Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Monday, October 15, 2012
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Fishing gear, research buoy ensnared in costly tangle

Equipment owned and operated by a Mexican research institute has become entangled in the fishing gear of a Marathon-based fisherman and the snafu is costing the trapper hundreds of dollars a day in lost income and possibly thousands more in damaged equipment, he said.

The entanglement is not enough to spark an international incident, but Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly does plan to file a complaint with U.S. Department of State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as he argued the research project was not properly permitted and fishermen in the area were not told that the equipment -- not visible from the surface -- would be tethered to the bottom in an area known to house golden crab fishing gear.

Last month, golden crab fisherman Robert Palma tried to retrieve a 9,800-foot trap line that held 75 traps, weighing 140 pounds a piece. The equipment is about 33 miles off Marathon in 2,100 feet of water. However, he noticed he had trouble bringing the trap line to the surface and would later learn that the research equipment now attached to his gear is anchored to the bottom by a 3,000-pound weight and tethered to the bottom by 1รขÑ4 inch steel cable.

Palma's hydraulic trap puller worked for six hours to bring his trap line to the surface. He eventually retrieved a submerged bright yellow buoy marking the research equipment. However, Palma's trap hauling equipment broke and his trap line, fishing gear and the research equipment plunged back into the water, Palma said.

Palma, who has been unable to retrieve his fishing gear for three weeks now, was able to read the buoy, which listed the research agency and contact information. The equipment is owned by the Mexican research group CICESE.

Palma, Kelly and Palma's attorney John Jabro have been meeting with CICESE's representatives currently in Marathon to come up with a plan to untangle the gear and research equipment. However, the research vessel that deployed the research equipment in July, which was after Palma deployed his gear, has returned to Mexico and is not scheduled to return until 2014, Kelly said.

The local CISESE crew is trying to help Palma, but CISESE has only offered to help him on his vessel and give him $1,000 to cover fuel costs. But lifting the research equipment off Palma's fishing gear will require a commercial salvage vessel and crew and would cost close to $50,000, Kelly said.

As much fault lies with the U.S. government as with the Mexican research team, Kelly said. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Oceans and International Science did approve the research project, which is designed to measure current and water flow into the Gulf of Mexico, but the U.S. permitting agency never alerted fishermen to the presence of the research equipment.

"No golden crab fishermen ever received notification about this project," Kelly said. "They have been fishing there for golden crab for more than 20 years."

Palma, Kelly and Jabro have been in contact with several federal agencies and research team to come up with a solution. But until the research equipment is raised, Palma will continue to lose money, Jabro said.

Jabro said he estimates that the entanglement is costing Palma "$30,000 a month."

tohara@keysnews.com

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