Zoned to Extinction: Overzealous Regulation May Soon Render Commercial Fishermen A Dying Breed

We’ve got water coming in!” the captain announced abruptly as he poked a flashlight through a torso-wide hatch to where the Detroit diesels fretfully thrumbled below.

Stunned by the statement, I did a quick assessment of the situation. I was on a small fishing boat a 20-mile swim from the nearest land, Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas. It was the dead of night in seas notorious for their sharks and hull-ripping coral. We were taking on water and, what’s more, our depth-finding fathometer was on the fritz, making our proximity to that coral a troubling mystery. Black waves were grabbing hold of the idle craft and pounding on it broadside.

A leaking boat in dark and dangerous seas wasn’t my only reason for anxiety, however. The captain was a Key West fisherman — a “conch” in the local vernacular — named Harvey Watkins, whom I’d met the previous day. All I’d really heard about Harvey was that he had once done prison time and might be a little crazy. His mates, Christian and Ramon, were strangers to me as well. And after having watched everyone aboard (including myself) dip into the beer cooler with great frequency all day, my confidence in our collective reflexes and judgment was at ebb tide.

This was a bit more than I’d bargained for when I showed up at Watkins’ modest Key West bungalow the day before. I was looking for a story about government regulations that were creating a new endangered species in the southern tip of Florida: commercial fishermen. Watkins, I had heard, was one of the best of a dying breed of “crawfishermen,” the area’s jargon for lobstermen. He worked the distant and dangerous waters around the Dry Tortugas, which would soon become the site of the nation’s largest “no fishing” zone, a disturbing new approach to fisheries management being pushed by federal bureaucrats, environmentalists, and others. This zone represents the boldest step yet toward the creation of a national network of marine wilderness areas, mandated by an executive order, that may eventually blanket large areas of U.S. coastal waters, depriving both sport and commercial fishers of their most fertile fishing grounds.

The waves continued to pound and I desperately tried to assure myself that this couldn’t really be happening. I recalled with bitter amusement that this type of participant-observer reporting is sometimes called “immersion journalism.” The captain and his crew (who had hurriedly emerged from the berthing space in nothing but briefs and rubber boots) began moving with amazing efficiency and confidence, quickly clearing away gear from the rectangular coffin lid shielding the boat’s flooding bowels.

With practiced precision, Watkins and his crew found and fixed a ruptured engine intake hose that was the source of the problem — one of a hundred acts of grace under pressure I saw the crew exhibit during what was, to them, just another routine haul out to sea. Technically, they’re fishermen. But life at sea, I quickly began to appreciate, also requires them to be carpenters, diesel mechanics, electricians, butchers, chemists, medical corpsmen, and short-order cooks.

Spending even a couple of days in their world will make you understand that even the priciest lobster dinner is worth every penny. Quarters on Watkins’ 48-foot Fryde Conch are spare and impossibly cramped. Life aboard is a constant battle against rust, mildew, and rot. The stench of bait clings even in a stiff breeze. The slop-covered deck pitches wildly, and working on it in high seas is a job for the Wallendas. There are a thousand ways to get slashed, crushed, snagged, speared, or dragged overboard, with no medical help — save for a bottle of Captain Morgan’s stashed in the wheelhouse — within easy reach. The boat is a playground for tetanus. Scorpions nest in the rope coils. Competence and sound instincts are a must, because even minor mistakes invite major disaster. It’s a difficult life, though men like Watkins love it and want no other.

Those are the unavoidable dangers of a fishing life. What really exercises fishermen like Watkins, he explained to me bitterly in our days together, are the threats from dry land: meddlesome government agencies and litigious environmental groups that have descended on this serene southern Florida archipelago with a vengeance, turning the island chain into arguably the most regulated stretch of real estate in the U.S. Few have been hit harder by the new regime than commercial fishermen, whose presence here has shrunken to a shadow of what it was. Tourists now search old Key West’s waterfront in vain for its once-mighty commercial fishing fleet, the remnants of which have been banished to Stock Island — a working class, seedy appendage to Key West where few visitors venture. There, folks like Watkins watch the clock run out on their livelihood, done in by often arbitrary and capricious regulations.

