Federal shutdown shuts down Keys guides



The federal government shutdown that began this week because of a standoff between the Obama administration and Republicans over the budget and the president's signature health-care program is hitting Upper Keys backcountry guides in the wallet.

Charter guides received a message from the National Park Service this week that they cannot take clients fishing in Florida Bay until the feds get back to work. That means that more than 1,100 square miles of prime fishing is off limits between the southern tip of the mainland to the Keys until further notice.

The closing affects not only fishing guides, but anyone with a license to conduct business in the park, including tour operators and paddling guides — anyone with a Commercial Use Authorization permit, said Dan Kimball, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.

Biscayne National Park is also off limits. Enforcement rangers will be on duty, Kimball said.

Capt. Mike Makowski, owner of Blackfoot Charters in Key Largo, estimates this eliminates about 60 to 70 percent of his hunting grounds.

"This is going to put a lot of guys together in a small area close to the park," Makowski said. "It's going to be even worse on the weekend when we're going to have to compete with the recreational anglers."

The backcountry bay not only offers hundreds of species of fish for anglers to go after, it also provides boaters many small islands that block the wind and make for a smoother day on the water.

Capt. Perry Scuderi, of Captain Perry Charters, said the shutdown coincides with windy conditions on the oceanside of the Keys, leaving guides with few spots where they can fish comfortably with their clients.

"This time of year, with the wind, it's a big difference because you can't go out front," Scuderi said.

The last time Congress shut down the government was for six days in November 1995 and 21 days in between December 1995 and January 1996. The uncertainty over when congressional lawmakers and President Obama might come to some sort of agreement that would reopen government services is concerning to those who do business in the national parks.

"The real bad part is that we don't know how long this is going to last," Makowski said. Still, other guides wonder why the government shutdown should impact their trade at all.

Capt. Barry Hoffman, of Hoffman's Guide Service in Tavernier, said he doesn't rely on National Park Service personnel and rangers when he fishes the bay, so he doesn't see why he can't go there.

"It seems pretty senseless to me because they don't provide a service for us when we're out there," said Hoffman, who has been fishing the backcountry for more than 23 years.

Another segment of the Keys tourism economy being impacted by the shutdown is fishing tournaments.

Gary Ellis, founder of the internationally popular Redbone Celebrity Tournament Series, said this weekend's Redbone At-Large Tournament out of North Key Largo's Ocean Reef will be severely limited if participants can't fish in Biscayne Bay in Biscayne National Park.

"That's the guides' bread and butter," Ellis said. "Like so many government decisions, it impacts others out there trying to make a living, and yet Congress is still getting paid."

Anglers in this weekend's tournament will be hunting snook, redfish, tarpon, trout, bonefish and permit. If they have to go south to fish in the ocean, the number of species will be cut in half, Ellis said.

Ellis started the Redbone series in 1988 to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. Since then, the program has attracted scores of celebrities, including professional athletes and politicians, and has raised more than $18 million in research dollars for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

This weekend's tournament and the Baybone tournament scheduled for Oct. 11 and 12 will be negatively affected by not being able to fish in the Florida and Biscayne bays. But the Redbone Celebrity Tournament set for Nov. 1 and 3 attracts far more boats and will be a wash if the shutdown continues.

"If by November this is still going on, it will destroy the tournament," said Ellis. "Let's see if they could grow up in a few days."

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