Off the Hook

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

In the early Eighties, there weren't any fishing regulations to speak of. "We paid $220 for a boat license and that was it," Sanchez recalls. "Now it's $3000 for each boat and we need a license for each fish. Too many regulations, and the regulations don't do anything. The problem is the thousands of pleasure boats that are ruining the seaweed and scaring the fish into deep water."

When a ban on fish traps went into effect five years ago, Sanchez unloaded his steel and wire-mesh traps (which had cost $300 each) for $25 to $50 to fishermen in the Bahamas and Louisiana. His loss in the exchange, he estimates, came to about $40,000. But he's not complaining, not really. His crews, using long lines and hand lines, are bringing in 80 to 90 snappers in the ten- to fifteen-pound range after two-day trips, mostly off the Keys.

Every fisherman and seafood dealer has an opinion about why the commercial fishery in Dade County is so poor these days. But those opinions, even among very experienced professionals, are often contradictory. Steve McKinley, a 45-year-old Miami native who's been fishing local waters commercially for 30 years, says such conflicting ideas should come as no surprise: "The nature of fishing is seasonal and cyclical. How does one really know how many fish there are in the ocean? How many stars are there in the sky? The fish have a head and a tail and they're mobile."

Two-thirty in the afternoon is not a good time to go bait fishing, Jack Ellak admits, but he gets no farther than the end of the south jetty of Haulover inlet when he spots the ripples in dark water: pilchards. After four or five sweeps with his ten-foot, hand-cast net, he has enough bait in the boat's aerated live well for the afternoon. "We're lucky, very lucky," he says. Several men fishing from the jetty, however, aren't so lucky. Ellak's boat has crossed their lines and disturbed the water, much to their chagrin. Too bad, he says. "Do you see that?" he asks. "There wasn't anybody fishing there until I showed up."

He points the Baby New Moon due east and full-throttles toward a horizon of pure potential.

Ellak was born in France and lived several years in Canada, where he became so enthralled by ice hockey that he entertained thoughts of making it a career. But then his family moved to North Miami Beach. Football didn't turn him on, nor did school. What appealed to him was the outdoors, the warm water. He started fishing on the old Sunny Isles pier and hanging out at the Blue Marlin Fishery. In tenth grade he dropped out of school to devote himself to the age-old career of fisherman.

"I loved to cut fish and handle the product," he says. "Fishing gave me a chance to have more control. Basically that's what this country's all about -- independence. But they're making it tough for independence with all the rules and regulations on the little guy. I'm a hard worker and I want to be respected for it.

"It's in me, it's a part of me. If I only had one arm, I'd get a job in a seafood market and shovel ice. If I lost both my legs and arms, I'd taste it and tell you how good it is."

Ellak chuckles, then takes a drag on his Marlboro Light. He exhales slowly. "You get up and look at the sky, and it's a nice southeast breeze, nice blue-water current, and nice clumps of sargassum. Every day is different. It's not like I'm assembling 35 transmissions. I learned from the old-timers, but basically if you're a real fisherman, you'll figure it out."

He's doing sixteen knots and approaching the Gulf Stream. About two miles offshore he turns north and flips on the Lorance depth sonar. "We're going to an offshore reef," he says, "an oil rig, looking for grouper and snapper." The fly bridge sways over a one-foot chop. Ellak recites his mantra: "Got to go out every day, be consistent to be any good in this business."

A seagull swoops. That's a good sign, says Ellak. He stares at the sonar, then turns wide due south. "Fish like current. Gotta have current to catch fish," he says, lighting another cigarette. Since most fish are migratory, a swift current simply carries more fish past a single spot. He turns the boat north again and idles the engine. "Let's see the way we drift."

A VHF radio on the boat's console blurts a brief exchange:
"Nothing changes but the day."
"Hey, what's the difference between fishing and a Jewish broad?"
"Ha ha."
"After ten years, fishing still sucks."
"Ha, ha. Oh, Gino, glad to see ya still got a sense of humor."

Ellak laughs mockingly at the two men on the radio. "Old-timers haven't got a clue."

A gray mountain rising on the sonar screen indicates the reef. He drops anchor in 100 feet of water, a half-mile west of the Gulf Stream. "It's so funky out here. It's hard to tell which way the current's going. It looks like a south current against the wind." Miffed, he throttles the engine and steers south, dragging the anchor.

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