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text Terry Howard: Hello, good afternoon, this is Terry Howard. Today is August 31, 2010. Im at the Water Reclamation Facility at 403 Seaway Drive in Fort Pierce, Florida, conducting an oral history with Larry Benning for the Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Foundations project with Fort Pierce fishermen on the Oculina Bank HAPC [Habitat Area of Particular Concern]. Welcome, Larry. Please state your name, spell your name, your place of birth, and your date of birth.
Larry Benning: Larry Benning, L-a-r-r-y B-e-n-n-i-n-g. Place of birth, Staten Island, New York. 2-5-56 [February 5, 1956].
TH: February 5, 1956. Okay. When did you move to Fort Pierce?
LB: Ive been living in Fort Pierce about thirty years now.
TH: What brought you here?
LB: As a teenager, we came up here surfing and fishing and diving a lot. I grew up in Hollywood, Florida, so it wasnt a big jump. We came up here since I was very young.
TH: So, when did you move to Florida from New York?
LB: When I was a year old. I have no memory of New York.
TH: Then you said when you lived in Hollywood, you came up for surfing and fishing?
LB: Surfing, fishing, diving. We had a lot of friends that lived up there, and we stayed at their houses, and wed spend a week. Spend the summer, weekend, whatever we could do.
TH: You wanted to move here, I assume?
LB: It had a lot more to offer than Hollywood. Hollywood was pretty much fished out and somewhat overgrown. When we used to come up here, Edwards Road was the end of town. After that, there wasnt anything, maybe a liquor store and a small trailer park out there.
TH: You were out here before Port St. Lucie boom?
LB: Long before the Port St. Lucie boom.
TH: Okay. Are you married?
LB: Yes, I am.
TH: How old were you when you got married?
LB: Ive been married nineteen years now, so Ill take twenty off of thisis thirty-four, thirty-three. Thirty-four years old.
TH: Okay, and do you have children?
LB: Yes, two.
TH: And their names and ages?
LB: Keaton, K-e-a-t-o-n, Benning, B-e-n-n-i-n-g, and hes eighteen. And Cheyenne, C-h-e-y-e-n-n-e, Benning, B-e-n-n-i-n-g, and shes sixteen.
TH: Okay. Teenagers. Cool. How much schooling do you have?
LB: I have high school education and some college.
TH: What do you do for a living?
LB: I am the Water Reclamation superintendant for the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority.
TH: Other jobs youve had?
LB: Ive worked on this facility since Ive got here. Ive now worked for the Utilities for twenty-six and a half years. I worked for the construction company that built that facility, and I workedprior to that, I worked for the wellpoint company that dried the ground out.
TH: Okay. Do you currently own ahave you worked in the fishing industry at all? Commercial
LB: I had a commercial license for eight or nine years where I cast netted, mostly. I did go through some kingfishing, but not much. Mostly what I did was throw a cast net on my time off and I stayed in the river doing that.
TH: So you had a state permit, state saltwater?
LB: Yes, sir, SPL [Saltwater Products License]
LB: with theI forget what the endorsements even called now. Its been so long.
LB: Restricted Species [Endorsement].
TH: Restricted Species license? Okay. So, you did that part-time for about how many years?
LB: About eight years, maybe nine.
TH: Okay. Do you currently own a boat?
LB: I do.
TH: Can you describe your boat?
LB: Its a twenty-three foot Mako Open Fisherman, single engine on it.
TH: Whats it powered with?
LB: A 200 horsepower.
TH: Okay. What kind?
TH: Now, Id like to ask some questions about the Oculina Bank. How familiar are you with the Oculina Bank?
LB: Done some reading on it. I know that the name Oculina comes from the coral that comes on the bottom out there, and how fragile it is, and how unique it is. Theres only a couple places in the world that actually have that. Actually they found some deeper coral now, but this was the deepest coral that they had known about. Some of the old fishermen used to tell me stories about when they fished out there and what they caught and how great a fishing place it was. It really broke their heart when they took that out of the fishing territories. But other than that, I dont know much else about it.
TH: So do you know why the Oculina Bank was designated as an area to protect?
LB: I think its more for the coral than it was for the fish. Its a specific type of coral and very rare, and it was getting beaten up bad by anchors, shrimpers, and all kinds of other activities that were going on out there.
