A recent article in the Key West Citizen brought to light something that many of us have been maintaining for years, but that you don’t see in the local media or in broadsides from the chambers of commerce: the Keys are “fished out” and have been for years.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Loren McClenachan compared 13 groups of "trophy" reef fish caught by recreational anglers using photographs taken in Key West from 1956 to 2007. The mean fish size declined from about 44 pounds to 5 pounds, and there was a major shift in species caught. Landings from 1956 to 1960 were dominated by large groupers, including goliath groupers, and other large predatory fish were commonly caught. In contrast, landings in 2007 were composed of small snappers. The average length of sharks declined by more than 50 percent over 50 years. Major declines in the size of fish caught were not reflected in the price of fishing trips, so customers paid the same amount for a less-valuable product, McClenachan said.
(Published Tuesday, March 17, 2009)
Many of the early pictures of massives catches were taken by Charlie Anderson, a Keys photographer who also had a highly entertaining and informative radio show on Marathon’s WFFG for many years. The station’s advertising of the time stated that WFFG stood for “World’s Finest Fishing Grounds.” And the Keys undoubtedly were. A combination of shallow waters, protective mangroves, combined with the proximity of Florida Bay and the blue waters of the Gulf Stream, provided a plentiful assortment of sea life to be harvested.
With the right kind of bait you could be sure of catching enough fish for your dinner. Visitors from the north were amazed when, after a mere five minutes with no action, I would insist on trying another spot. “Hey, you’ve got to give it at least an hour,” they’d say.
“Nope, not here don’t,” I would answer. You could usually manage to catch mangrove snapper, mutton snapper or grouper just by going to specific places, all within a short distance of home. That’s how it was back then: the fishing was that good, and it stayed good right through the sixties and seventies. By 1980 things were changing forever.In the recession of ‘74, instead of doing something sensible like going back to school, I took a job at a fish company in Marathon. The fish business was still good. Local waters provided a living for hundreds, and the abundant Keys seafood was a draw for winter visitors all over Florida. From August through March thousands of pounds of lobster came across our docks. From October to May huge vats steamed stone crab claws on a daily basis. In the fall cold weather brought schools of mackerel, kingfish, and bluefish. Drift netters came down from the west coast of Florida to harvest their share of the catch. Tons of mackerel were shipped to freezer plants in Miami and Tampa every day for months.These mackerel fisherman supplemented their income by selling trophies from an occasional by-catch. (Jaws was in the theaters that year.)
And there was always a steady supply of fin fish: yellowtail, snapper, and grouper. Our company sold first-class local product to every restaurant from Ocean Reef to Key West.
When I came back to visit after having been out of the Keys for a couple of years, around 1982, a lot of things had changed. Very little local fish were being caught, yet they were still busy fileting what looked like local fish. "Nope," said the boss. "All of 'em are flown into Miami from Honduras or Nicarague in these white vats." He estimated the percentage of local seafood being sold in the Keys at about 10%. The change in the situation was due to many things. You'll still hear some people saying it's the government regulations that killed it. "There's still plenty of fish out there." The fact is, because of increasing population pressure and demand, the oceans around there simply got fished out.Even if we do arrive at a "maximum sustainable yield" for some species, there are others that simply will never be widely available again. For instance, when was the last time you saw a pompano on a menu?Still, looking back, I gotta say it was a most interesting time. It was fun working in a mainstay industry of the Keys economy. It was altogether a special time in a special place. Some of the friendships I made have endured for years. And the fringe benefits: excellent, with a little bit of drawn butter.
Oh! Almost forgot! Here's the way the place looks now (compliments of Google Earth).
That's right, it's a condominium development. Gone are the boats, fishermen, mates, traps, trap sheds, bait lockers, freezers, fishermen's homes, the whole shootin' match. O Tempora, O Mores!
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