Off the Hook

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

Ellak began his fishing career at thirteen as part of a school work program in which he cleaned and filleted fish under the Australian pines at the Blue Marlin smokehouse near the Sunny Isles Causeway bridge. He graduated to deckhand and then to fisherman, taking turns on several of the half-dozen commercial boats docked there. Operated by the same family since 1939, the Blue Marlin was closed to commercial fishing boats July 31, 1995, when, for environmental reasons, the state declined to renew the owner's lease. Today the location is occupied by a kayak rental concession and a pontoon boat for sightseeing.

"They said they closed the river because of manatees, but there's manatees everywhere. Commercial fishermen were always sensitive to manatees, but in the eyes of the state, we're the bad guys. This has pissed a lot of us off. We had a little community here," Ellak says, shaking his head at the memory. "Boats had been coming here since the Thirties. What's left for the new generation of commercial fishermen around here?

"I'm fortunate enough to have a dock slip at Haulover. But I have to do some charter fishing to stay there in exchange for cheaper dockage. I don't like charters. It's a pain in the ass; people don't respect your boat. I'd rather operate out of the Blue Marlin. I'll tell ya, I was born 50 years too late."

During the last decade, the number of commercial fishermen in Dade County has fluctuated between 400 and 600, according to the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg, which compiles data for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Most of them fish part-time. Local fishermen generally are catching fewer fish (see sidebar, page 31) and selling them at higher prices than ten years ago. But compared to other fisheries -- the Florida Panhandle and the Keys, for instance -- the local catch is negligible. Last year the total amount of seafood landed in Monroe County was thirteen times greater than in Dade: 22.8 million pounds compared to 1.75 million pounds.

"The fin-fishing industry [as opposed to crustaceous seafood] is practically nonexistent these days," says Peter Swartz, president of his family-owned East Coast Fisheries on North River Drive in downtown Miami. The company once operated eight processing plants statewide, Swartz says, and was among the leading producers of seafood in Florida from the Thirties to the Seventies. He says fishermen like Jack Ellak today are "going after the crumbs."

Venerable Miami River fish houses like East Coast Fisheries and Florida Carib Fishery are still in business but now operate mainly as purveyors of imported seafood. In fact the import business is booming, and its center is no longer the river but rather Miami International Airport. The number of active seafood dealers in Dade County has grown from 32 in 1987 to 121 in 1995, a dramatic increase reflected in this equally remarkable fact: About 80 percent of all fish sold in Dade County last year was caught in Latin American waters, from Mexico to Chile. Seafood accounted for 10.7 percent of Greater Miami's total imports in 1995, according to the Beacon Council, and was worth $814 million, making it the fourth-largest category of imported goods after apparel and accessories, machinery, and electrical and telecommunications equipment. By contrast, the total value of local seafood caught by Dade County fishermen in 1995 was just $3.9 million.

"We ship all over the country -- New York, Chicago, Boston, Maryland," says Joe Gutierrez, plant manager at the Florida Carib Fishery, located on South River Drive near SE First Avenue. "We're fished out locally. The lobster boats are the last vestige on the river of what was here. The big packers have all moved away. This area's pretty much in shambles. But it's a worldwide problem. Overpopulation -- more people means more pollution, which means fewer fish. And the foreign countries don't have the regulations we do, so it's hard to compete. They don't manage their resources, so they'll have a run for five, ten, twenty years before they wipe out their supply. But right now they're up."

Seafood dealers sometimes undercut local fishermen by importing snapper and grouper and other popular species at sizes that would be illegal for local fishermen to keep and sell. Also the ban on large gill nets, which Florida voters amended into the constitution in November 1994, has effectively halted the large-scale commercial harvesting of pompano, kingfish, bluefish, and mullet. People like Ellak are now forced to catch fish one by one. The result is more work, lower productivity, and higher prices to the consumer.

"The demise of the South Florida fishery is because of adverse legislation," contends East Coast Fisheries' Swartz. "Legislators don't care about fishing. It's not being encouraged, it's being discouraged. It's become more difficult for the individual fisherman to exist because of the regulations."

But before regulations, Swartz admits, there was overfishing. His father, Max Swartz, was a pioneer of the South Florida fishery. He fished from the late 1890s to the mid-1920s and coined the terms Florida rock lobster and Key West pink shrimp. Fresh catches were iced and hauled to the northeast via Henry Flagler's FEC Railway. By the Seventies, the Swartzes' fishing fleet had grown to 150 vessels and several spotter planes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Swartz says the company pulled in as much as a million pounds of fish in one day. And instead of importing, as it does today, the company used to ship Florida seafood all over the world. The fleet is now down to several lobster boats.

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