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Key West, Fla., which lies at the bottom of the Florida Keys like the frayed tip of a rope, has justifiably been called "the end of the road." For decades the little island community, situated 165 miles southwest of Miami, has attracted a diverse crowd of sportsmen, artists, sun worshipers and vagabonds, many of whom wound up there for no other reason than that the road they were on abruptly gave way to the sea.
Now it appears that Key West may be the end of the road for an entirely different kind of transient, Scomberomorus cavalla, the king mackerel, more commonly known as kingfish. Large fishing boats, trailing monofilament gill nets, have been working the waters around Key West. Known as "roller rigs" for the hydraulically powered, net-pulling rollers mounted on their decks, the boats have begun to harvest one of this country's last great concentrations of kingfish.
Local sport fishermen and commercial hook-and-liners, as well as conservationists throughout the state, are outraged by the invasion. "I don't much believe in conservation and I don't have many principles." says Barry Evans, a leathery charter-boat guide who works out of Key West Oceanside Marina. "But, my God, any idiot can see what these roller rigs are doing to kingfish. They're like vacuum cleaners. They've devastated kings on the west coast of Florida from Tampa down to Everglades City. And they've done a hell of a job on the east coast starting up around Cocoa Beach. And now they've come all the way down here to get the last of the fish. I mean, we're talking about boats—and there must be 50 of them here this season—striking up to 30,000 pounds at a time. It is possible to quickly wipe out a species. Remember passenger pigeons? It's been done."
One thing that vanished quickly after the roller rigs first arrived en masse to fish the deep waters off Key West a year ago December is common seafaring etiquette. There have been several ugly scenes out on the water, with net boats and hook-and-liners both acting badly. Rights-of-way have been ignored; warning shots have been fired. Virtually everyone now carries weapons on his boat. Dennis Dallmeyer, a hook-and-liner who says his entire 1981 kingfish season has been ended by the influx of roller rigs from outside Monroe County, was recently hit by a net boat. "I had a big gaff in my hand ready to go through the captain's head before he could reach for any gun," says Dallmeyer with a vehemence typical of both factions.
In another recent incident, several dozen hook-and-liners and sport-fishing boats working a school of kingfish off Sand Key began throwing buckets offish guts into the water because they felt the net boats had ventured too close to their area. Sharks swarmed the scene, tearing holes in the roller rigs' expensive nets. At the docks later, a netter confronted a hook-and-liner, an argument ensued and the netter began beating the other man with a piece of lumber. The hook-and-liner's wife pulled a gun and fired several shots into the water before the netter ran off.
Rollie Franzen, the president of the Florida League of Anglers and a vocal opponent of the roller rigs and their organizations, the Southeastern Fisheries Association and the Organized Fishermen of Florida, is trying to get a bill passed by the state legislature that would outlaw kingfish gillnetting in Florida waters. The bill also would make it illegal to sell or transport in the state any king-fish that had been gillnetted. And as a demonstration of even-handedness, the bill would limit sport fishermen to five kingfish per day; at present there is no bag limit in Florida. Still, Franzen thinks it will be tough getting the bill passed.
"Even though there are two million of us recreational fishermen and about 300 commercial hook-and-liners in Florida, we've got a lot less power and money than the other side," he says. "And there are less than 50 of the large roller rigs in the state. But organizations like the Southeastern Fisheries Association and the Organized Fishermen of Florida have had lobbyists in Tallahassee for years, and they've got the big fish houses behind them. But how can they be so shortsighted? When the kingfish are gone, they're gone for the netters, too."
Bob Jones, the executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, agrees with Franzen that something should be done, but not to the net boats. "The real bottom line here is not that the kingfish are disappearing, but who gets them. The League of Anglers people don't want us to have any. I'll be damned if we'll turn over our fishing rights to sport fishermen just because they're making a lot of noise and threats. What's needed here is some common courtesy, some education on both sides and a formula so all user groups can get a share of the catch. But I don't think anyone is going to intimidate the netters out of working. You're talking about a man's livelihood. The netters will fight, yessir."
Butch Carter, 37, is one of those netters. A Key West resident for 28 years, he has worked most of his life to save the money to buy his $150,000 roller-rig boat, the 48-foot Allana Kay. "I've had the opportunity to run dope," says Carter, standing on his boat at Aqua Harvesters, a processing house for the roller rigs. "But I'll never do it. I didn't get into this just to make a quick buck and get out. I've got two growing sons who want to be fishermen, and if I thought I was wiping out their future I'd quit netting. But I don't think these fish can be wiped out. I struck a million pounds of kings this year, but I landed only 200,000 pounds. Now where did the rest of them go? They got away."
To understand the touchiness of the Key West situation, one must know something about kingfish and their impact on the Florida fishing community. A migratory, schooling fish from the same family as Spanish mackerel and tuna, kingfish exist in some numbers from Virginia to Brazil. An extremely large group (in past years, schools over 12 miles long and 50 or more feet deep were observed) annually arrives off Key West in late December and stays in the area feeding on baitfish before heading north into the Gulf in spring.