beaudreau, recreation manager in charge of lifeguards. So there would be no snorkeling off the beach to the coral reefs at that location anyway. "If we see people loading up with scuba gear now, we tell them they can't do that on a public beach," he explains. "The buoy system out about 200 yards governs that dive-boat traffic."

Divers, meanwhile, are likely to cause a lot more damage to the coral reefs than fishers with hooks, lines, and sinkers, says Brad Terry. "Hell, that's why this is about money, not about protecting the environment," Terry intones. "The chamber people see it as a way to bring in more tourists."

Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address:

roger.williams@newtimesbpb.com

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