A Sinking Feeling

All Harvey Watkins ever wanted to be was a fisherman. He’s a wiry, frenetic man of 51, with hair the color and texture of steel wool and a mustache bleached by decades in the Florida sun. He wears aviator glasses with tinted lenses and speaks in staccato sentences, gesturing wildly and flicking cigarette ashes when he gets wound-up. His accent somehow mixes the bayou and the Bronx, but is neither. Once he gets to know you, you quickly become “bubba,” “skipper,” “bro,” or “brother.”

As a kid he learned to build wooden boats under the tutelage of a revered neighbor. By 14, he was taking a skiff out at night and on weekends, glorying in the heyday of Key West’s commercial fishing boom. Along the way he has been a lobsterman, a stonecrabber, a long-liner, and, for a brief time in the late 1970s, a marijuana smuggler for Colombia’s Escobar clan. The “import business” was unbelievably wide open then. The perks were good and the paydays filled garbage bags with cash. But Watkins, like boatloads of fellow islanders, wound up serving time at a federal work farm at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, winning early release for saving the lives of two drowning men. After prison he returned to fishing, thinking his days of trouble with the government were through. No such luck.

Watkins has a lot in common with another famous Key West fisherman, Harry Morgan, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 novel To Have and Have Not. Morgan turns to running booze and guns across the Straits of Florida to Cuba when his failing charter boat business no longer can feed his family. “I don’t know who made the laws but I know there ain’t no law that you got to go hungry,” is how Morgan sums up his philosophy. “I been sore a long time.”

Incessant government intervention has made plenty of people in the Florida Keys as sore as Morgan. Certainly that’s the case with Watkins and the dwindling commercial fishermen, whose catches and exploits once fattened the local economy and animated its lore. In today’s Key West, they often feel like pariahs, shunted by government rules, elitist transplants, busy-body environmentalists, and the tourist economy. A mangrove-like tangle of at least 22 federal, state, and local regulatory agencies has taken root here, each agency trying to carve out a domain for itself, creating a picture-perfect prison and disillusioning iconoclastic locals who migrated here precisely to escape mainland hassles.

Watkins has resisted these changes in sometimes-unconventional ways, earning a reputation as a hell-raiser and gadfly. He’s painted his modest bungalow eye-burning shades of blue, green, yellow, and red, as if to give passing, tourist-laden “conch trains” the middle finger. And there’s a large painted sign propped against its front porch, in case somebody doesn’t get the message. It reads: “The B.O.W.E.L. Movement: Butt Out Worthless Environmental Liars. No Marine Sanctuary!” The sign is a reminder of the decade-long fight over the establishment of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was created in 1990 in the face of overwhelming local resistance and which ushered in a new wave of rules and regulations. Watkins frequently paraded around town with the sign displayed in the bed of his pickup truck.

“My taxes are paying the salaries of the people that are trying their hardest to put me out of work,” Watkins told me one night over beers in his back yard. “You shouldn’t mess with the working people, bubba, cuz the working people are the backbone of America.” Though he tries to maintain a sense of morbid humor about the continuous crisis of fishermen in the Keys, his anger and disillusionment creep in when talk turns to the government. “Stuff is building up out here,” he says. “I can envision how somebody snaps.”

Like most professional fishers, Watkins cherishes the independence and self-reliance the job affords, and has gone to great lengths to stay far from the madding crowd. When waters closer to shore got too crowded for his tastes, Watkins fished farther and farther out, eventually ending up in the Dry Tortugas, a 120-mile round-trip from Key West, where conflicts over territory and government hassles were fewer — at least until recently.

Working the Tortugas sets Watkins and his mates apart from most crawfishermen. The typical lobsterman generally traps in shallower waters close to shore, so they can be out and back, baiting and servicing their traps, in a single day. The risks are greater working in the Tortugas, but so are the potential rewards. Seas and shoals can be tricky, as hundreds of shattered galleons attest. Traps, floats, and gear get beaten to hell, as do captain and crew, who often work for 10 or 12 days at a time while being battered by 5- to 10-foot waves. But the crawfish are generally larger than those caught near shore, and in a good season, the Tortugas traps produce consistently while shore-huggers are pulling up empties.

