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."

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.

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.'"

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.

After half an hour, he's still looking for a good spot. "It's got to be just right. If it's not right, it's no good. You got to be sitting on the right spot on the wreck." He hustles from bow to stern, back and forth, pausing at the console to check the sonar, then he stops on the bow, feet planted shoulder-length apart. "Bullshit," he spits, throwing down his cigarette. Still not right. He hustles east. Then south. "Ah, hell, we'll try it here for a little while." He cuts the engine. The sun drifts in and out of the clouds.

"Now we're sitting pretty," he continues. "Now we're sitting pretty." He tosses a net bag of chum overboard. "Stand back!" He wraps his index fingers and middle fingers with medical tape to protect from line burns and cuts, then grabs a hand-line spool wound with 150-test monofilament. Before baiting the line, he chomps a Rice Krispy marshmallow treat and chugs from a gallon of water. "I drink two gallons a day," he explains. "It's good for you."

Ellak sits on the transom studying the water for some sign of fish. He holds the spool in his left hand, the line extending across his right palm and then through his thumb and forefinger. Marveling at his spot over the reef, on the outer edge of the current, he exclaims, "Ah! So beautiful! Now we have a chance."

The view to the horizon is dotted with several tankers and freighters; a few pleasure craft are also in the area, but no fishing boats in sight. The radio crackles again:

"I like that blondie."
"She's a big, uh, buxom blonde. They call her the grouper lady."
A little after 5:00 Ellak pulls out his first catch -- a barracuda, not a popular food fish. "But the Jamaicans like it, and I eat it up," he says. "It tastes good." Fifteen pounds at two dollars a pound on the dock.

Ten minutes later he yanks up another gnarly barracuda. He swings the silver fish over his shoulder and slams it against the deck. "If it sells, I'll catch it," he sings. (One result of catch restrictions has been that less-exalted species, which might have been discarded several years ago, are now selling in lieu of more traditionally popular fish.) He baits and throws out a second hand line, securing it to an aluminum cleat on the gunwale.

In less than a minute, line two goes haywire. Pulling hard, raising each arm alternately over his head, Ellak lands a ten-pound mutton snapper. At four bucks a pound, he's pleased. "I'd like it better if it was twenty pounds -- we're all greedy! Ten more like that and I'll be happy. This is the highest-quality fish. Go to Publix and get a Costa Rican snapper that has been sitting on ice for who the hell knows how long for four dollars and ninety cents a pound -- there's no comparison."

After a few quiet minutes without a bite, Ellak grows introspective. "This is dangerous out here," he says. "I could die out here, you know. Fall off the bridge. Get hit by lightning. I almost got cut in half by the anchor rope one day. I've hit channel markers. I've knocked my fingers out of joint." He may not be superstitious, he adds, "but if you do bad deeds, you're going to have some bad luck. I try not to be a bad guy so Neptune is good to me."

Suddenly a line slants. A five-pound mutton snapper is calling. The mutton measures sixteen and one-quarter inches on a flat ruler. Barely legal. "Just makes it," he announces.

Ellak raises a four-pound lesser amberjack and slams it to the deck. Two dollars a pound. "Thank you, God!" he shouts. "See, he's taking care of me today. It doesn't take much to make some money. It all adds up, but it's hard work. Sometimes you come out here and there's nothing going on and you start talking to the birds: 'Get the hell out of here, this is my spot!'" He's thrilled about this location and will keep it a secret, he says. "I'm going to have a frenzy here tomorrow. Hell, yeah!" Line one slants again in the water. He pulls up the hook: a hit but no catch.

The sun melds into the haze above the Hallandale water tower. Leaning over the side of his boat, pulling and pulling a hand line, Ellak lifts a fifteen-pound mutton snapper. The grayish-orange fish shudders on the deck, its gills gasping until Ellak kicks it in the head. "Good night!" he howls.

Minutes later: yellowjack, five pounds. The flat fish with a thin yellow lateral stripe will go to a sushi restaurant for three dollars a pound.

A minute later -- boom! He lands a twenty-pound grouper. "Ching, ching, barra, bing, bing, bing!" he sings in imitation of a cash register. Four bucks a pound. The sluggish grouper, whispering its last breaths, goes gently into the ice cooler without a head slam.

Shirt sweaty and pants bloodied, Ellak grabs another Rice Krispy treat and gulps from the water jug. Between swallows he talks about a fisherman's skill, how some really experienced fishermen can smell the iodine that dolphin and sailfish emit in the water. He breaks out a rod and reel to fish for blue runners, speedos, and scad mackerels, skinny fish less than a foot long used for bait or for a cheap meal that he sells at two to three dollars each. Rapidly he dangles the line a foot deep and yanks. On the deck, the fish squirm, tails slapping the deck like a drum roll. "I love that sound," he says with a smile.

A lesser amberjack comes aboard. "Man, before the sun goes down out here is when it really turns on," he says. He's moving in all directions now, switching from hand line to rod, skipping across the deck, drawing tight knots with his teeth, cutting bait. He's manic: unhooking a speedo, baiting another line, biting off the tail of a blue runner before swinging the hand line and one-pound sinker, hammer-throw style, behind the boat. "It's a massacre!" he shouts.

The sun descends behind a wall of condos. The full moon has yet to appear.
"All right. We're done," he announces a little after 8:00. But a few minutes later he throws out another line. Waiting. He's musing now, winding down. He pictures what it's like to be a fish taking his bait. "It's like if you're in your back yard and a cheeseburger -- the best, juiciest cheeseburger you ever saw -- comes down from the sky. Then you eat it and when you're finished, you're pulled up to the sky." He lights another cigarette.

He draws in the last line. "Nothing's ever certain," he muses. "But as long as you're consistent, go out when you're supposed to, keep up your boat and don't be a bad boy, everything will be all right."

The Baby New Moon drones southward about 100 yards off the beach, then cuts the Haulover jetty terribly close, only a few body-lengths from the rocks. Cruising comfortably atop the fly bridge, relieved and glowing from the day's primal exercise, Ellak lets loose a few raunchy jokes. Like the one about the fisherman who married a woman because she had worms.

He arrives back at the marina just after nine o'clock and adds ice to the day's catch in the cooler. Tomorrow, instead of going out, he'll sell what he can on the dock; what's left over he'll drive to restaurants and a seafood market he does business with.

A good day, he says, but still -- the big money is in charter fishing, taking out tourists. It is the successful lobbying from that sport-fishing industry, Ellak asserts, that is really behind the commercial restrictions -- not the ballyhooed ecological concerns. "Let's face it," he says, "the state makes more money off tourism than commercial fishing. We fish for all the people who live inland, who don't have a boat. We feed people, but that's not important, I guess. The commercial fishermen in places like North Carolina and the Keys are revered. Here we're the lowlifes of the community and they want to trash us. It's just hard to make a living."

Cats scratch around the quiet marina. The lone person, a well-dressed retired man who enjoys the comings and goings of the marina, eagerly questions Ellak about his catch. The gent nods at the list of fish Ellak recites and says, "The only one who brings in good fish is you, Jack.

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