Off the Hook

Caught between depletion and regulation, Dade's commercial fishermen are becoming the latest endangered species

Molson Ice at twelve o'clock. The sky is bright, the breeze onshore. A charter fisherman -- white shorts, turquoise shirt, gold chain -- kicks off his Topsiders and swigs from the perspiring bottle. "Fishin's slow today," he sighs, extending his arms like outriggers over the back of a bench.

The crews of the other dozen or so charter boats docked at Haulover Marina are absent. Not even the cats are out. As if leaving an epigram on the day, a shirtless man piloting a Boston whaler languidly pronounces, "Fishin' sucks. I'm going diving." Right on cue, it seems, comes Jack -- Capt. Jacques Ellak -- stepping out of his old black Ford pickup wearing white rubber boots, faded jeans, and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. With wild hair and a beard, Ellak is six foot five and 280 pounds of hard-core fisherman. A tough guy for tough times, a commercial fisherman in a sport fisherman's town. "Nobody's doing anything, but we'll give it a try," he says. "In order to get the good day, you have to go every day. That's the only way."

He swiftly goes about rigging his 30-foot, wooden-hull open-fisherman Baby New Moon for a day's work. His fishing equipment is basic: a sonar depth gauge, a couple of dip nets and cast nets, six rods, and two spool hand lines. He shovels ice into a 600-pound chest to keep the hoped-for catch fresh.

Ellak usually gets started at four in the morning and returns to Haulover around six at night. But it's been one of those days. He needed a part for his twin 150-horse Detroit diesels and had to wait until normal business hours to get it. Just as well, he says, because he needed the extra rest after yesterday. He got caught up in this feud at a fishing spot off South Dade with a "burnout," a guy who can no longer keep up with the grueling demands of commercial fishing and who shadows other fishermen to their choice fishing spots.

Ellak told the guy, an old friend, to scram but the dude wouldn't go. "He kept whining and complaining -- he's just jealous. I've tried to help him out but he's stupid, lazy, not willing to work hard." Ellak threatened to go home and get his gun, but instead stayed and argued for hours. "I don't take no shit from nobody," he declares. Then, adjusting his attitude, he adds, "But it's really not like that out here. We all respect each other. He's the exception. He claims the fishing hole is his spot -- but it's everybody's. The sea belongs to everybody. If you're selfish in this business, you might as well get out of town." He also plainly acknowledges his own occasional lapses of fishing etiquette: "I've been bad. I've thrown a lot of garbage and done some bad things out here. But I've got to think: 'Hey, Jack, this ain't right.'"

The temptation to not play by the rules is sometimes irresistible for commercial fishermen, who, despite all the new-fangled technology and learned tradition, seem to rely more on craft and dumb luck -- or karma, as Ellak believes -- than on hard science. An aggressive fisherman, more hard-headed than hard-hearted, Ellak finds the rules that govern fishing these days to be a nuisance. The state and federal governments, in an ostensible effort to regenerate depleted stocks, prescribe how to fish, what to fish, when and where to fish. The only question remaining for Ellak is, Why fish? That's simple, he says. He loves it. The feel of it, the smell of it. He's an outdoorsman. He could never put in twelve-, fourteen-hour days fishing solo in the open sea if he didn't love it. Fellow fishermen call him "Ace" and "Top Gun," as much for his exuberance as his skill.

Ellak, 30 years old and a seventeen-year veteran of commercial fishing, bought his first boat just six months ago. Like most fishermen, he now works independently, selling wholesale to restaurants and markets and retail to the public off the dock. He's been bringing in about $300 to $400 per day, but fuel, insurance, ice, and other expenses eat up about one-third of that. By repairing and maintaining the twenty-year-old boat himself -- and assuming that his luck holds -- he hopes to net about $50,000 in this first year working on his own. His goal is to make enough money to buy a bigger, more efficient boat so he can bring in bigger catches. Then he could more easily pay the mortgage on a new two-bedroom house in Hallandale and support his 25-year-old wife, Alexandra, and their two young children, Daniel and Caroline.

At 12:30 the Baby New Moon slips away from the marina and heads north along the Intracoastal toward the Oleta River. Ellak hasn't been up the river since the Blue Marlin Fishery closed there last year. He's curious to see what has come of it. "They don't allow commercial fishing boats here any more because of manatees, so they'll probably try to throw us out or call the cops, but I'll handle it," he says, grinning atop the twenty-foot fly bridge. Steering through the sinuous mangrove river at four knots, Ellak eyes an osprey. "There's foxes and raccoons and I've even seen a bald eagle back in there. It's very natural, very beautiful. There's a lot of osprey in the fall."

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