Like stone crabs drawn to a baited trap, the Anna Maria City Hall chambers were packed to capacity Jan. 14 for a discussion related to an ongoing issue between stone crabbers and shark fishers.
It was a standing-room only meeting, as attendees filled the seats inside the chambers and filled the hallway.
Anthony Manali, a stone crabber and owner of Captain Anthony’s Stone Crab Store, was the first to speak.
“I don’t care if you shark fish,” Manali said. “You can shark fish all you want. But that inside line on the beach has historically been where we make most of our income at the beginning of the stone crab season. It’s very important for us to be there.”
Manali had brought the stone crab issue to the commission in December, saying late-night shark fishers were destroying many of his stone crab traps. Manali valued his loss — traps and potential catch over several years — at $40,000.
Mayor Dan Murphy responded, and began to draft an ordinance to halt late-night fishing activity that involved using a raft-watercraft to drop a shore angler’s bait and hook into deeper waters.
The proposed prohibition caused a stir among recreational shark fishers and the matter was scheduled for a Jan. 14 public hearing.
Commission Chair Doug Copeland canceled the ordinance hearing and instead scheduled a discussion, inviting experts from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to talk about jurisdiction and enforcement. Anna Maria controls the beaches, but the FWC has jurisdiction of the waters.
At the Jan. 14 meeting, professional crabber-fisher Matt LeBelle, who works with Manali, said, “I’m not against fishers or crabbers but when someone’s trying to make a living, they’re not respecting peoples’ property.”
LaBelle said he’s seen shark fishers destroy crab traps. He said he once saw a fisher destroying “a whole football field of traps” by cutting the ropes and releasing the buoy markers.
Stone crab season runs Oct. 15-May 1. In the first few months of the season, October-February, the crabs are near the shoreline in droves, according to Manali. So crabbers lay a multitude of baited traps near Anna Maria’s beaches.
Manali said when fishers hook sharks or other big fish, the shark swims up and down the shoreline trying to escape capture. Crabbers lose traps when the sharks are pulled in and fishers cut trap lines rather than untangle their tackle. Manali said sometimes he finds traps raided.
“We’re only on the shore one-third of the year,” said Manali. “For the rest of the year it’s free for shark fishing. That inside line on the beach accounts for 30 percent of my stone crab revenue.”
Recreational fisher Briana Gagnier said she’s never had a shark get tangled in a stone crab trap. “The line always snaps when it wraps around a crab trap,” she said. “Then you’ve got a shark out there swimming around with a hook and line in it.”
To prove their point, Ryan and Trek Hackney, brought some cut lines they retrieved and a shark hook and line to demonstrate the large size.
Anna Maria resident Margaret Jenkins and Holmes Beach resident Matthew Drattell raised the issue of public safety.
“I would like to know why we are using shark bait to bring them to a beach that’s used primarily for swimmers,” Jenkins asked. If we bait sharks to come to the beach, she said, we’re endangering the swim area.
Drattell said Holmes Beach has regulations to prevent shark fishing and protecting swimmers.
But Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Paul Davis, head of Anna Maria’s substation, clarified for the commission that Holmes Beach regulates chumming — dumping dead fish in the water to attract sharks or other fish.
“Sharks have a high sensitivity to blood in the water. And they have a high sensitivity to activity in the water, such as kids kicking and swimming,” Drattell said. “The closer you bring that bait into the water the closer you’re going to bring (sharks) in.”
Another speaker reminded commissioners that hundreds to thousands of crab traps near shore are routinely baited by the crabbers.
Commission, FWC encouragement
When public comment closed, FWC Southwest Region Regional Director Tom Graef spoke. He said he was encouraged by the evening’s outpouring and felt that both sides appeared willing to come to an understanding.
“I think we’re on the right track having this discussion moving towards a solution from a lot of ideas mentioned here tonight,” Graef said.
Both sides offered suggestions, including opening only one section of the beach for late-night fishing or working to keep the shallow trapping areas from becoming over-congested with traps.
Graef said, “We should try to go though every possible avenue for education, such as working with the user groups to try to find ways to make this work for both groups.”
At the conclusion, Copeland encouraged everyone to return to city hall Jan. 21 to continue the informal discussion, with the goal to try and come up with an amiable solution for both sides of the argument.
Commissioner Chuck Webb encouraged communication but, he said, the city must step in if an agreement can’t be reached.
“We may have to take a draconian action that no one will like,” Webb said. “If we have a problem that we have to solve, the law limits our ability to do certain things. In this case we can’t regulate crab traps and fishing, but we can regulate the use of the beach.”
The discussion will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, at Anna Maria City Hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.