Scales of Justice

Fishing the Tortugas has another disadvantage that couldn’t possibly have occurred to Watkins when he gravitated there years ago: Because relatively few fishermen have the skills, motivation, or inclination to work this far out, it became a tempting target for government regulators looking for somewhere to place a 150 square mile no-fishing zone called the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. Environmentalists and federal regulators hope the reserve will serve as a model for similar no-fishing zones they want to establish along 20 percent of the U.S. coastline.

To proponents in government agencies, environmental groups, and academia, such “marine protected areas” (or MPAs) are the wave of the future for fisheries management — a maritime equivalent of federal wilderness areas that protect not just species but habitat. Greens have fixed like a barnacle on the idea of a “place-based” method for protecting marine life, much as they’ve pushed hard for the establishment of “critical habitats” for endangered species. Traditional, species-based fisheries management strategies are aimed at establishing a sustainable balance between the needs of fish and fishermen. The “place based” approach instead places marine wilderness areas off limits to all human meddling, which they believe will in time replenish the rest of the seas. For most MPA supporters, how fishermen fare as a result seems a matter of indifference.

For the fishermen being displaced by them, MPAs seem like a frivolous federal science fair project with potentially serious economic consequences — and yet another blow to the traditional Key West fishing life.

The no-fishing zone being created in the Tortugas this summer “is just the tip of the iceberg,” according to one government fisheries official who asks not to be identified. “This is an idea that’s not only being embraced at the federal level, but has taken root at the local level, too. A number of the people in the research community think as much as 20 percent of the U.S. coastline should be off limits to fishing. Before long, you may see another marine reserve sitting at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.”

In addition to the 150 square mile Tortugas Reserve, which is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Department of Interior plans to close nearly half the adjoining 100 square mile Dry Tortugas National Park to all “consumptive” activities.

This summer, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, one of two federal panels that regulate fisheries in the Keys, began compiling a “shopping list” of potential new no-fishing zones from the Carolinas to Key West. The council is under mounting pressure from environmental organizations such as the Center for Marine Conservation and Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. Already included on the list of proposed areas is “the Hump,” a popular fishing spot off Islamorada in the upper Keys, and the Carysford Reef, where an existing no-take zone could be enlarged.

Even the city of Key West — in response to lobbying by the Center for Marine Conservation — recently considered a no-fishing zone extending 600 feet from the island’s shoreline. In the end, the city shelved the notion, which would have effectively banned angling from the beach, from docks, and on flats close to shore.

In August, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council will be holding public hearings on the proposals for more fishing bans. The proposals may end up uniting commercial fishermen and sport fishing enthusiasts, who have often been at odds in the past. A number of media reports have suggested that there is support among commercial fishermen for the no-take zones, yet during a visit earlier this year, I failed to meet a single commercial fisherman in the Keys who supported the reserve concept or put much stock in the science behind it. According to most commercial fishermen, many of whom have completely lost faith in a public hearings process they see as a charade, the few fishermen who chose to participate in the government’s public consultation process did so either in a vain effort to mitigate regulatory excesses or in the hope of avoiding being the next group targeted for cutbacks and closures.

Fishy Science

“It’s clear that some environmental groups see MPAs as a panacea, but we think the science is still equivocal on the question of how these areas will effect overall health of the fishery,” says Justin LeBlanc of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association representing commercial fishing interests. “It doesn’t take a scientist to understand that if you stop fishing in an area you’re going to find more fish and larger fish in that area. But if you’re making the argument that it’s going to improve the fishery overall then I think the jury is still out and the science is more equivocal.” LeBlanc calls the proposals to designate at least 20 percent of U.S. coastal areas as no-fishing zones “arbitrary” and “completely irrational.”

Though temporary closures have been used as a fisheries management tool for decades — during spawning seasons, for instance — permanent closures over large areas are a relatively new idea on which hard scientific data either hasn’t been collected or isn’t conclusive, according to LeBlanc.

While there’s little doubt that an unfished area will have more fish, the real issue is whether abundance of marine life in one closed-off area will translate into abundance elsewhere, improving the fishery overall. That question depends on a complicated and only partially understood set of variables, including the mating, spawning, and migratory patterns of myriad species; currents, weather, and tidal conditions; and the size, depth, and bottom composition of the zones.

