Drumbeaters for the area call them "the fabulous Florida Keys," adding modestly that their surrounding waters provide "the world's finest fishing." In those waters, they leap to point out, swim not less than 800 species of fish, many of them prime gamesters, some of astonishing size and some exquisite marine jewels.
The composite picture of the Keys is a very special type of heaven for fishermen. Even to hint that fishing was slacking off in any part there of would be tantamount to knocking heaven itself. But now the unheard of has been heard; the impossible has reared its grisly head. Certain charter-boat captains in the upper Keys are admitting that catches of reef fish dropped off sharply during the past year. Beyond merely admitting it, they shout it aloud that all may hear.
Their cries are seldom voiced unless coupled with a denunciation of the Cuban refugees who have built up a commercial fishery of their own on the same reefs plied by the charter boats. Most of all, the charter men denounce the Cuban practice of using longlines or trotlines, as they are called locally.
"Why all this complaining about Japanese longlines out in the Pacific or somewhere when we've got longlines right on our doorstep?" demanded Captain Gene Lowe, 40 years a charter man. "They're ruining fishing on the reef. Those fish struggling on longlines bring the sharks. The whole thing's a mess."
Captain Lowe said catches on the part of the reef he fishes had dropped off two-thirds during the past season. Captain Cliff Carpenter, 38 years in the business, agreed that reef fishing had been poor during the winter and said he had never seen so many sharks. Captain M. Rodney Albury, 76-year-old charter man, described fishing on the reef as the worst in 40 years. Captain Albury has cause for concern about business prospects for he is soon to be married.
These and other fishing guides of the upper Keys, such as Captain Calvin Albury, who used to fish President Hoover, take a proprietary interest in the reef lying a few miles from their homes. The reef has been their standby, their bread-and-butter area. When sailfish and other Gulf Stream game fish were uncooperative, the charter men could always come in to troll the reef, assured of catching enough grouper, yellowtail, snapper and other reef species to fill their customers with pride and furnish plenty of material for the traditional picture on the dock. All this has been changing since the Cubans came.
Many of the Cubans use the same small boats in which they escaped from their homeland. They were commercial fishermen in Cuba, and they returned to the sea as soon as they could. Fishing is a calling that men seldom forsake. The refugees are mostly small men who work at a slow pace but are able to keep it up for endless hours. Time means nothing to them. They may pass an entire day catching minnows for bait and then set out at 3:30 or 4 p.m., often with one boat towing another to save gasoline. They fish all night and return with their catch the next morning.
One of the largest concentrations of Cubans, some 20 boats, fishes out of Tavernier Fisheries on the north end of Plantation Key, an establishment set up by Fish N Poultry, wholesalers at Opa-Locka, near Miami. The wholesalers' representative, Carl Jacobsen, buys the fish from the Cubans and supervises the shipping. When not out fishing, the Cubans sleep on cots in the building or work on their gear, mending lines and sharpening hooks.
The Cuban version of the longline is a heavy cord about 500 feet long from which dangle 90 to 100 hooks at intervals of five feet. The longline is anchored and buoyed at either end, baited and permitted to sink to the bottom. When a fish is caught it struggles until it gets loose, is eaten by a shark or is pulled in by the fisherman. This practice, say the charter men, wastes lots of fish, causes sharks to collect and makes fishing miserable for sports fishermen.
Everyone concerned, Cubans included, agrees that the sharks are out there in terrific numbers, and everyone is losing a lot offish to them. The Roberts family—Herman and his sons, Leroy and Mark, who operate a commercial fishing enterprise—had so many expensive mackerel nets torn up by sharks that they had to give up fishing for a time and go after the predators. Their method was to catch half a dozen sharks, cut them up and throw chunks of their livers into the water. This soon brought other sharks which, upon eating the livers, got sick and went away for a while. But this method was only a stopgap at best.