Acting as the guide for fishermen, sardine-catcher Dennis Marquardt watched a halibut swim by the cruise ship he operates in the oceans off Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“It took a while,” Marquardt chuckled as the fish swam between a row of his crew members.
“It took about 15 to 20 minutes to do that,” he continued. “But if I was to chase it, I’d be fighting one for half an hour.”
Marquardt and others are not the only ones looking to make a profit in the waters off Florida’s tourist havens.
The reopening of the redfish in the Gulf of Mexico waters about 30 miles southeast of Mexico, is already stirring competition from foreign competitors.
The rapidly improving Gulf fishery has sparked a race among Cuban, Venezuelan and Mexican boats.
These foreign boats will compete on a mostly unregulated, unregulated, and unregulated (RIG) market of redfish, according to Ben Embry, executive director of the Miami-based San Juan River Cay Association, which represents fishermen from Miami and from Cuba and from several other countries.
The RIG redfish fishery is regulated by the federal Atlantic Fishery Management Council (AFMC). RIG rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the AFMC wants to build consistent rules for the Gulf of Mexico region, which span from north of Key West, Fla., down to Brownsville, Texas.
Late last year, Congress approved authorization to let the AFMC take over regulating the redfish fishery, including the Cuban boats, by the middle of this year.
Marquardt hopes the new rules will turn around what is a losing business.
“We’re going to have to make some money,” he said. “We’ve been pretty competitive, but if we’re not going to make any money, we’re not going to stay in business.”
The fishermen all agree that a united front against foreigners trying to take their business away is their best shot.
“We don’t want the competition here,” said boat owner Joe Ryanczyk. “I’m going to compete with whoever comes down here. I’m in favor of RIG regulations. I’m in favor of good fishing. And I think if we show the RIG companies there’s no market, they’re going to wait it out. I think we can stop them.”
The AFMC approved redfish fishing to begin Feb. 1. The council’s RIG rules would close redfish fishing from March to December, but the council is keeping the period of commercial activity open until the RIG regulation plan is finalized and takes effect.
To get caught up in a river row, a fishing boat must have an AFMC fishing permit, or a Chinese fishing permit, should their vessel be approved by the bureau.
In Florida, an enormous $15 million special redfish management plan, proposed in August, will likely include closure periods to prevent the redfish from becoming commercially-dangerous, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will continue to act as the lead agency.
In 2012, after local fishermen were taken off the RIG regulations, the illegal trade exceeded four times the quota of the quota.
The Gulf redfish population was plundered to such a degree it was protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2012, nearly 20 of the 24 species of Gulf redfish were declared endangered.
The Arab fisheries regulation agency says some 2.7 million metric tons of redfish, known as mullet, has been lost in less than a decade, according to the Arab Fisheries Report 2013. The agency claims Mexico and Cuba intentionally depleted the stock and should be penalized.
A non-governmental organization, Pew Charitable Trusts, reports that 88 percent of the lost fish was from Cuba.
Fishermen, however, say the loss is mainly due to a lack of cooperation between fishermen from the two countries. Cuban fishermen, who fish thousands of miles away in the Caribbean, cannot be anywhere near the Mexican-raised stock, they say.
While Mexico and Cuba try to convince Gulf fishermen to work together, some old Cuban fisherman fear that foreign competition could undermine their own industry, which some believe will only continue to decline as a result.