Come April 16, charterboat fish sales no longer allowed

Florida Keys charterfishing crews take a hit in the wallet April 16 when it becomes illegal to sell dolphin caught on recreational for-hire trips.

“This is not good at all, ” said Alex Adler, captain of the charterboat Kalex at Bud ‘n’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada. “It’s going to be detrimental to a great many people and businesses.”

The federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council passed the no-sale rule for dolphin and wahoo from professional charter trips last year as part of the agency’s Comprehensive Annual Catch Limit Amendment. Given final approval by the National Marine Fisheries Service in January, the rule becomes effective April 16 for all Atlantic Ocean waters from Key West through North Carolina.

“In light of this economy and money generated into the [tourism] economy by charter boats, I think it’s a big mistake to make it more difficult for charter crews to survive,” said Ray Rosher, a Miami-based charter captain who serves on the South Atlantic council’s Dolphin and Wahoo Advisory Panel.

“It seems like it discriminates against properly licensed captains who depend on all facets of income to survive,” said Rosher, whose two boats from Miss Britt Charters sometimes fish Upper Keys waters.

Some local captains and mates — working off boats with necessary federal and state species licenses — make thousands of dollars annually selling dolphin caught by charter customers, Adler said.

“Dozens” of offshore charter crews in the Islamorada area take part in the sale of dolphin not wanted by their clients, he said.

“It doesn’t just hurt us but all the restaurants and their customers who want to see fresh dolphin on their platter,” Adler said. “This has been going on since the 1950s.”

Charter boats do supply a portion of the dolphin sold by Key Largo Fisheries to its local restaurant clients, said co-owner Rick Hill. “As a consumer, you want the freshest fish possible,” he said.

The local commercial fishery for dolphin is virtually non-existent, Hill said. “There used to be one, but not at the moment.”

As federal fishery management agencies adopt rules mandated by Congress to ensure fishing stocks remain sustainable, reducing the sale of food fish technically caught under recreational bag limits becomes more difficult to allow, managers say.

George Geiger, a Sebastian recreational fisherman who served nine years on the South Atlantic council, strongly supports the ban on selling fish caught on charter trips.

“The term ‘recreational sale’ is an oxymoron,” Geiger said. “It’s ludicrous to allow charter captains and mates to sell fish caught as part of a recreational bag limit.”

“It encourages people to catch more fish than they plan to keep,” Geiger said. “I think those fish would serve a better purpose being released so other people had an opportunity to catch them.”

He said charterboat operators should charge customers what a trip costs rather than rely on added income from fish sales. But Rosher and Adler said raising trip prices could mean fewer vacationers can afford to book a trip.

“Higher fuel prices are coming,” Adler said. “It all goes into the balance of survival.”

Some Florida Keys charter captains contacted by KeysNet said they do not believe in selling fish from charter trips, but do not want to openly criticize a longstanding practice in their industry.

Charterboats with federal dolphin-wahoo licenses — in 2009, there were 1,190 in Florida — can legally sell dolphin commercially if they catch it on a non-charter trip.