Off the Hook

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

While Swartz blames regulations for restricting commercial catches, he says resource management and artificial reefs are also the hope for the future. The local fishery, Swartz says, could be back in abundance in five or six generations.

Though he's dressed for action -- rubber boots, long pants, long-sleeve T-shirt -- Capt. Frank Smith carries a look that says he's tired of being pissed off and to hell with it. Captain Frank, as he's widely known, began fishing commercially in Miami in 1958, when the sign over the historic Pier 5, where Bayside is now located, proclaimed "Fishing Capital of the World." That was a time when fishing fleets docked at Haulover, South Beach, and Pier 5. "It used to be like spearing shish-kebabs at Government Cut, there was just a wall of fish," he recalls. "Loud splashing in the bay would wake you up in the middle of the night. But I got here at the end of it. The fishing was already tapering off in Miami."

There are many reasons Miami's fishery is in such a poor state, Captain Frank ventures, but a fundamental one is simply the lack of space for commercial boats. As Jack Ellak laments the end of the Blue Marlin Fishery, so Captain Frank argues that the closing of Pier 5, which once accommodated a charter/fishing fleet of 50 boats, was a bad day for commercial fishing. By 1985 the old fishing community had been dismantled to make room for a more lucrative and, to many civic leaders' way of thinking, more attractive business: hooking and netting tourists at Bayside Marketplace. "We went from the top of the heap to the bottom," grumbles Captain Frank, who owns three boats and runs a ramshackle but clean seafood market on Watson Island.

A commercial fisherman and a conservationist, Captain Frank believes fishing regulations should have been initiated a long time ago. The use of nets (some stretching 600 yards) and fish traps the size of bedrooms killed indiscriminately and depleted South Florida stocks. It's a shame, he says, that shrimp trawlers are permitted to drag nets with weighted chains across the ocean floor: "Shrimpers on Biscayne Bay wiped themselves out. They all cheated and they really have no one to blame but themselves."

He is also concerned about the pollution of Biscayne Bay from urban development: runoff, dredging, and seawalls replacing the natural mangrove coastline that normally serves as a nursery for young fish. But like Swartz, Captain Frank is optimistic that resource management and artificial reefs will help bring the local fisheries back someday. He cites the cleanup of the Hudson River, now open for fishing after decades of urban and industrial pollution, as encouragement that South Florida can clean its waters.

Along with the decline of the fish, Captain Frank misses the culture of commercial fishing: the once rough-and-tumble lot of Ishmaels, bullshitters, and swillbelly shithooks who used to brag and brawl over beers at bars like Tobacco Road (once nicknamed "Bucket of Blood," says Captain Frank, for its fighting reputation) and the now-defunct Little Brown Jug on NE Second Avenue. "If you wanted to know about fishing, you went to these places and found someone to talk to," he recalls. "All these people are gone now. There's only a handful left -- and I'm on my way out. Nobody drinks. Nobody fishes. Nobody cares about the fisherman. There's no incentive to stay around. Today there's more backstabbing than backslapping. If you find a fishing spot, you keep it to yourself."

One of Captain Frank's several fishing neighbors on Watson Island is a young new-breed named Lazaro Sanchez, whose thriving, five-year-old Casablanca seafood market offers nothing but fresh local seafood: cobia, red snapper, mutton snapper, yellowjack, grouper, wahoo, shark, octopus, squid, shrimp, conch, blue crab, and when in season, lobster and stone crab. Sanchez and his family of eleven emigrated here in 1978 from Isabela de Sagua, some 185 miles east of Havana, where his family fished with hand lines from canoes. With the help of relatives already living in Miami, who provided the new arrivals with a boat, Sanchez got off to a good start in his adopted country. Before opening Casablanca, he sold to seafood houses on the Miami River. Now he has three boats hauling in thousands of pounds of fish daily. He sells wholesale to distributors and restaurants and retail to the public at the Watson dock. On this summer day, Sanchez is cutting shark fins for marketing in New York City's Chinatown, where the fins will be made into the popular shark-fin soup. He has 180 pounds of fins, which will fetch eighteen dollars per pound, while the shark meat sells wholesale for about 80 cents per pound, $3.00 retail. In Dade County in 1995, according to the Florida Marine Research Institute, only yellowtail snapper was greater in value than sharks.

The 31-year-old Sanchez always knew he wanted to be a fisherman, but on his mother's orders he didn't pursue it full-time until he graduated from Coral Gables High School in 1983. "When I got my diploma, I gave it to my momma and said, 'Here you are. So long. I'm going fishing with my brothers.'"

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