Environment

Anglers have fought to protect this fish. So how did it wind up on a Miami Beach menu?

Angler Bob Brady holds a permit caught and released in Biscayne Bay, part of a protected zone that stretches to the Keys and Southwest Florida where it is illegal to commercially harvest the fish.
Angler Bob Brady holds a permit caught and released in Biscayne Bay, part of a protected zone that stretches to the Keys and Southwest Florida where it is illegal to commercially harvest the fish. Courtesy Bob Branham

One of Miami Beach's cool new restaurants, a laid-back fish shack named for Biscayne Bay's iconic stilt houses, aims to serve fish so fresh that its celebrity chefs claim much of the catch comes from the docks across the street.

Just one problem: A trophy fish that sport fishermen have long fought to protect wound up on the menu.

Last week, Miami New Times reposted a picture taken in November of Stiltsville Fish Bar chefs Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth gripping two large fish. In the picture, Booth holds a shimmering permit, a game fish found on South Florida's endless shallow flats, beloved by anglers for its powerful runs and fierce fight, and almost never featured on menus.

"It’s like seeing marlin at the grocery store," said Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. "In no way, shape or form should they be selling it in a restaurant."

McInnis, a Top Chef contestant and founding chef behind Yardbird, another popular Miami Beach restaurant with downhome fare, at first said the fish was an African pompano, which can grow to a similar size but is more closely related to jacks, found around deep wrecks and less restricted.

"Whoever it is who’s telling you [it's a permit] doesn’t know what they’re talking about," he said. "I know a lot about fishing, dear. I’ve grown up fishing my entire life. I don’t do that kind of stuff."

But Friedman and Aaron Adams, a marine biologist and chief scientist at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, both identified the fish as a permit.

"There’s no doubt that was a permit," Adams said. "It’s great that local restaurants want to source locally for their seafood, but if they’re going to do that, they have a responsibility to do the research and understand the dynamics of the fishery and the produce that they’re sourcing from."

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Marine biologist Aaron Adams, conservation director at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, pictured with permit. Courtesy Bonefish Tarpon Trust

Through a public relations firm, McInnis later clarified his remarks:

"Since our opening, just weeks after Hurricane Irma, we made it our mission to support many small businesses in the fishing community," he said in an email from the firm. "We do edify ourselves with each catch that is brought in to ensure that we are in line with regulations. After reviewing all of our invoices, since opening last fall, I found that we received a total of one permit fish in November."

McInnis' fishmonger also correctly identified the fish as a permit.

McInnis "uses a lot of sustainable fish that we get a lot of," said Francisco Urteaga, of KDX Seafrood. "He really didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a solid guy and he helps a lot of local fishermen who do that for living."

Urteaga said the permit was legally caught and purchased in Key West in November from a fisherman with whom he regularly deals.

"We catch it in the correct zone," he said. "We don’t go fishing in the zoo, you know what I mean?"

But purchasing a dead permit in Key West, even one caught in unrestricted federal waters, would likely be illegal, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

"The only way you could get it to Key West legally is to catch it outside the special permit zone and then have it trucked to Key West. You can’t boat it," she said. "If you are boating anywhere outside Key West, you are in the special permit zone and if you have a dead permit on your boat, that would be illegal."

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Flats fishing in Florida for permit, tarpon and bonefish helps pump about $460 million annually into the state's economy. Miami Herald archive

While it may be just one fish, there's a reason why permit on a menu would draw such harsh criticism. Permit belong to the trinity of South Florida flats fish, along with tarpon and bonefish, that help pump an estimated $460 million a year into the state economy. They draw anglers from around the globe and make up a rare fishery unlike any other in the U.S., stretching across a patchwork of seagrass meadows and winding channels. For years, conservationists, guides and anglers have fought to improve rules and management after watching the fish, and the flats-driven industry, decline.

In 2011, after determining that too many fishermen were confusing juvenile permit with pompano and driving down the population, they helped convince Florida to establish a special protection zone in state waters that stretch from Cape Florida south, across the Keys and southwest Florida.

"Our position was if fishermen can’t tell what species they’re catching they sure shouldn’t be keeping it," Adams said. "Ignorance is no excuse."

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Permit can only be commercially harvested if they are netted as bycatch in the Pompano Endorsement Zone off Florida's west coast. Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

It is now illegal to commercially harvest fish anywhere in the zone. And this year, after anglers and surveys found the fish were spawning sooner, a month was shaved off the season. Recreational anglers can catch only one fish in the zone during the season from August to March.

Harvesting permit accidentally caught in nets by pompano fishermen is still allowed off Florida's west coast in a pompano zone, but the amount is strictly limited to two per day per fisherman. The fish cannot be specifically targeted and must meet strict size limits: no smaller than 11 inches from snout to tail fork, or larger than 22 inches. To avoid poaching, a chronic problem in a state with so few wildlife officers, commercially sold permit only can be trucked in to restaurants located in the permit zone.

The fish pictured in the New Times photograph, Adams said, would likely not have been bycatch by a pompano netter because of its size.

"It's too big to be mixed in with pompano," he said.

In July , McInnis told the Herald he purchases fish directly from fishermen who dock across the street and was aiming to create a flip-flop friendly humble seafood house like the kind he remembered from his Panhandle childhood.

"We're able to cut out the middleman since I'm buying direct from the boats," he also told New Times. "When the fishermen bring in their catch, we'll ring the bell."

But the docks at nearby Gibb Park have been off-limits to commercial vessels since April 2017, and an adjacent marina provides slips for a private yachting club.

Under Florida law, only licensed commercial fishermen can sell fish to licensed wholesalers, Nalley said. Selling permit also requires an additional license, called a restricted species endorsement, which can be tougher to obtain.

"It just professionalizes the industry," she said.

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Angler Jen Bobay holds a permit caught in Biscayne Bay, part of a protected zone that stretches through the Florida Keys that prohibits permit from being commercially harvested. Photo courtesy Bob Branham.

If fishermen are unclear about the rules, she said, they should check with FWC officials by calling 850-487-0554, rather than risk breaking the law.

"We are happy to answer your questions," she said.

Urteaga said he had the appropriate license, but would not likely sell permit in the future.

"This is probably the only permit I ever sold," he said. "I probably won't ever sell one again. I'm all about saving the ocean and catching fish the right way and following regulations and all that stuff."

Captain Brian Cone of Contagious Charters shows one of the biggest permit he has seen during his two decades of guiding anglers to trophy-sized keepers. He says springtime is the best time to catch them.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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