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October 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Barracuda Slaughter at McCauley Memorial

what are the rules for spearfishing with underwater scooters?

from the October, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The underwater scooters known as diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs) have been touted by manufacturers as great products for giving divers more mobility and bottom time, greater range, and reducing air consumption. I never considered them for shooting fish. However, I discovered while on a dive earlier this year that some divers indeed use DPVs to help them hunt fish, and do it flagrantly at sites popular with divers who only shoot fish with their camera strobes. And the State of Florida, where it happens most often, isn't doing much to stop it.

The Danny McCauley Memorial Reef, a 110-foot-long WWII tug boat, has drawn thousands of divers since it was sunk off Palm Beach in 2013. I was one of them, signing up for a dive trip on the Little Deeper last winter. The sun glowed down on the shipwreck, its rays penetrating to the bottom. Visibility was 60 feet. The Danny bow perfectly aligned, was upright on the bottom, nearly 100 feet deep. Captain Jason Landau positioned Little Deeper 400 feet south of the Danny, to give the 17 divers time to get to the bottom and let the current carry them to the wreck. The Gulf Stream was flowing northward, running about a knot.

I followed Brian, the divemaster. The plan was to tie the flag line from a surface float to the Danny so we could explore the wreck. That was not to be. Two men with three spears, one riding a DPV, were killing the barracuda that lolled over the wreck.

As soon as Brian saw them, he tried to move the divers away. The spearfishers already had a large number of barracuda on stringers attached to the wreck's top structure. When one diver took a photo of the guy riding the DPV, the driver used his scooter to forcefully push the diver away. The other spearfisher loaded his gun, with the spear point facing us divers. It was a dangerous scene -- clearly, they were prepared to use force to prevent us from taking pictures. We quickly followed Brian away from the Danny.

Menacing DPV-Driving Spearfisher

Were they commercial fishermen or sport divers shooting fish for fun? Hard to say, but Captain Jason later told me that the spearfishers' boat looked shady from the start. "When I came up to the Danny, their boat was there, but no dive flag was displayed. As I pulled up to drop the divers, they quickly put up a dive flag. No commercial fishing numbers were on their boat. Commercial fishing requires a license in Florida, and large identification numbers must be posted on the vessel."

Florida's Unsporting Hunting Laws

I decided to investigate whether those spearfishers were following Florida law in their barracuda slaughter, and contacted Florida's Fish, Wildlife and Game Commission (FWC). Spokesperson Tony Young pulled out a copy of the Florida Hunting Regulations Handbook, turned to page 17, and read to me, "Under prohibited methods for taking game there are the following: Shooting from vehicles, power boats or sailboats moving under power. Herding or driving game with vehicles, boats or aircraft."

Florida's hunting regulations on land are no different from any other state's laws prohibiting use of motorized vehicles to hunt. It is not only against the law, it is unsporting. In short order, wild animal populations would be decimated by hunters chasing them down with aircraft and all-terrain vehicles. But there is no such law in Florida regarding underwater spearfishing. "It is legal to spear fish using tanks, and it is legal to spear fish using motorized underwater propulsion vehicles," Dan Ellinor, biological management officer for the FWC, told me. "We don't really know a lot of people who use [DPVs]. And not a lot of people have complained about it."

Most spearfishers consider it better sport to free dive. But those who hunt to make money aren't in it for sport. Plus, DPVs have made killing fish underwater easy. The Tusa SAV-7 EVO model has indentations along its sides, so that the operator can more easily ride it with speargun in hand. A fish stands a chance of evading the spears of free divers or even scuba divers, because they can often outswim finning humans. But tracking them down and shooting them from DPVs is like hunting from a vehicle or aircraft. FWC states that shooting from vehicles or boats under power is not allowed on land. So, should it be allowed underwater? The animals have no chance. Because of divers who seek maximum kill, reef life is being wiped out.

It's also outrageous that DPV-driving divers are hunting at the sites where divers go to watch and photograph these fish, then killing the fish in front of the divers, as they did with us at the Danny. When the FWC sinks artificial reefs (it's also the agency in charge of that task), what rules does it -- or should it -- put in place for sport diving versus commercial fishing?

Barracuda Being Killed for Shark Chum

While diving other shipwrecks near Palm Beach, I rarely see a barracuda, and then only a lone one or two. That's odd, because barracuda become territorial on shipwrecks, forming squadrons and swimming in place against a current. But, as any experienced diver knows, they're not aggressive fish, which makes it easier for them to be speared. And, as I've been finding out, hunters have systematically been killing them for commercial sale. One guy offered Brian, our divemaster, $2.50 a pound to kill barracuda for him to use as shark chum. "He knew I was a divemaster and that I knew the sites where they could be found. I didn't want to do it. They are so beautiful underwater."

A local spearfisher told me that he used to shoot barracuda for money but no longer does. "Once I had an offer of $2.85 a pound. They want the barracuda to chop up for chum to catch sharks. I won't do it. Fifteen dollars to kill a fish for that? It is not worth it."

As fish stocks in the oceans are becoming so scarce that international regulations severely limit commercial fishing, shouldn't Florida, and every other state, create common-sense regulations to prevent aggressive self-interest from destroying the underwater environment for personal gain? Florida supports a multi-billion-dollar sport fishing and diving industry. If there are no fish to catch, or see, customers will go away.

A Change to the Law

Change is coming, however. The FWC voted on new regulations tregarding barracuda fishing. Starting November 1, it's a recreational catch limit of two barracuda per person per day, and a commercial and vessel limit of six barracuda per day. The penalty is a second-degree misdemeanor with a $300 fine. However, the rules only apply to six Florida counties on the Atlantic side. While those counties may have the most divers in their waters, but that means barracuda in western Florida are all up for grabs.

Palm Beach County, as well as the FWC, can implement regulations that outlaw use of DPVs while spearfishing. They can establish no-kill zones around shipwrecks that have been sunk as artificial reefs. Such rules may be difficult to enforce, but with concerned scuba divers and responsible dive operators whose living is derived from tourists, it is akin to reporting boaters who anchor on reefs and destroy coral.

Some Want to Hunt the Goliath Grouper

Ironically, while my dive group and I were being menaced by the DPV-riding spearfisher, I noticed a solitary Goliath grouper watching the mayhem off the side of Danny. In Florida, there are lobbyists trying to persuade the legislature to open the season for taking Goliath groupers. But these fish were nearly hunted to extinction -- it requires as much as 40 years for a grouper to achieve the size of the Goliath that was swimming off the Danny. It would only take a spearfisher on a scooter seconds to kill it.

The massacre at the Danny McCauley Memorial Reef is an example of why Florida must change its hunting laws. When FWC's Dan Ellinor told me, "Not a lot of people have complained about it," it likely means they haven't seen it. Once divers and fishermen understand why they are seeing fewer and fewer barracuda and other reef fish at the sites they visit, it may be a different story.

John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist, researcher and expert in maritime affairs. A master dive instructor and former trustee of the International Oceanographic Foundation, Fine is the author of 26 books, many dealing with ocean environmental matters, and his articles have appeared in publications worldwide.

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