TH: Okay. Is there anything else you can tell me about the Oculina Bank that you know, other than what youve already told me?
LB: Other than my opinion of what theyre doing with it now? I agree with it. I think its a great idea to put it off limits to anything that can disturb that coral out there. I think we need to protect the resources that we have. In Fort Pierce, theres more than enough places to fish. We dont have to have that particular spot.
TH: So, the next question, you just asked: what do you think about the closure of the Oculina Bank to anchoring and bottom fishing?
LB: Yes. I agree with it wholeheartedly. As awhat would you call this, a nursery or a safe place for fish where they can spawn and live undisturbed? This is what probably populates our reefs.
TH: Has the closure of the Oculina Bank affected your fishing?
LB: We just needed to learn different places to go. Yes, it has some effect. Yes, we were upset initially with it, but since then weve found other places where we can go and catch fish, and we just have to learn to overcome and adapt.
TH: Manmade reefs?
LB: Love em. Theyre a great idea. Ive been down on a few of them; it doesnt take long for the fish to move in. Once they move in, they populate quick.
TH: If anchoring and bottom fishing in the Oculina Bank was not prohibitedin other words, if you could fish therewould you do so?
TH: Okay. Overall, how has fishing changed since you began fishing in the Fort Pierce area?
LB: Its slowed down somewhat. There are more and more people fishing in Fort Pierce instead of where they come from. You know? Especially like in lobster season: you can see license tags from Miami to Jacksonville to Tampa. Everybody comes here.
TH: At the boat ramps youre talking about?
LB: Its just unbelievable how far people will travel to come here and go lobster fishing. And then, of course, theres more and more commercial divers out there spearfishing. Unfortunately, in the summertime, we always have an upwelling of real cold water, which makes spearfishing like shooting fish in a barrel. So, Im not too awful wild about that, because I see the amount of grouper they bring in on a weekly basis. I dont know which is more lucrative, the recreational fisherman or the commercial spearfisherman; but as a recreational hook and liner, it just breaks my heart just to see that many fish coming in on one boat.
TH: Have you had any experiences with law enforcement within or regarding the Oculina Bank?
LB: We were cutting through once, and had a plane buzz us, but we werent slowing down and we didnt have any lines in the water. He kept going. We really dont go in there; we go around it.
TH: Okay. Now, I want to talk about your fishing history, specifically. Whats your earliest memory of fishing, and how old were you?
LB: Oh, I was pretty small. My father took me out to the Everglades bass fishing. We had a little tin boat with a little two or three horsepower motor on it, and wed go out there and hed cook breakfast. Wed fish off the bank; wed go down in the boat and catch bass.
TH: Where in the Everglades?
LB: Sawgrass Recreational Park. Off of 27 and 84; State Road 84 and State Road 27.
TH: That would be in the eastern part of the Everglades?
TH: Not in the west; not across the
LB: No. It was on this side.
TH: Okay, down by Miami.
LB: No, not that far down. Right out of Fort Lauderdale. State Road 84 is in between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood.
LB: And it runs straight out. Now, its a great big huge highway, and 27 is a great big huge highway. Theyve actually drained Sawgrass Recreational Park and built houses on it.
TH: So, go back, again. You went with your father in a little jon boat?
LB: In a little jon boat. Yeah, I couldnt have been more than five or six.
TH: Okay. You fished for bass?
LB: Bass and bluegills and anything that would bite, or chain pickerels. He wasnt the greatest fisherman, but he knew I liked it, so out wed go.
TH: Howd you fish for the bass?
LB: Oh, just hook and line. Wed use cane poles, spinning rods, artificial baits, lures, worms, live bait with shiners and bobbers. We didnt go too far from, you know, the boat ramp. Wed go out along the grass, and wed catch a lot of fish back then. There was a lot of fish.
TH: To be caught.
LB: There was.
TH: Did you mostly go fishing in your own boat, or boats of others? Back then you were a child; I guess you were young.
LB: We fished mostly in our boat. My father did buy a small, eighteen-footer with a fifty horsepower on it, and we started going to the Keys a lot. But we did have a friend who hadback then, it was a big boat, a twenty-one footer with a 105 Chrysler. Boy, that was the big boat back then, other than, you know, the bigger commercial fishing boats, or charter boats. That was a big boat for people back then.
