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LARAMIE WILLIAMS HAS BEEN A COMMERCIAL FISHERMAN FOR TWELVE YEARS AND A DECKHAND HERE FOR SIX, AND

NOW, HES PROVEN HE DESERVES TO DIRECT THE RUDDER. THE 27-YEAR-OLD, WITH HIS STOCKY BULL FRAME AND SIGNATURE LONGHORNS HAT, SITS BEHIND THE WHEEL OF THE KAREN BELL AS ITS NEW CAPTAIN. HE COORDINATES THE SCURRYING OF DOCKWORKERS AND DECKHANDS, WHO HOP ON AND OFF LIKE PURPOSEFUL FLEAS, WHILE HE ROTATES THE BOAT IN POSITION FOR ICE LOADING. DONT LET HER HIT THAT POLE, AND PUSH OFF THAT ANCHOR, HE YELLS OVER THE HUM OF THE ENGINE.

A LOOK BEYOND THE HELM REVEALS SALT IN THE WOUND FOR COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN

BY JAKE COLEMAN PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN SIGMUND

arry Carver, Williams thin 22year-old deckhand, friend and comparative greenhorn, walks his way down starboard muscling the 55foot Broadfire boat clear of potential scrapes. As the captain, its Williams job to assure the boat returns in the condition of launch. Upon completion, this pockets him a small stipend in return off the top of the boat owners customary 40 percent. Once the boat is safely secured abreast the dock, men begin ferrying supplies for the 12-day journey across her freshly carpeted surface: groceries, bait, ice, tackle and fuel, all the necessities of the longliners occupation. Everyone hustles toward a deliberate mission now. Today is a rush day for Williams. He planned to leave the following weekend, but with some nasty weather rolling in, he has to clear out early. In consideration of the elements, the captains job is to anticipate and facilitate the necessary preparations to insure he and his twoman crew avoid a broker, a trip in which they never get out of the red. It is on Williams shoulders to navigate the water and its conditions so as to best protect the crews safety and prepare for a successful catch. Before I go out on a trip, I dont get any sleep, the captain says. I lie in bed, try to sleep, but my mind is always racing: what do I got; what have I forgot; what do we need; we need to get out at this certain time; we got bad weather coming. The target, of course, is for the crew to start working in profit, and the fishermens window of success is a narrow one. Each trip mounts to roughly $4,000 in expenses; 40 percent of earnings get sequestered to the vessels owner, and then the trips remaining profits are split three ways. Williams still has to steam the Karen Bell roughly 30 miles out before they can start reeling in the grouper, and he needs to be anchored and prepared for work by daylight tomorrow.

NAVIGATING THE LAW

The Florida constitution in 1995, in an attempt toward conservation, outlawed the use of inshore gill nets, which has always been the predominant form of local fishing. It was an abnormal move to enforce the law through the constitution. The gill net already had previous regulations, and opposed to the still legal cast nets, the gill nets four-inch mesh size was far more discriminate, allowing small, non-bred fish to escape. The law now extinguishes the possibility of finding a flexible alternative for the long-time fisheries that relied upon the low-cost occupation. In the two years after the ban, the new rule pushed fishermen farther offshore, which caused most of the communal fish houses to go belly-up. It was the beginning of a long string of perceived conservation-minded regulation that tugged at the independent livelihood of the traditional local fisherman: location bans, distance restrictions, hook limitations and GPS requirements for boats were all seen as a form of occupational attrition. Stone crabbing, bait fishing, cast netting and shrimping still provided work, but for the average fisherman it was sparse and, because of the intrinsic overhead, only marginally profitable. Offshore longlining emerged as the primary market that could still sustain a consistent living, but when the individual fishing quota [IFQ] system was implemented three years ago, that whole industry changed as well. The IFQ sets an annual harvest limit in pounds for a given boat, and all incoming boats must declare their catch and subject it to be inspected and logged. Different fisheries are catalogued according to their historical landings, which is how much fish they brought in. The way the fisheries were assigned how much they were allowed to catch was a result of the government taking a 10-year window of historic landings and allotting an according percentage of the quota per year based on the amount harvested. This meant that the vast majority of boats did not qualify, and in order for them to fish, owners would have to purchase an existing IFQ from someone

