The Roughest Catch: Ike Jime on the Gulf Coast, Part 3 of 4

Photos by Groovehouse
Jim Naismith, left, and Barry Irwin clean their catch on the boat's stern. See more photos in our slideshow.
Read the first and second parts of our four-part series on Gulf sashimi-grade fish, and stay tuned tomorrow for the final installment.

"Watch 'em," says Captain Barry Irwin as he approaches a charter fishing boat that's anchored next to a towering oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "They're gonna haul ass when they see these bandit reels." As we get closer to the charter boat, we can see its captain peering curiously at us from across the water, clad in a Polo shirt and khaki shorts. His bright white boat looks almost comical when viewed from the weather-battered, no-nonsense trawler that's headed his way.

He stares us down as Irwin circles him, almost taunting the charter boat. Overhead, a wailing cry blasts periodically from the rig -- it's not abandoned, but it's empty and the siren cries out a warning to ships headed its way. Ships that might crash if they're on autopilot, or ships like this charter boat and its passengers, who are illegally fishing for red snapper way out of season.

The bandit reels on the back of the La Victoria confirm that this is a commercial fishing boat. The reels, operated by hydraulics, are essentially high-powered, stationary rod-and-reel systems that can haul in up to 60 fish at once -- at least on this trawler. It's a signal to the recreational charter boat that real fishermen have arrived, and that playtime is over.

More to the point, Irwin could easily notify the Coast Guard and the game wardens back on shore than this charter boat is fishing illegally. Sure enough, the bekhakied captain hauls up his anchor and jets off as quickly as possible when the La Victoria gets closer, his bikini-clad passengers blinking in the sun as their boat speeds away.

"Told ya," Irwin chuckles.

Oil rigs -- active or decommissioned -- are prime fishing grounds for red snapper.
There aren't as many rigs in this portion of the Gulf -- comparitively-speaking, that is -- as there are off the coasts of Louisiana and the northern portion of our state's coastline. But there are enough to serve as landmarks in large swaths of the Gulf here, and plenty to host large schools of red snapper. But these natural reefs are threatened by the oil companies and -- surprisingly -- the federal government, which stated in 2010 that up to 650 of the abandoned rigs needed to be decommissioned out of the 4,000 that dot the Gulf.

Over 200 rigs are slated to be decommissioned in 2012 alone, a process that involves cutting off the top of the rig (the portion that is above the water) and destroying the underwater portion with explosives. It's the latter part of this method that obliterates the snappers' home, while killing thousands of fish in the process. It's a practice that's been decried by both scientists and mainstream media , yet it's a lucrative industry that brings $3 billion a year in revenue to the Gulf Coast, money that's difficult to turn down.

Jim Naismith is desperately worried about the mass slaughtering of fish and the destruction of their habitats. Isn't this type of slash-and-burn killing the very thing that NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS ) was trying to prevent when they instituted IFQs, or Individual Fishing Quotas? It's the kind of situation that an already-strapped fishing industry doesn't need, no matter how many red snapper Irwin insists are swarming throughout the Gulf.

Irwin shows off a dual catch from his rod and reel.
This rig doesn't have the schools of snapper Irwin was hoping for, so he starts the trawler once more and prepares to head off.

"I think we're done," he tells Naismith.

"Done with fishing?" asks Naismith.

"Naw," Irwin responds. "Done with snapper. We've filled two ice chests. Let's see if we can go find some grouper..." But before he can finish, the bandit reel bends suddenly and fiercely.

"Got some more!" yells Naismith. The two men reel in the catch quickly, and ike jime the fish within minutes. Partially digested crabs spill out of one snapper's mouth and stomach, its supper interrupted.

Later, when Naismith guts it for cold storage, the fish's heart lies among its other entrails -- a bloated stomach, a set of jagged, tooth-like gill rakers -- still beating softly. It's a hell of an end to a dinner party.

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These guys are "real" fisherman with their equipment that can haul up sixty fish at a time.  I consider myself a real fisherman but no longer fish the Gulf for the two fish a day limit imposed by the feds.  I'm not going to waste a six hour each way trip to get to the fishing grounds for those two fish.  Go down to Galveston or Freeport and talk to some of the party boat owners and see what these sixty fish at a time "real" fisherman aredoing to their business.  Try the Texsun II.  As for the charter boats fishing illegally, I doubt there are that many.  Those same game wardens and feds will take away their license in a heartbeat.  There are other fish out there besides snapper, and when a commercial boat shows up with all their bait in the water it shuts down that spot.  Two sides to every story, Katharine.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

You're right; there are definitely two sides to each story, and this series only presents one side of the issues.  :)

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