TH: So you fished mostly with your father?
TH: You have brothers or sisters?
LB: No brothers. Two sisters who didnt like fishing.
TH: So you and your dad got off together?
LB: As a kid, we had the C-10 canal not far from our house.
LB: So in the mornings I would get up, take my bucket, my fishing pole, and a little treble hook, and Id walk down the seawalls. Nobody had fences back then, and you could walk down the seawalls for miles and miles and miles. And Id snag blue-claw crabs off the seawalls; theyd be on the side of the seawall. I put em in my bucket, and Id take em over to my neighbor and I sold em to him for five cents apiece. You know, a dollar back then was a lot of money.
LB: It was more than I could spend on candy. So, I was in the water when I was very young. I can remember my mother saying, Youll have to come home for dinner, because it would be dark before Id come home. If we didnt have bait, wed go to where the trestles were, where all the rocks were piled, and wed stick our hands in the rocks and catch the shrimp. Now, these werent like what you would see as saltwater shrimp. These were brackish water shrimp. They had claws. They didnt bite hard, but they did havethe big males had the big black claws and they were real black. And the females were clear-colored.
TH: They werent crawdads?
LB: No, they were in between. You can actually catch them over here in the C-24 canal in traps. Bobby C. used to catch em, but there was no market for em.
Bobby Christensen, who was also interviewed for the Oculina Bank Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is O6-00037.
Theyre in between a crawfish; theyre bigger than a saltwater shrimp. The females are clear and the males are rock-hard black with these long, skinny claws.
LB: Wed stick our hands in the rocks and wed catch those shrimp, and thats what we used for snook bait.
TH: And you caught snook?
LB: We caught a lot of snook. That was before the eighteen-inch rule. Any snook you caught was legal back then.
TH: This was in Hollywood?
LB: In Hollywood, yes, the C-10 canal.
LB: Then the manatees found the C-10 canal and ate every grass bed in it and it turned into a muck hole. But, oh well.
TH: Huh. During what months of the year did you fish for what fish?
LB: We fished year-round. Anything that would bite; we really didnt care.
TH: You say we; it wasnt all your father and you? It was
LB: No, no, no. My friends thata lot of them lived on the canal.
TH: Any specific friends?
LB: Raymond LaBlanc, Billy
TH: I need the spellings. Raymond?
LB: Oh. Raymond, R-a-y-m-o-n-d.
TH: Last name?
LB: L-small a-capital B-l-a-n-c-o? LaBlanc, l-a-n-c? Yeah, LaBlanc.
TH: LaBlanc, that would be l-a-n-c. And?
LB: His brother. Lets seeI cant even remember his name now, and I just said it two seconds ago. Billy.
LB: Billy. They were the two people I mostly fished with, and there was Chuck VanHouten, who also moved up here.
LB: Houten, H-o-u-t-e-n. Hes also moved up here from Hollywood. Hes a Hollywood transplant.
TH: Hmm. Again, you fished all year long for whatever would bite. Now, a fishing trip, back then; how long did a fishing trip last? If you leave the house with your bucket, might not come back till dark, is that correct?
LB: Yes. We had a tendency to eat our bait if we got so hungry, and you always had twenty cents in your pocket. The store was a couple blocks away; you just walked down the railroad tracks to get to the store and you could get something to drink. Or wed just go to the back of the store and fill our little whatevers up, our glasses with water at the back of the store. We really didnt go back home till we had to. We stayed on the water.
TH: Again, this is a tough question for you. Your whole time is growing up and fishing. How much was an averagewas your catch on an average trip? I dont know if you can even
LB: Over that whole period of time?
TH: I mean, can you
LB: Average that out? Boy. Like every fisherman, you dont always catch fish. Sometimes you come home with less than you started out with.
TH: (laughs) I know. The average?
LB: But there are times when you absolutely sink the boat. If you tried to average that out, ten, fifteen keeper fish every time you went fishing, and thats
TH: Ever get a lot of mangrove snappers down there along those seawalls?
LB: No. No, we never really caught any snappers out of there; mostlyoccasional redfish. The majority of fish that we caught were snook. And for fun, we would snag mullet off the bridges. That would just
TH: Treble hooks?
