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Karl Lessard, Fisherman
Marathon, Florida

Food Voices: The Interviews

Karl Lessard, Fisherman
Marathon, Florida

Karl Lessard fishes out of Marathon, Florida on his fishing vessel Mystic One. He has been fishing for 40 years and catches lobster, stone crab, snapper, grouper fisherman.  He has seen a lot of changes over the years from management to environmental issues, but he still has faith that the fisheries are resilient.

It normally takes a generation and a half to rebuild a fish stock that’s been overfished. Gulf group king mackerel average life expectancy is seven years.  We started addressing king fish in 1990, so we’ve had 20 years of rebuilding the stock.  Every fisherman, every scientist says there’s more of them out there than we’ve ever seen and they are having a hard time letting us increase the quota. Fisheries management works it just takes time. But you know there’s a lot of political agendas and whether it’s commercial, recreational, the environmental community and everything, everybody wants a say in a public resource and the process works.  Fisheries management works. It’s just something that’s not going to happen overnight and people expect it to happen overnight.

I’ve seen major impacts on the fishery.  In the ‘80’s we altered and diverted fresh water flows in the name of flood control here in South Florida.  Monroe County, which at that time was in the top five of twenty counties in terms of seafood dollars landing in the continental United States, our landings declined by 51% for our shellfish.  National Marine Fisheries Service stated that this is not from overfishing, it’s an environmental problem.  Our organization had to file a complaint against the state of Florida because in ‘74 they mandated that freshwater be put into all the bays and estuaries.  We had to file a complaint in ’94 to have it done because it was never done until we filed our complaint and threatened a law suit.  After that all of our landings have gone back up to their historical levels.  Alteration and diversion of fresh water flows is the number one thing impacting our fisheries and our habitat issues here in the United States and unfortunately we’re competing against development.  People build houses in flood plain areas and then they expect to be protected. So, as we take out the mangrove areas, we build sea walls we’re impacting the way an estuary or a bay is supposed to work, which impacts the fishery for everybody whether it’s recreation or commercial. Last year we had an unprecedented cold winter and we saw miles of dead fish.  The state of Florida stopped the harvest of all snook, which is a subtropical, fish that were up on Florida’s and Texas’s northern extremes of its range but we’re already starting to see a recovery of that fish.

The Gulf of Mexico Council just turned the lead over to the South Atlantic Council for catch shares in our fishery.  It’s a program that is pushed by Environmental Defense Fund and the PEW Charitable Trusts and Jane Lubchenco was a trustee of PEW, Eric Schwab was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund who is now the director of National Marine Fisheries Service. Most of the Council members themselves that we talk to say you don’t need catch shares in a lot of these fisheries, but we’re being pushed by National Marine Fisheries Service to make this a management thing and again you’re aren’t working on the fish stocks you’re taking effort away. You know that’s not what America is based on.  It’s my own personal opinion. There’s a big difference between controlling the number of fishermen and what they can catch compared to rebuilding fisheries to let fishermen catch more.  That’s my take on it and also the take of my organization, Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association. If they put through a catch share they’re destroying a program that industry helped design and work hard on and came up with and we’re limited on our catch by the amount of traps that we have and we just could not seem to get that through their heads that we already have a program in existence.  It’s been in existence for 20 years.  Why make a change now?  It’s working.

Fishing can always be here because we can always make sure we have a sustainable fishery for generations to come and it doesn’t have to be through management of effort.  It has to be management of the resource. The economic engine of the Key’s is commercial fishing, well let’s just say fishing of all kinds, number one being tourists, number two being fishing.  So if we did not protect the waters around us, both economic engines could have went down the tubes. 

To me it’s a spiritual thing.  You know I’ll be working and the dolphins come up and they’re getting friendlier and friendlier with the fishermen as time goes on.  Some of them cut down, they’ll grab our ropes and buoys and pull them under the surface and then you have to stop the boat and let the rope and buoy pull back out to go along.  Or they’ll jump up and they’ll throw water through the front window and stuff like that. At one time I dove for a living, so I know what’s under the sea as well as what’s on it and it just makes me feel that it’s a way of life and it’s a resource and down here it’s something that really needs protected.  This coral reef is a living coral reef here and the only one we have.  It’s a phenomenal thing and it should be protected.  It’s pretty spectacular to see all this stuff. I love what I do for a living, I’m very blessed in life.