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

A Fishy Bit of Environmentalism

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.

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.

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.

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:

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