LB: Yep. Wed just lean over the bridge and thered be hundreds and hundreds of them under there, and that was a lot of the fun right there.
TH: Did you ever eat mullet?
LB: Well, we eat silver mullet that we catch up here. I never ate the black mullet. Ive tried it smoked okay; but fried, thats a little strong for me.
TH: Okay. So youve fished since you wereyou first can remember?
LB: Far back as I can remember.
TH: Okay. All right. Lets get back to Fort Pierce fishing. Where do you go fishing in Fort Pierce?
LB: Northeast grounds.
TH: This is offshore.
LB: Yes. Its all offshore.
TH: You dont fish in the river any?
LB: Not anymore. Theres too many interruptions: people flying around in boats, jet skis, Police Department, Sheriffs Department, Marine Patrol
TH: Coast Guard.
LB: Everybody wants to see what you have in your boat. It just gets to be more than I want to do in the river.
TH: So you mostly head out to the northeast grounds?
LB: Northeast grounds. We rarely go south. Every once in a while, but thats usually were going out to deep water. Well go out to the northeast grounds and well try to fish in it. If its not so good, and the current isnt running along at five or six knots, then well go out in the deep water. You know, twenty-seven fathoms, 180 feet. We range between the 150 and the 200 foot line; thats Oculina Bank right there. If youre in 201, youre in the Bank, so back up!
TH: So you go out there and bottom fish for?
LB: Grouper, snapper, and
LB: Not specifically, but thats a lot of what you catch out there. Fortunately, we have somebody that will smoke those for us. Well make (inaudible) out of them. So we dont let them go to waste.
TH: Dennis Macy?
LB: Yep. I know him.
LB: I dont know if you want to throw that name out there or not.
TH: Oh, yeah. Hes a neighbor of mine. He lives down the street, across the street. So, mostly, you like to go offshore and bottom fish? You fishwhat gear and what bait do you use?
LB: We will use cut bait, but we prefer live bait. We used to catch our own, but its gottenbut there was a boat out here: before this boat came, the bait was so plentiful you could stop anywhere and catch bait. But then this boat called the Razor came in. It was a purseine boat, and it really put the hurting on bait.
TH: I remember that.
LB: Yes. Baits coming back now, getting more and more plentiful, especially in the wintertime; you can really see the big schools of bait coming through. So, its making a comeback, but theres a couple of boats that have really done a lot of damage, as far as Im concerned. One was that purseine boat getting the bait. The other was that seaweed boat that scooped up seaweed and ground it up for some kind of animal food.
TH: Youre the second person thats talked to me about that. Ive never heard of that. I never knew that before.
LB: Yeah, and they justall the sargassum weed; they just devastated the weed line. They really have made a comeback. Sometimes youll see grass out there, but nothing like it used to be.
TH: Well, you could usually stop a boat, almost.
LB: When I was a kid, it was out there during the summertime, whether it was two miles, three miles, five milesof course, a lot closer down south than it is up here. But it was always there. There was always a weed line. Now, you hear the boat captains talking about, I found the weed line. Its not, Where is it, its, Ive found one. So, theres been some damage done out there, unless its recuperated.
TH: The Razor was the boat, the first purseine boat that targeted the little bait.
LB: Thats it. Thats exactly what it targeted. Of course, now that its not there, frozen baits gone up in price, and a lot of the bait we use now comes from South America. Well, if you use it all up today, there wont be any for tomorrow.
TH: Okay. Gear, baitlets go back to gear.
LB: Gear? Rod and reel.
TH: Bobs and weights, sizes?
LB: Rod and reel, Ive got the biggest rod on the boat. Its a 60 Penn. Everybody else has got something more along the lines of 40s and smaller. Now, we do use the braided line because we can use smaller lead sizes and still hold the bottom. We use fluorocarbon leaderstwelve, fifteen feet long sometimesand then the live bait and circle hooks.
TH: Now, your lead is above the leader?
TH: Then you have swivel?
LB: Well, first you have a little berry so that the lead doesnt hit the knot on your swivel.
LB: Then youll have a swivel, and then anywhere from a ten to a fifteen-foot fluorocarbon leader, with a circle hook on the end of it.
TH: All right. Cool. Do you usually go on your own boat?