assigned a quota or from one of the many investors leasing or brokering the quota. With no way to establish a documented precedent of catch and little money to purchase the necessary quota, the ole salt fishing community all but withered. When the IFQ system was initially administered, AP Bell Fish Company in Cortez was one of only eight establishments to receive a quota in Manatee County, for which they were given two. The company is synonymous with the historic Cortez fishing culture. Like many of the early Cortez fishermen, Aaron Parks Bell moved there in 1895 from North Carolina, and after several failed attempts at partnering, he opened AP Bell in 1940. The founders descendant Karen Bell, whom Williams boat is named after, now runs the company that essentially stands as the only major full-service fishery left between Fort Myers and St. Petersburg. These guys are workers, Karen Bell states. What they do is important to the economy and the country because they provide food for us. She starts ticking off her fingers the fishermans expenses: $150,000 minimum for a boat, $40,000 for a longline endorsement, $5,000 for a reef permit. Add all that up, IFQs are trading for $6 a pound, which doesnt even make sense. Why would you pay $6 a pound for a fish that you only get on average $3 a pound for? Therefore, they have that huge investment. Say they catch a hundred thousand pounds a year, how long is it going to take them to pay off that $600,000? Without having a benefactor or someone to allow you to operate a boat, its almost impossible. Karen adds that the people who do this job are independent, salt-of-the-earth people who havent done anything but fish their entire lives. With the kind of money it takes to buy into it now, they generally dont have the resources.

Cory Boak picks up grouper. Right: Harry Carver with his baby boy, Levi. Far right: Mike Westfall.

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The old guard fishers dont understand it. They did away with equal opportunity fishermen, says Arnold Soupy Davis, an 85-year-old who has been fishing for seventy years. When a few fleet owners control 90 percent of the grouper caught now, theyve let just a few fishermen fish. The rest are out. Longtime fisherman Captain Rick Waites adds: How can the government tell a man who works 75 hours a week that he cant take his son fishing and keep the fish? How do you vote Americans out of work? With eight boats to split the yearly quota and roughly ten independents that dock there, AP Bell provides work for many fishermen. For the offshore fee, the

company fronts them groceries, bait, ice and fuel, and when the men return, they hope theyve made enough to pay back the expense plus the 40 percent yield for using the boat.

OUT TO SEA

Williams leaves the dock at 4:15pm and steams out to the sea buoy, throwing their change at it for good luck. They start preparing the equipment and baiting the hooks so the gear is ready for morning, then they steam through the night. The Karen Bell is anchored in the Gulf in time for the men to get a couple hours of sleep before sunrise. The boat awakens about an hour before daylight so the crew can sip on a

cup of coffee and get their bodies moving. The fishermen pull the anchor, make their first set and unpack the bait to start cutting it up. They position a longline, a lengthy fishline positioned to string along the bottom. Smaller baited lines are strung off the longline at intervals, trailing as far back as five to seven miles. The men are stringing to target red grouper but wouldnt mind reeling in a few black ones, which pay a little better. It takes 45 minutes to set the gear in the water. They let it soak for roughly half an hour. Then, it takes an hour and ten minutes to haul it back in. Once the fish are aboard, theyre bled, gutted and packed in ice. The crew makes four to five

of these sets throughout the course of a day, from daylight to dark, everyday for 10 to 12 days. Through rough weather, nice weather, we work it all, says Williams. The team hopes to land 1,000 pounds a day; thats a good day at the office. Williams and Carver talk about what life on the open water means to them. I love being my own boss, says Williams. Having the freedom to go out and not have to worry about what goes on on land. You basically have no contact. Its the peace and quiet really. Carver adds: Its hard work, and youre away from home a lot, but its worth it. Its fun. All the problems you have on shore, when you

leave, you dont have to deal with it out there. Youre out there to work; its all youre out there to do. After almost two full weeks of fishing, the Karen Bell prepares for her 40-mile ride back in shore. The crew works through the day, cleaning the boat into the evening and finishing up a little before midnight. Then the crew starts its eight-hour ride in, working off a wheel-watch shift, each member getting about two-anda-half hours sleep. The men start unloading at eight oclock the next morning. They unload all day, clean the boat and ice out, pack their clothes up and head inside for their paycheck from AP Bell.

Opposite page: Eduardo Jimenez sorts grouper off the conveyor belt. This page: Mike Westfall on the Karen Bell.

