Fishermen: Let charterboats sell excess dolphin

Charterboat crews should be allowed to resume selling part of their dolphin catches, South Atlantic Fishery Management Council members heard at a Thursday hearing in Key Largo.

“For-hire crews are traditional suppliers of dolphin fish” to local restaurants and wholesalers, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

For decades, many South Florida and Keys charterboat crews — primarily mates — earned extra money by selling dolphin caught under recreational bag limits and not kept by their boat’s customers.

But in April 2012, the South Atlantic Council banned the practice as part of its new Annual Catch Limit rules.
With no significant commercial dolphin fishery in the Keys, that deprives restaurants of the freshest fish available, Kelly said.

“The United States has the safest seafood in the world,” Kelly said. “We’d rather see properly licensed [charter crews] sell dolphin than increased imports or backdoor sales.”

Under the current law, some fishing tournaments can sell caught dolphin “as part of their financial remuneration,” Kelly said. “To allow that while depriving other properly licensed [fishermen] is a travesty.”

Tom Tharp, a Key Largo recreational angler, said customers “are essentially deprived of the freshest fish” at Keys restaurants.

“They have to give [extra fish] away, throw ’em away or sell them under the table,” he said. “We’re eating imported fish from other places.”

That financially harms both the crews and restaurants, he contended.

“That money means a lot to my crews,” Miami charter captain Ray Rosher said at a separate fisheries meeting July 30 in Key Largo. “We’re allowed to kill the fish but we have to give them away. That’s discriminatory and not wise for our region.”

South Atlantic Council Chairman David Cupka acknowledged that sales of dolphin from charterboat trips had been a longstanding practice “in this part of the world.”

Charter customers “get excited” while they’re catching their 10-fish limit of dolphin, Cupka said, “but then they find it hard to take the fish back home.”

“The other side of the argument is that you either allow recreational sales or you don’t,” Cupka said.

When the rule was passed, advocates said the ban on charter sales was needed to distinguish between commercial and recreational harvests, which have differing regulations and limits. “Unless there’s a problem with the stock, I’d like to see it go back to way it was,” Tharp said.

Charterboat sales of dolphin were not on the table Thursday, but it issue came up under a proposal to raise the annual catch limits of boat recreational and commercial dolphin.