LB: No. I usually ride with a friend of mine whos got a brand new boat. Mines old, his is new.
TH: That would be?
LB: Emil, Emil LaViola.
Emil LaViola was also interviewed for the Oculina Bank Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is O6-00045.
His is a lot bigger, a lot faster, and its just a lot more comfortable to fish on that boat.
LB: Has all the toys, all the bells and whistles.
TH: So Emil is who you usually fish with?
TH: Hes your main fishing partner?
TH: Okay, and during what months of the year do you fish for what? Do you ever troll?
LB: No. We have trolled, and we have caught a wahoo, we have caught dolphin and all those things; but unless theyre really out there thick, the actions real slow, and we like fast action, which would be bottom fishing. But we do throw flatlines out when were anchoring, with little wire leaders and a stinger hook on the back of them, for something that just happens to be swimming by, and weve caught cobia, kingfish, dolphin, all types of fish.
TH: On the float line.
LB: Yep. Off the flatlines in the back.
TH: Flatlines, yeah.
LB: Well go out there and bottom fish. That is what we do.
TH: Okay. Now, the same question: on an average trip, how much?
LB: We do fairly well. On an average trip? If you averaged out everything, Id say at least two grouper between the fifteen and twenty pound range; and then, maybe six mangroves.
TH: Sea bass?
LB: Sea bass, yeah. Theres a guy on the boat that loves to keep those, one of our friends that fishes with us all the time. He loves to keep those. Wed let them go if it were our choice, becauseyou know, they taste very good, but the ones we have here are rather small so you have to clean a lot of them. Its just easier letting those go than cleaning the one you have. When you have two big groupers in the box, why bother with those little fish? Let them go.
TH: For how many years have you fished for grouper offshore? How many years youve done this?
LB: Here in Fort Pierce? As long as Ive been here.
LB: You know, there was a time when I bought the bait store at the foot of the South Bridge; its now a restaurant. And I bought it from Dibb, and I cant remember his last name.
TH: Which side of South Bridge, the west or east?
LB: The west side of the South Bridge, the northwest corner, and it was called Black Pearl back then.
LB: It was called Black Pearl, and I bought it for my wife so shed have something to do. I was working here.
TH: Was The Causeway a restaurant next to Simonsons? Its Simonsons and then you had Pier 66, and then you had that little restaurant?
LB: I dont remember all those. There wasit was always a bait store until just recently.
LB: When the two brothers that had the restaurant expanded their restaurant.
TH: You thinking 12-A buoy?
LB: No, before 12-A. They now have a restaurant right down here by this little supermarket, Daves; theres two brothers.
TH: Yeah, I dont know.
LB: Yeah, I dont remember their names. It was a long time ago.
TH: Huh. I remember the Black Pearl. I remember before then, actually. Im a little older than you.
LB: Yeah, a little bit.
TH: Okay, where was I? We got your average.
LB: We were still working on that last question you asked there, and we got off on the Black Pearl, the bait store.
TH: So, you fished offshore for, like, twenty years.
TH: And youre still fishing for grouper, snapper, whenever there
LB: More like thirty years, now.
TH: Now, how often do you go offshore now?
LB: How often we go offshore now?
TH: How many times a week?
LB: Weather permitting, we like to go twice a week.
LB: And we go out at night during the summer months for the mangroves. The only trouble is with that thermal climb that comes in here every year; it really shuts that fishing off. So, we do go out and try it, and were gonna start trying something a little different in the shallow water; the fish arent anywhere near as big, but the waters warmer and the fish might be a little more active.
TH: Are there some months you go fishing more frequently?
LB: Yes. At least, it was the January through May time zone. That was when the grouper spawn was going on. I dont care if it was five foot out there; if we could fish, we were gonna go and fish. But we dont get to do that now, cause they put that closed season on the grouper.
TH: Okay. Are there some months you never or rarely go fishing?
TH: Okay. Average: how far offshore do you go to fish?
LB: Its eighteen miles to our fishing grounds.
TH: To the northeast grounds?
LB: Yeah, where we start fishing. Well, actually thats in 150 feet of water, eighteen miles. Well, no
TH: Its about twelve miles.
LB: The net holds sixteen miles and Cable Rock is eighteen miles from the Inlet. So were almost to a buoy.
LB: Bethel buoy.
