The habits of
kingfish aren't clearly understood, though a tagging study begun by the Florida
Department of Natural Resources in 1975 has made some headway. Among the
findings: kingfish can live for 13 years and grow to 90 pounds; kingfish tagged
off Fort Pierce and Key West during winter months have traveled as far as the
What has been
known for some time about the fish is that as they arrive off different parts
of the Florida mainland, they set off riots of kingfishing fever among the
local residents. Not only are they excellent game fish, but they are esteemed
as table fare. When the schools of kings arrive, boats of every type hit the
water, marinas turn into madhouses, charter guides are booked solid, commercial
hook-and-liners work daylight to dark, oceanfront economies boom. However,
since February 1978, when roller riggers broke a gentleman's agreement with
hook-and-liners and moved into a previously unnetted area off Fort Pierce and
then continued southward along the east coast, commercial and recreational
catches of kingfish have declined.
biologists believe the hook-and-liners are overreacting by blaming all their
woes on gill-netters. "Some of those sport fishermen get the feeling
they're sacrosanct, that they're after the Holy Grail or something," says
Mark Godcharles of St. Petersburg, a Department of Natural Resources fishery
biologist who works on the kingfish-tagging program. "They don't like
netting because it's not sporting. But, personally, I don't think kingfish are
in any danger of being wiped out."
Nor does Don de
Sylva, a professor of marine science at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and
Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. Says de Sylva, "Overfishing
isn't as big a problem as people think. Kingfish, as with other species, seem
to have strong and weak years, depending upon their survival during young
stages of their life history; suddenly, when everybody thinks they're wiped
out, they come roaring back. But fishermen are like farmers; it was always
But though they
have a hard time backing beliefs with confirming facts, anglers like Rollie
Franzen and Barry Evans are certain the decline of the kingfish is a real and
worsening problem. And they're just as certain the roller rigs with their
270-degree side-scan sonars and spotter airplanes are the culprits.
disturb the kingfish's migratory patterns," says Evans. "And when the
nets 'rock up,' they just destroy the coral reefs. Gill nets also spook the
fish so badly that after a few net strikes, a lot of times the fish won't eat
or take a hook for weeks." Franzen has been told by many fishermen that
during gill-net strikes on tightly packed schools of kingfish, thousands of
fish suffocate and fall to the bottom. Worse yet, says Franzen, is the damage
done when a gill net is lost; it will spread across the ocean floor and
continue to kill some bottom fish for years, because it is not
"Just from an
economic standpoint it makes sense to get rid of gill nets," Franzen adds.
"Recreational fishing generates about $2 billion for the Florida economy
compared to less than $200 million for all commercial fishing, including
shrimping and lobstering. The problem is that we, the recreational fishermen,
have been asleep."
On the dock at
Oceanside Marina, charter-boat Captain Dick Dunlap watches a distant roller rig
churn westward toward what remains of this year's Key West kingfish school.
Grizzled and heavyset, the 56-year-old Dunlap is aware of Franzen's legal
efforts to protect the fish, but he isn't concerned with them just now. A few
days earlier he and a client, a 72-year-old tourist with a kingfish on the
line, found themselves encircled by a roller rig's net. Dunlap released his
client's fish, ran his boat, the Clean Machine, to the edge of the net, pulled
up the line with a gaff and cut it. The net then floated under the roller rig's
prop and became fouled there.
As he raced for
home, "trying to stay out of gunshot range," Dunlap says he was chased
by two other net boats. A spotter plane buzzed him and a third roller rig tried
to cut in front of him. But Dunlap was able to maneuver the Clean Machine into
the shallow water near Boca Grande and escape. The next day in the Key West
harbor a net boat with a five-man crew started to harass the Clean Machine
again, but left when several other charter boats pulled alongside Dunlap's
saying it was the coolest thing to do—to cut that net," Dunlap says now.
"But it had just gotten to the point where I was being totally intimidated
by those guys." He continues looking out to sea. "Greed," he says
after a while. "As the world gets bigger and there's more people, we just
stop caring about things...trees, nature, everything."