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Commercial fishermen hope for better catches in reopened waters

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 10:42 AM

For months, a federal ban in the Gulf of Mexico has forced too many deep sea boats to ply narrow zones of water that didn't have enough fish.

"I didn't catch diddly," said John Fitzpatrick, the captain of the Blue Water 1, after he returned from a recent fishing trip just outside a vast area that was shut down by the oil spill.

"I got 2,000 pounds of red grouper in 18 days. Should be able to do that in half the time."

Fitzpatrick and other local fishermen can now return to more bountiful waters to cast their lines.

About 26,000 square miles has been reopened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association after repeated tests showed there was no oil in the area.

More than 88,000 square miles were closed to fishing since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and unleashing millions of gallons of sludge into the Gulf.

The reopened fisheries are about 220 miles southeast of BP's broken well. Scientists collected samples of grouper, snapper, tuna and mahi-mahi within the reopened area and concluded there was no contamination from oil or dispersants.

"We're grateful they got it open," said Bob Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood. "We had such a small space to fish and the catches were down."

Spaeth said all 30 of his grouper boats are ready to go. During the ban, only three boats left the dock regularly, he said.

This week, the marina bustled as Spaeth's crews packed ice, bait, groceries and fuel for the return to the Gulf. A marked difference, Spaeth said, from the weeks most of his boats and its crews sat idle collecting compensation checks from BP.

"I think we'll get back to near normalcy," Spaeth said. "There'll be more grouper shortly."

Karen Bell, the owner of A.P. Bell Fish House in the historic Manatee County fishing town of Cortez Village, said her business has picked up since more fisheries opened.

"There's a sense now that we're on the road to recovery," Bell said. "We're having buyers from other parts of the country come to southwest Florida because they know the Gulf is still clean here."

Capping the leaky well also improved the public's perception of the Florida fishing industry, she said.

"People seem to be more comfortable eating product out of the Gulf once the flow was stopped," Bell said. "It just helped people move forward a little bit."

Charter boat captain Kathe Fannon said Manatee locals have kept her business afloat this summer.

"I have stuff all the way to the end of August already booked," she said.

Phil Conner, the manager of Holiday Seafood in Tarpon Springs, said he believes business will also bounce back now that more of the Gulf is open to fishing.

"It's been a quiet summer and the numbers have dropped," Conner said. "But it definitely feels the stranglehold has eased up a bit."

Others still have doubts.

"It's too late," Fitzpatrick, the Madeira Beach captain said. "The damage has been done. We haven't seen the long-term repercussions of this."

During the ban, Fitzpatrick said he and his crew covered a 60 square mile area of shallower water west, southwest and south of Tampa with limited success.

Danny Deal, a fishing captain also based out of Madeira Beach, said he attempted a similar tactic, fishing 80 miles northwest of Pinellas County when most of the Gulf was still under federal restrictions.

Deal saw few signs of life in an area that, before the spill, teemed with marine animals.

"The fish fell off. There were no birds. Nothing," Deal said. "It was like Mother Nature told them to get the hell out of there."

So Deal headed about 140 miles southwest of Tampa, but when he got there, realized other fishermen had the same idea. About 300 boats had crammed into the small corridor of shallow water, he said.

Before he left for the reopened waters on Friday, Deal said he was hoping for the best.

"It's nice," he said about the lifted restrictions. "I just don't know what it's going to be like."

Fannon, whose family has been fishing for four generations, is optimistic.

"Being a commercial fisherman, we are hard driven people," she said. "We will make it."


News Channel 8 reporter Jackie Barron contributed to this report. Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920. Reporter Stephen Thompson can be reached at (727) 451-2336.

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