The One That Didn't Get Away

A National Marine Fisheries Service scientist hooks some big violations

This does not, however, explain how such a huge fish A which lurks anywhere from 1200 to 2000 feet below the water's surface A ended up on Prince's boat.

To understand how Prince landed the monster requires a lesson in what is called "deep-drop fishing," a recent offshoot of sport fishing that consists of dropping a weighted wire line down hundreds of feet, waiting for a fish to bite, then hoisting it to the surface with an electric reel.

Eric Prince is a long-time deep-drop devotee. In fact he was featured in an article titled "Deep Drop Delicacies" in the October 1992 issue of Florida Sportsman.

In the story, author Don Mann describes the excitement of pulling huge beasts from the deep. He relates, for instance, how the fishes' air bladders explode due to the pressure change, creating a "geyser of bubbles that announce their arrival." The fish arrive at the surface dead, their eyes bulging out of their swollen heads.

"It's a sport that is growing in popularity despite occasional criticism from purist sportsmen," Mann enthuses in the article. "Fishing in 500 to 1500 feet of water adds an exciting dimension to recreational angling. This is especially true lately, when so many shallow water species are becoming increasingly scarce.

"A big part of the deep-water enticement is the mystery," Mann continues. "There's a suspenseful wait as the electric reel turns. Exactly what was it nibbling your bait in the complete darkness a quarter-mile below your boat?"

Later, he adds, "My latest trip, which introduced me for the first time to exploding air bladders, Warsaw grouper, and depths exceeding a quarter-mile, started with an invitation from Dr. Eric Prince, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami.

"Eric was introduced to deep-dropping... many years ago. When Eric bought a new open fisherman, he promptly equipped it with a 10/0 Penn Senator and Elec-Tra-Mate 12-volt reel system. Recently, he added a 24-volt Lindgren motor to a 12/0 Senator. Ever since, he's been enjoying species at his dinner table that most of us only see in obscure marine textbooks."

Prince stresses that there was nothing illegal about his 1992 trip with Mann.

But Scott Quackenbush, chair of the biological science department at Florida International University and a marine biologist who has studied deep-water ecosystems, says he fears the potential impact of commercial deep-drop fishing.

"There is so little energy going into a deep-sea system that everything grows very slowly," he explains. "What that means is that when you remove something, the recovery time is very slow. It doesn't take long to ruin a fishery." (This is precisely what happened a few years ago, when commercial fishermen started harvesting wreckfish off the coast of South Carolina. Regulatory agents were forced to place severe limits on wreckfishing.)

Quackenbush emphasizes that he has no objection to recreational deep-drop fishermen such as Prince. At the same time, he points out that he doesn't approve of Prince's conduct last May.

"I live in fear of something like that happening to me," Quackenbush says. "That's why I force my friends to get fishing licenses, even if we're just fishing off the Keys. We have to be held to a higher standard, because if rascals like us won't follow the rules, how can Johnny Q. Public be expected to?" Quackenbush adds he even has posted articles about Prince's troubles on the bulletin board outside his office, "as a reminder to me and my students that no one is above the law in this regard.

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