BILOXI, Miss. — Capt. Jay Trochesset recalls the days when skippers steered charter boats to a rich catch of fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
"A few years ago, you could take people out on a half-day trip and land plenty of big snappers and groupers, but that's not the case now. Now we talk about 12, 24 or 48 hours to go for the big ones," said Trochesset, who has run his own charter boat out of Biloxi for 14 years.
Skippers and marine experts say red snappers and groupers, saltwater delicacies popular with sport and commercial fishermen, are disappearing rapidly from waters near shores from Florida to Texas.
Thomas D. McIlwain, assistant director for fisheries research and management at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at Ocean Springs, said there is little doubt that there are fewer fish within a few miles of shore today, and those that do exist are smaller.
McIlwain said the problem appears worse in areas like Florida, where recreational and commercial fishing are on a much larger scale, than off Mississippi.
Skippers on charter and head boats at a crowded pier in Panama City, Fla., said competition from commercial vessels was forcing them from their traditional fishing areas.
"We have to go out farther now and really work to bring back a good catch," said Capt. Dave Jones. "There's a lot of competition out there now."
To combat the problem, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has regulated methods of catching fish and the size of those kept.
Head boats, which take fishermen on half-day and daylong trips to bottom fish in the Gulf, were temporarily exempted from a 12-inch size limit because "they are so dependent on the catch of small fish," said Terry Leary, a staff member with the Tampa, Fla.-based council.
However, Leary said studies are under way to determine the survival rate of fish caught at different depths. He said a size limit would be of little value if fish caught in relatively deep water were released only to die as a result of the rapid change in pressure that results from being pulled to the surface.