Fishermen make the following, experience-based observations to challenge what they see as a windy academic theory. First, a lot hangs on the unique characteristics and habits of the fish you want to catch. For instance, territorial species that spend their lives on a reef aren’t going to suddenly leave en masse for open water, where they can fall into the waiting nets of fishermen. And highly migratory species passing through seasonally aren’t likely to settle down and retire to a fishing-free reef, escaping capture. As anyone who’s ever put a hook in water knows, fish (like fishermen) tend to congregate in certain areas (reefs, wrecks, humps, walls, etc.) and are unevenly distributed throughout the seas. Making these crowded areas off limits to fishermen may affect their numbers, but likely will not alter the overall distribution of fish.

So one of the basic ideas behind MPAs is mistaken. When the Tortugas zone was first proposed as part of a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary management plan, it was billed as a “replenishment reserve,” a name suggesting that it would somehow repopulate the seas. But that name was dropped after sanctuary officials were pressed on the specifics of how this “replenishment” would occur, an acknowledgment that the term and, by extension, the concept, was spurious.

Perhaps more important, the whole exercise skirts the most fundamental issue, according to many fishermen I spoke with. The question isn’t whether you will have more fish if you stop fishing (common sense tells us that’s so), but how you can have sustainable fish stocks and sustainable fishermen, too. The traditional, species-based approach to fisheries management, though it functions imperfectly, is at least based upon established procedures, benchmarks, methods, and decades of trial and error. It is also based on the assumption that we can adequately negotiate between our desire to eat fish and our desire to preserve species. No-take zones, by contrast, represent a radical departure, based on immature and uncertain science, which will have a direct and detrimental effect on the fishermen being displaced.

“It is a fad, but it is being effectively campaigned by national environmental groups that have gotten a lot of foundation money to promote this,” says Ted Forsgren, spokesman for the Florida chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a group representing saltwater sport anglers. “The label ‘marine protected areas’ is false advertising, camouflaging what’s really going on, which is the creation of no-fishing areas. And when they talk about prohibiting fishing in just 20 to 30 percent of the ocean, what they’re not saying is that these are the areas that have all the fish.”

Though President Bush vowed that he would not be formulating policy based on environmentalist “fads,” he seems to be giving in to this particular craze. He recently announced that he would not be reversing the last-minute Clinton administration executive order that called on federal agencies to develop a national system of MPAs. In June, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans took a trip to California, where a no-fishing zone is being proposed near the Channel Islands, over the objection of commercial fishermen. Evans not only signaled that the Bush administration would continue to implement Clinton’s executive order, but announced $3 million for scientific research in support of the concept. Evans specifically lauded the Tortugas Reserve as a model that should be followed elsewhere, as has the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Neither paid any mind to the concept’s potentially devastating impact on Watkins and fishermen like him.

When the Tortugas no-take zone became law July 1, Harvey Watkins and at least two dozen Tortugas fishermen lost large parts of the fishing grounds it took them decades of hard experience to master. “They just took half of my livelihood,” Watkins says. “I’ve got a lot of people here who count on me for support.” Now Watkins will have to place more of his traps near shore (“Where I first started fishing 27 years ago,” he says), inviting gear conflicts with boats already established in those areas, or even further out at sea, exposing himself and his crew to even greater hardships and dangers.

At night on the water, with the mates asleep, not a light on the horizon, and an anchorage at Fort Jefferson still a long hour away, Harvey Watkins’ usual mood of manic defiance gradually yields to sadness and resignation as he ponders the government’s apparent antipathy toward his chosen way of life.

“When I was a kid growing up in the ’50s, I used to watch Westerns, cowboys and Indians, and I sided with the cowboys, like all the rest of the kids,” he says, peering through the darkness for some sign of safe anchorage. “I’ve been reading lately about the Indians and how they were treated, and today I feel more like an Indian. Today, as an Indian, I say, ‘To hell with the cowboys.’”

Sean Paige ([email protected]) is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market policy group in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2001 Reason Magazine