Commercial Fishermen Say Industry Threatened by Proposed Ban on Spearfishing With Scuba

Armed with a scuba tank and speargun, Christian Mathisen has been plunging deeper than 100 feet into South Florida's waters for the past 20 years. Based out of Jupiter, Mathisen says he has spent nearly $90,000 acquiring the necessary permits to legally spearfish commercially. He makes a modest living selling his catch to local eateries, markets, and seafood distributors.

But now his livelihood is being threatened by a proposed ban on spearfishing while using scuba tanks in Southeast Florida. It's just one of 68 regulations proposed by Our Florida Reefs, a community planning council in Southeast Florida that brings together various government and nongovernment stakeholders to develop policies to protect coral reefs. The group has been meeting with the public and taking comments and will ultimately send a recommended action plan to appropriate government agencies, which will in turn pass laws and regulations.

“I would be out of business if [the spearfish ban] passes,” Mathisen says. “A dead fish is a dead fish. Why should it matter if it was harvested by free dive, scuba, or hook and line?” (Spearfishing while free diving, or holding one's breath, would still be allowed.) 

Mathisen isn't alone and knows of at least ten other people who spearfish with scuba commercially. Now, a handful of dive sites and forums is urging its readers to send comments to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection against the ban. The deadline to submit comments is February 16.

People who support the ban argue that spearfishing — especially while underwater for long periods of time, as scuba tanks allow — harms the reefs and fish species in Southeast Florida. But Mathisen and other divers argue that their impact upon the reefs and fish populations is minimal. 

"It would have zero effect whether I go out," Mathisen says. "I can only catch such a small amount already." One of his permits, for grouper, limits his catch to 1,000 pounds per day. 

Those against the ban also argue that there is no scientific data to support banning spearfishing with scuba, especially since it is unknown how many fish are taken by spear versus angling. They also argue that since there are specific regulations about fishing seasons, size and quantity limits already in place can protect and maintain the fish populations. 

Jorge Figueroa of Trigger Seafood worries how the ban will affect his business. He regularly purchases from Mathisen. 

"These things make no sense," Figueroa says. "Certain people might say they have a specific advantage. But they only have the life of the tank and nitrogen buildup."

According to Figeruoa, a commercial spearfisherman would choose to use either a tank or to free-dive based on the dive site. He says spearfishing with scuba is more common in areas where there aren't reefs, like on the west coast of Florida. 

"I think they would just love to ban spearfishing altogether," he says. "What about the millions of pounds caught long-lining in North Carolina? Spearfishing is sustainable — just one person and their spear."
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson