Hooked on Death

But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.

-- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When Dan Miller and Grant Robertson come ashore at Haulover Park Marina, they are pumped with excitement. Less than an hour earlier the two Texas businessmen had been over the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream, each locked in the battle of a lifetime with a magnificent, leaping sailfish.

As they wrestled their fish to the boat, the captain and mate called out encouragement. "That's a great fish," Robertson recalls someone saying of his catch. "You gotta mount that one."

Now the two visitors to Miami are replaying the battle at sea for other tourists in their party when a mate on the sportfishing boat Top Dog hoists the two six-foot sailfish over the transom and slides them onto the dock. The fish have been gutted, and punctures from the gaff show near the heads. The sailfish's colors, so vibrant when alive, have faded to gray. Miller stoops down and, with the mate standing by to take a snapshot, fans open the large, sail-like dorsal fin that gives the fish its name. "That's going up on my wall at home," Miller says of his trophy catch.

A few yards away, at the stern of the charter boat Therapy IV, onlookers encircle the body of a 250-pound hammerhead shark. Blood leaks from the hole in its skull left by the bang-stick shotgun blast, but the glistening fish suddenly heaves and a small boy who had been edging close jumps back in alarm. After a few minutes the shark is still, and the crowd moves down to where Robertson and Miller are lingering over their sailfish while preparing to leave for their hotel.

The people stare at the fish. They walk around the bodies on the dock. Then the curious get curiouser. First a father directs his daughter to crouch down by the dead sailfish, and he takes her picture. Then others with cameras -- tourists, families who have spent the Sunday flying kites in the park, locals who have come to buy fresh fish -- pose their friends and family with the torpedo-like billfish, the official saltwater fish of Florida and an iconic symbol of Miami for 50 years.

Flat on the dock, the fish are no longer magnificent. Their eyes are dull, their sleek bodies collapsing. But still the onlookers seem thrilled to be near them.

For 34-year-old Robertson the thrill of his victory lasted about a week, until he was back home in Houston and showed a picture of his catch to a friend. "He was outraged," says Robertson. "He asked me, Why did you kill that fish?' I was blown away. And I didn't know. It just all happened so fast."

Once there were many fish in the sea. And there was no better place in the world to catch the biggest and most coveted of the saltwater game fish than in Miami. Just a few miles offshore, in the rich, swift current of the northbound Gulf Stream, lurked enormous, thrashing trophies, central to the dreams of vacationing anglers and vital to the thriving tourist economy that promoted deep-sea adventure as well as fun and sun on the sand. The image of a rainbow-hued sailfish, leaping for the heavens in an effort to shake a hook from its mouth, held out to visitors the thrilling promise of a South Florida vacation. In the Saturday Evening Post of the Forties and Fifties, Miami author Philip Wylie published dozens of Crunch & Des stories about a charter-boat captain and his mate, which helped to popularize saltwater game fishing as a romantic and ennobling sport. With the 1952 publication of The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway used the epic struggle between Santiago and the giant marlin to define his version of man's heroic duty to live with nobility and pride even in the face of adversity. And although the old Cuban comes to regret hooking his fish, he does what he has to do. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," Santiago says.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Miami's charter-boat fleet brought in tens of thousands of billfish, a family of giant fishes known for their prolonged, spearlike upper jaw and prized by anglers for their ferocious fighting spirit when hooked on light tackle. These billfish -- sailfish, marlin, and spearfish -- along with tuna, swordfish, and sharks were brought in daily to the docks at Pier 5 -- since supplanted by Bayside Marketplace -- and to the now-gone Castaways Hotel at Collins Avenue and NE 163rd Street. And there the fish were hung for tens of thousands of visitors who stood beside them and grinned.

In recent years Miami's renown as a saltwater-fishing mecca has receded as other images have taken hold. Thanks to targeted promotional efforts, northerners daydreaming about tying into a deep-sea behemoth that might make it to the wall of the family room are more likely to think Florida Keys or the Palm Beaches these days. But Miami still is home port to a thriving deep-sea charter-boat industry, and there are still a lot of big fish as close as two miles offshore.

Years of overfishing by commercial fleets has taken a toll, however. Populations of billfish and sharks are in steep decline. Among the mainstays of the $2.3 billion recreational fishery along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the white marlin is especially imperiled and in danger of extinction. But the numbers of other billfish, as well as tuna and sharks, are also falling, according to biologist James Chambers, former manager of migratory species for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The Biodiversity Legal Foundation and Chambers last year petitioned NMFS to have the white marlin listed under the Endangered Species Act, saying it had been driven to thirteen percent of its maximum sustainable yield (MSY), a measure of its abundance. Any number below 100 percent means the species is overfished, and a number below 50 percent indicates the overall population is shrinking. Using MSY as a gauge, blue marlin are at 40 percent, swordfish at 65 percent, and sailfish, when last surveyed in 1991, at 62 percent, according to Chambers. Coastal sharks, including hammerheads, are also fewer, down by 50 to 80 percent from historic levels, says Chambers. His research makes use of statistics compiled by NMFS and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which tracks tunas and some 30 other species.

Despite those numbers, recreational anglers pull plenty of sharks from South Florida waters, and sailfish are caught here every day. Although a stock assessment of sailfish has not been conducted in more than a decade, Chambers surmises that the population is in better shape than it was in 1991 because its chief spawning ground off Florida's east coast has been off-limits to commercial fleets since March 2001. Sailfish are particularly susceptible to long-liners who set thousands of hooks baited for swordfish and then discard as by-catch everything else.

"Sailfish are still overfished," says the Maryland-based Chambers, "but Miami is the epicenter of the winter population along the East Coast, and with spring here, it's spawning central out in the Gulf Stream."

To be sure, recreational anglers and tourists who pay an average of $500 for a half-day of charter-boat fishing are not responsible for plunging populations of game fish. But even though the recreational catch represents a minnow-size portion of all fish taken along the East Coast, most anglers and charter-boat captains practice catch-and-release for everything except those fish destined for the dinner table. Most billfish tournaments, including last week's $100,000 Yamaha Contender Miami Billfish Tournament, require the release of all hooked fish.

Many anglers now also use barbless circle hooks, more rounded in shape than the traditional, barbed J hooks. The hooks have been controversial. Some anglers say circle hooks are not as effective as J hooks in snagging fish. But many others believe circle hooks minimize injuries because they usually catch the fish in the corner of the mouth and are rarely swallowed. Removing a swallowed J hook from a fish -- said to be gut-hooked -- can cause fatal injuries. This year for the first time, Miami Billfish Tournament rules required circle hooks to be used by all of the more than 400 anglers scheduled to compete on some 110 boats.

In three days of all-out fishing, tournament officials expected more than 200 sailfish to be caught. It was hoped that few would die from trauma. None was brought to the dock.

"Historically, part of the experience of fishing is being able to brag about what you caught," says Ron Taylor, a scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "And with Florida growing by 900 people a day, fishing mortality is beginning to affect us. It is sinking in: You can't kill everything you catch.

"Personally it bothers me. Why in the world would anyone want to kill a sailfish?"

Many charter-boat captains say they won't kill a sailfish, or any other billfish, or any creature from the sea that is not on that night's dinner menu. Others maintain that they only kill billfish and sharks when their clients demand it. "We only kill for a trophy, and we tell people right up front, so there's never a misunderstanding," says Frank Godwin, who has been chartering out of Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne for 27 years. "I don't throw four sailfish on the dock. That has no value."

Veteran charter-boat captain Bouncer Smith says he has not brought a sailfish to the dock in more than five years. "I would never kill a sailfish," says Smith, who docks his boat Bouncer's Dusky 33 at the Miami Beach Marina. "And I tell my customers who want a mount that the fish does not have to be killed."

Indeed in most cases dead fish are no longer used in mounting. What the angler who wants a trophy on the wall gets now is not a skin of the fish but a fiberglass replica, fashioned from a stock assortment of precast plastic molds. "Only eight to ten percent of our mounts are skin mounts," says Bob Dowling, sales manager for Gray Taxidermy, the Pompano Beach firm that claims to be the world's largest supplier of fish mounts. On request Gray and other taxidermists can use the bill and some fins from a sailfish in a replica mount. (Ironically the large characteristic fin of the sailfish is not used in replica mounts, according to Dowling, because it is a thin membrane and quickly disintegrates when the fish dies.) The jaws and teeth of sharks are also used. In most cases, however, the carcasses of sailfish, sharks, and all other fish sent to taxidermists are merely thrown away or smoked to be kept as food for the charter-boat captain.

Nonetheless there is still a lot of blood on the docks in Miami-Dade County, and Bouncer Smith, among others, says it is money that fuels most of the killing. "The fish are used for high-pressure sales," says Smith. "When you take a picture of your catch and release it, there's not the same incentive to buy a mount. And each mount means a commission of $400 or $500 to the captain and mates. So there's a lot of pressure."

Indeed in the lingo of the charter-boat trade, customers who climb aboard with the clear intention of reeling in a trophy fish are said to be "live," and they are not likely to get away.

Just ask Grant Robertson and Dan Miller. Within minutes of landing their fish, the men say, they were ushered into the air-conditioned salon of the Top Dog to sign Gray Taxidermy contracts for mounts.

"Normally, I practice catch-and-release," said Miller, 52 years old, who like Robertson was in town for a communications trade show. "Fishing in Canada last summer, we caught 500 walleye. I got one mount and it was a replica. But in this case I think I was caught up in the thrill of catching the fish. They gaffed it, brought it in, showed me this brochure, asked me if I wanted to keep the fish, and I said yes.

"And once it's gaffed and in the boat, there's no question of tossing it back."

Robertson says he's embarrassed by the episode, and suffering from buyer's remorse as well. "You're in a big fight with the fish, reeling it in, and before you know it the guy has gaffed the thing and you're sort of stuck with $1000 to get a fish mounted," he recollects. "I accepted it, but it all happened so fast. These guys framed me."

Top Dog captain Joe Turner says he does not remember Miller and Robertson. But he routinely makes sure his customers fully understand the mounting contracts, especially since last October, when Gray Taxidermy signed a settlement agreement to end an investigation into the firm's high-pressure tactics by the Florida attorney general's office and the Broward consumer affairs division. "Sport fishermen, who were often tourists, complained that they were under pressure to sign up for taxidermy services while fish were literally on the hook," Attorney General Bob Butterworth said in announcing the settlement. "Such conditions obviously made it difficult, if not impossible, to make an informed buying decision."

Along with agreeing to pay a fine of $30,000, Gray inserted language into its contracts that explains a dead fish is not necessary for a mount. The contracts also include a place where the customer is to record the time and date of signing, with a notation that the agreement is not to be executed until the boat reaches its dock or mooring.

Exactly what words were spoken March 3 aboard the Top Dog when Robertson and Miller were hauling in their fish will never be known for certain. But both are adamant that the term "catch-and-release" was never mentioned, and that they signed their contracts far from the dock. Asked if it is possible that the contract was signed before the Top Dog reached its berth, Turner allows, "It is possible."

Among the six major charter-boat marinas in Miami-Dade, some are known for throwing more dead fish on the dock than others. There are a lot of dead fish at Haulover. Because of its location next to a popular public park and beach, and close to hundreds of hotels, many people stop by around 5:00 p.m. to buy fresh fish or just to see what the fleet brings in. And hanging up big fish or laying them out is naturally a way to chum for live customers.

The Haulover fleet also makes use of a well-greased network of hotel bellmen and concierges who reap commissions for referring tourists who ask about charter fishing. Callers to the concierge at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach, for example, get one -- and only one -- recommendation: "Captain Stan of the Therapy IV." Anyone else? "No, I've used them all, and this guy takes good care of my guests," the concierge told a New Times reporter recently. "Now what is your name, because I get points for this."

Capt. Stan Saffan, a wiry, sun-blasted veteran of the North Miami-Dade charter-boat trade, is the acknowledged kingfish at Haulover, the undisputed dean of the dock. Over a 32-year career Saffan has built up a roster of so many hotels that send him customers other captains in the marina can make a living on his overflow, like remoras, the suckerfish that feed on the leavings of a shark. Younger charter-boat captains, such as Jack Ellak of the New Moon III and the 32-year-old Turner, for example, get several referrals a month because Saffan's two boats, Therapy and Therapy IV, are booked. "Some boats here barely move unless Stan gives them a trip," remarks Turner, who is considered a good fisherman and one of the up-and-comers on the Haulover docks.

Prominent in Saffan's advertising brochures, and in the pictures posted in his dockside display, are references to "monster fishing," a macho appeal to those who want to go mano a mano with a shark. And although Saffan does hook up his clients with sharks, he says it isn't always easy. "We used to be able to catch hammerhead in fifteen minutes," he reports. "We're lucky now if we get one a week. And if you're paying $1000 to get a shark, and we get skunked, you think that customer is going to come back?"

The Therapy IV does bring in a lot of fish. But, adds Saffan, "We don't go out just to kill fish. We release most of the big fish we catch."

Those fish which are brought in are killed at the request of customers who want a mount. "If they are paying for it, and they want to bring it in, then, yes, we bring it in," says Saffan.

On his Web page (www.therapy4.com), Saffan bills himself as "the world's most famous fishing captain," but the single incident for which he is most famous took place in 1979, when he was still a mate aboard the Therapy IV. That year, working for Capt. Jack Wiggins out of the Castaways dock, Saffan was nabbed sneaking a dead, seven-foot sailfish onto the line of an unsuspecting tourist and then urging the angler to have the fish mounted after she pulled it in. The scam was uncovered and photographed by the Miami Herald in an undercover investigation prompted by reports of fishing flimflams aimed at tourists.

In the air over Haulover there is still a whiff of the old Castaways, home of the Wreck Bar, a wild late-night party scene, and about 25 charter boats, some notorious for their hard-living crews, lazy fishing methods, and gouging of tourists. But these days tricks with dead fish are harder to pull off. Customers are more wary and more knowledgeable about fishing, according to captains and mates. And in Miami-Dade County, the saltwater fraternity is small, with no more than 30 or 40 captains working full-time. There is no formal association, but everyone knows everyone else.

"This dock has had a bad reputation," admits Jack Ellak, a strapping 36-year-old who for years eked out a living as a commercial fisherman. "You hear stories about how boats would go out, quickly catch a barracuda, and tell the tourist it was the best fish they had seen in months. And then they would come in and sell a mount. We are changing that by using solid angling techniques, catching plenty of live bait, and working hard to catch good fish for our customers."

Compared with Haulover, the walk-up trade for the ten boats at Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne, and the handful working out of Coconut Grove, is minimal. There the anglers often come from business conventions, repeat vacationers, and locals.

Styles differ. Joan Dudas, whose husband and sons have been fishing out of Crandon since 1978, says her family informs clients right up front about the cost of taxidermy, about catch-and-release, that the mate expects a tip, and that half of all the edible catch stays with the boat for retail sale at the dock.

Commissions from taxidermists are generous -- sometimes half the cost of the mount -- and constitute a major source of income for almost all skippers and their mates. And Gray assiduously courts local charter-boat captains and crews to act as their agents, lavishing them with free insignia caps, "Gray Mounting Team" T-shirts, even loans for fishing equipment, to make sure that taxidermy contracts keep coming in.

But some captains insist they emphasize to clients the cost of taxidermy early in the trip, knowing it could cost them income. "Before we put the fish in the boat, I make them well aware that it can be over $1100," says Frank Godwin, at Crandon for 27 years. "I can lose a mount that way, but we make [the bulk of our] money on the cost of the charter. And I want to get them back for another trip."

Adds Ray Rosher, who charters out of Coconut Grove: "This practice of killing fish to create mounts, of high-pressure sales -- I would not be upset to see more policing of that. It is counterproductive. Customers are not stupid."

Dowling of Gray Taxidermy concedes that a dead fish is an incentive to buy a mount. With a carcass in the boat, the angler has a tough time changing his mind about paying for an expensive plastic replica, a mass-produced model that won't make use of even the bill, fins, or teeth of the fish he caught. And many charter-boat mates, who rely on commissions from taxidermists as a major part of their income, are as practiced at baiting balky clients as they are at baiting hooks. Very few tourists have a good answer to a question like this: "What should we do now with this fish you asked us to kill?"

Dowling insists, however, that Gray promotes catch-and-release, and that his business would do well even without the implied pressure of a slain fish. "A dead fish can be mounted only once," he says, "but a live fish can be caught and mounted several times."

Godwin says as the catch-and-release ethic spreads, he and other veteran captains have begun to consider a no-kill policy for all big-game fish, especially sailfish. "We need to do it eventually -- just not kill anymore and leave it at that," he believes. "Sailfish numbers have gone way up since people started releasing fish."

No one does a better job of chumming for clients, or shows more contempt for the ethic of catch-and-release, than the self-styled bad boy of Miami charter-boat fishing, Mark "the Shark" Quartiano. Seated behind his hand-carved Thai teak desk in his wood-paneled, dockside office at Plaza Venetia, next to the Biscayne Bay Marriott just north of downtown Miami, Quartiano comes across as personable, candid, and proudly egotistical. Now more than 50 years old (he won't volunteer his exact age), Quartiano says he actually hates the water, can't swim, and never eats fish. Still, he boasts, he is the highest-paid charter captain in the world for one reason: "I kill fish.

"I really don't like killing these fish," he continues. "But I am a mercenary. I have high-end clients who want to go out and kill fish, and by God, if I see a big fish, I'm going to kill 'em. I am going to try very hard to please my clients."

A tireless self-promoter, Quartiano has fished out of Miami since 1974 and once worked with Saffan. And like Saffan, he cultivates a loyal cadre of hotel managers and concierges whom he rewards with cash for mentioning his name first when tourists inquire about charters. Among those hotels: the Biltmore in Coral Gables, Mandarin Oriental in Miami, and the Cardozo and Delano hotels on South Beach. (The concierge at the Loews Miami Beach recommended Quartiano and Saffan.)

And Quartiano does reel in big-name clients. Hanging on his office walls, peeking out from scores of toothy shark jaws, are photos of the celebrities who have paid up to $650 for a half-day trip aboard his 50-foot Striker-1: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Will Smith, ex-footballer Dick Butkus, Miami Heat power forward Brian Grant, and the boys from Aerosmith.

Among most other charter-boat captains in South Florida, as well as many recreational anglers, Quartiano is a pariah. When pictures of a bulked-up, often-shirtless Quartiano posing with clients and an array of dead fish appear on the Internet fishing forums, such as the one run by Florida Sportsman magazine, anglers go ballistic with outrage. "Now I'm freakin' livid!" exclaimed one chatroom member, screen name Coldfish, who reacted to a photo posted in February showing Quartiano and several slain sharks. "Ugh. I think I'm gonna be sick."

In a halfhearted defense of his no-mercy fishing philosophy, Quartiano says he provides blood and tissue samples from species such as sailfish to NMFS researchers based at Virginia Key. And indeed biologist Eric Prince confirms that at various times Quartiano has been issued a federal permit to take undersize billfish for studies of the fish's growth cycle. But Prince adds, "Probably less than one percent of what he puts on the dock is for science. Because he kills fish, he lets me use samples."

Long-time angler Joan Vernon, a founding director of the Miami Billfish Tournament, echoes the opinion of many in the charter-boat business when she calls Quartiano "a blemish on the whole fishing community."

Unfazed by the criticism, Quartiano loves it. "Fine with me if they want to make me the pirate, Darth Vader, the bad guy," he says. "That's okay. It's great for business."

With a limited number of officers, and with the number of recreational anglers steadily increasing, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC) officials admit that enforcement of size and catch restrictions can be as spotty as a marbled grouper. But people do get busted. Last year FFWCC Ofcr. Alfredo Escanio cited a Haulover captain for possession of two undersize sailfish, but the charges were later dropped on a technicality. (Sailfish must be 63 inches from the tip of the lower jaw to the fork of the tail, and the bag limit is one per angler per day.)

In January the FFWCC enlisted the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue divers to recover the butchered remains of an undersize sailfish a charter-boat captain had brought into the dock so the client could take its picture. Capt. Joey Gervasi of the Miss Gail was cited and could face a fine of $500.

The operator of a North Miami Beach restaurant, along with the owners of three other eateries in Broward County, were fined by the state in 2000 after admitting they illegally bought sailfish and sold it as tuna.

Quartiano, too, has been caught. In 1995 he paid a $1200 fine after pleading no contest to charges that he sold six sailfish to an undercover officer with the Florida Marine Patrol (now part of the FFWCC) for $570. "It was a classic case of entrapment," he says. "There were guys coming to the dock for three weeks straight asking to buy fish. I made a mistake."

Compared with the damage commercial fleets can inflict on a fishery, recreational anglers hardly seem like mass murderers. Yet as Bouncer Smith insists, every killing counts. "If a single charter boat kills 100 a year, that's an appreciable number to kill," Smith muses. "Then multiply that by ten boats on the dock, and that puts a dent in the scheme of things."

In the first three years of the Miami Billfish Tournament, hundreds of fish were killed. "We gave the meat away to charity, but it bore heavy on our conscience," says Joan Vernon, whose late husband founded Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply, a fixture in downtown Miami since the early Seventies. The tournament was one of the first to institute catch-and-release for competitive fishing in 1986. Since then thousands of sailfish have been let go, and evidence from tagged fish indicates some are caught again.

Yet there are critics -- Quartiano is one -- who argue that many fish die even in catch-and-release tournaments, and even when circle hooks are used, because the fish swallow the hook and suffer from internal injuries and exhaustion after being hauled to the boat. "These people who go after me are hypocrites," says Quartiano. "I see dead sailfish in the water all the time after tournaments."

Mortality could be reduced if billfish tournaments banned live bait, which anglers fish slowly, allowing the prey to swallow it before they set the hook, according to Quartiano. Dead baits, by comparison, usually are trolled from moving boats and thus less likely to be swallowed by the fish, he adds.

Vernon disputes Quartiano's analysis. While allowing that some fish will die, even in a catch-and-release event, Vernon says the chief culprits are barbed J hooks, which are more easily swallowed than circle hooks, and careless treatment of the fish by anglers. During the tournament, for example, mates have been instructed to cut the leader to release a hooked fish rather than try to retrieve the hook and leader by jerking it from the fish's mouth.

Saltwater sportfishing is big business. Last weekend's twentieth annual Miami Billfish Tournament, headquartered at the Miami Beach Marina, brought to town 400 anglers, their families, and scores of representatives from corporations associated with the sport. The glossy, 88-page official magazine of the tournament brims with ads, not only from chief sponsors Yamaha marine engines and Contender boats and other fishing-related equipment, but also from Bacardi, Hooters, and General Electric. According to Vernon, 101 boats caught 280 sailfish and 2 marlin, all of which were released. The top angler walked off with $56,400. (Since the tournament is catch-and-release, determining the champion angler depends in part on the honor system -- an ironic twist in an activity that made "fish story" a synonym for exaggeration. Volunteer observers were posted on most boats to radio in catches to tournament officials onshore, but when the competition ended Sunday, April 7, winners had to pass a polygraph test too!)

Over the years competitors have been disqualified for cheating, sighs Vernon. But most professional fishermen, like most local charter-boat captains, "are dedicated and serious," she says. "And they realize they have to make some sacrifices by releasing fish to preserve the fishery. Miami used to be a destination for sportfishing. It has lost some of that association. But I think we can put it back on the map."

Alas, Miami is not going to be on one man's fishing map again anytime soon. Back in Houston, Robertson said he was leafing through an outdoors magazine when he came across several pictures of trophy sailfish. "And I realized," he says, "that maybe the fish I caught wasn't so big. I just feel lucky now that when we got back to the dock there weren't a lot of people screaming at us for killing the fish. It's embarrassing. I guess you get smarter as you get older."

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