JULY 2012 / SRQ

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A quick primer for enjoying the bounties of the region. H.MORSE


, , Habitat Offshore; rocky bottoms, reefs and drop-offs in waters over 60 feet. Size At least 22 (black grouper); at least 20 (red grouper). Diet Fish and squid. Season AprilJanuary. Taste Firm white meat with a large flake and mild flavor. Price $$ , , , Habitat Inshore, along beaches during fall. Size No minimum. Diet Algae and zooplankton. Season Open. Taste Light and lean meat with a firm texture and moderate to full flavor (usually served smoked). Price $ ,

, , , , , , , , Habitat Sandy or muddy bottoms. Size At least 16. Diet Small fish and crustaceans. Season June 1-July 30. Taste Lean white meat with a mild flavor thats similar to flounder and not as strong as swordfish (the red in its name comes from skin color only). Price $$$
,, Habitat Near shore or inshore waters with inlets and bays, usually found around buoys or wrecks. Size At least 33 fork. Diet Crabs, squid, small fish. Season Open. Taste Mild, similar to swordfish and yellowfin tuna. Price $$

, , , Habitat Inshore during spring and summer, offshore during fall and winter; large numbers migrate to Florida from northern areas during winter. Size At least 12fork. Diet Sardine-like fish, jacks, grunts, anchovies, shrimp and squid. Season Open. Taste Moist, fatty fish with darker meat that has a defined fish flavor. Price $

, , , Habitat Inshore on sandy or mud bottoms, usually in tidal creeks; occasionally theyre found on nearshore rocky reefs. Size At least 12 Diet Fish spawn, crustaceans, small fish. Season Open. Taste Lean, firm, white meat with light flake and mild flavor. Price $$ , , , , , , , , , Habitat Offshore, found in rocky
reefs, debris and wrecks in 60-240 feet of water. Size At least 30 fork. Diet Squid, fish, crustaceans. Season August-May. Taste Firm, extra lean, white meat with mild flavor. Price $

CATCH OF THE DAY

, , , , ,, , , , , , , , , , Habitat Seagrass, over muddy or sand bottoms, near oyster bars. Size 18-27. Diet Summer/fall: crabs, shrimp; spring/winter: mullet, flounder. Season Open. Taste White, flaky, mild meat that takes on the taste of whatever spices are used in the preparation. Price $ , , , , , , , , Habitat Inshore and nearshore near seagrass meadows, mangroves, or deep holes and channels. Size 15-20 (one fish over 20 allowed per person). Diet Shrimp and other crustaceans. Season Open. Taste Similar to trout, with a texture similar to whitefish. Price $
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The fish company acts as a holding house for the fish that come in, allowing regulatory inspection, weighing the catch, paying the fishermen for their pounds and serving as a fresh fish market for buyers that come from all over the world. Its mandatory that all commercial fish pass through this process before they can be sold for consumption. AP Bell routinely ships to companies from Georgia, Canada and across the Atlantic. The company has to sell the perishable product to make margins and cover expenses for the fishermen and facilities. Unfortunately, global competition can make it tough for local restaurants to buy their fish; the

product is limited with the IFQ system with where it can go. Local restaurateurs like Brett Wallin of Walts Fish Market Restaurant know the importance of a fresh catch. Fresh is what makes it count, Wallin says. Thats always been my trademark; I know the first name of the guy who caught that right there. Thats what is most valuable to me, the local stuff. Wallin is a fourth-generation fisher who works off his own fleet and inhouse IFQs that allow him to fish both in- and offshore. Like many of the surviving fisheries, he adapted his own workable business model that includes a restaurant, fish market, catering and selling to other establishments. The issue is that, for

Doug Boak waits to unload. Opposite page: Cory Boak jumps into the hold of the Karen Bell.

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restaurants without the local fishing ties, the system can make it difficult to consistently obtain fresh fish at affordable prices; its a problem that many remedy by shipping in frozen fish from elsewhere, further feeding the greater industry issue of removal from the local market. The government plans to take a harder look at the IFQ system later this year and is considering mandating buyers use their own purchased quota under the logic more shares would become available for the local fishermen. But with the friction between rising global demand and pressing issues of conservation, the question remains whether theyd be able to find a balance that can help preserve the sacred legacy of living off the water.