TH: Yeah, Bethels about eighteen.
TH: Okay. How far offshore, what do you fish for and how; youve already explained that. Who do you fish with, who owns the boat; we got that. How are you related to this person?
LB: Just a good friend we introduced. He was a fisherman who fished all the time, couldnt get enough of it, and we went fishing with a couple of times and we liked each other, and weve fished together ever since.
TH: How do you decide where to fish? You usually go northeast, but how do you decide? Sometimes you go south.
LB: If weve been fishing a lot, we have our certain spots that we like to go to. So, if were fishing a lot, we try to move around. Sometimes the bites not so good on the north side and you go there a couple of times and the bites not good, the bites not good, you decide, Well, lets go south. Its not that we have a circuit or something like that; we just fish by how the fish are biting, how well we do.
TH: Do you go check with somebody sometimes?
LB: We always call.
TH: Whites Tackle?
LB: We call the dive shop. Hows the water? Clear? Warm? Cold? You know? What the guys see on the bottom. Were they north, to the south? We know a lot of the commercial guys, some of the charter guys, so, you know, if youve been doing anything out deep
TH: Make a few phone calls?
LB: baits south, the baits north.
TH: Is there anybody, specifically, you call?
TH: Glenn Cameron.
Glenn Cameron was also interviewed for the Oculina Bank Oral History Project. The DOI for his interview is O6-00006.
LB: Glenn Cameron and Dive Odyssea.
TH: Dive Odyssea?
LB: Yes, the dive shop right here, foot of the bridge.
LB: And hes real, real good with information.
TH: You know Jim that owns that property; hes a diver?
LB: Yeah, the guy that runs the store?
TH: No, he doesnt run the store. He owns the property.
TH: He used to own it.
LB: I thought they bought that?
TH: Maybe they did buy it.
LB: Him and his wife?
TH: Yeah. JimI cant think of his last name, but he got the bends diving in ninety-foot, and hes partially paralyzed from the waist down.
LB: Oh, no. Thats not the same person.
TH: All right. So, how do you decide where to go to fish? You call around. During what months of the year do you fish for? Weve already talked about that. How long does a fishing trip last when youre going offshore?
LB: Daylight till sundown.
TH: You fish till dark?
LB: We fish till dark.
TH: Good going. (inaudible) And then youve got the average trip, again. You say you limit out, and you usually limit out in grouper?
LB: We dont limit out, cause theres usually four people on the boat, but we hold our own. You know, if you could come in with two big grouper and a handful of snapper every time you go out there, youre doing better than most.
TH: You are. Yes, you are. Id like to talk about how your fishing has changed over time in regards to the Oculina Bank. Since 1984, several changes have been made in the regulations of the Oculina Bank. Id like to know if any of these regulations affected your fishing, and if so, how? The Oculina Bank was initially closed to trawling, dredging, and bottom longlining in 1984. Did this affect your fishing?
LB: No. Those particulars didnt.
TH: Yes, 1984. Then in 1994, ten years later, the Oculina Bank was designated as an experimental closed area where fishing for and retention of snapper [and] grouper species were prohibited. Snapper [and] grouper fishing boats were also prohibited from anchoring. Was your fishing impacted by this regulation?
LB: Yes, it was. We fished there many, many times, and the fishing was always good. But, I approve of what they did. I like what theyve done out there. It is what keeps our reef populated.
TH: Okay. 1996, all anchoring was prohibited within the Oculina Bank. Did this impact your fishing, and if so, how?
LB: Well, we were already out of there, so
TH: In 1996, trawling for rock shrimp was prohibited in the area east and north of the designated Oculina Bank. In 1998, this area was incorporated into the Oculina Bank HAPC. Fishing with a bottom longline, trawl, or dredge was prohibited in this expanded area, as was anchoring by any vessel. Was your fishing impacted by this regulation and how? They expanded it north into east.
LB: I remember that. It doesnt go all the way up to Sebastian now, which the reef does go that far. But that new closed area, no, that didnt affect us as all. We dont go that far north.
TH: I have a picture of it here I want to share with you. There it is.
LB: I know the guys can go out of Sebastian and go to parts of that reef out there andoh, well, thats way up there! Thats up Cape Canaveral.
LB: But they can still fish bottom fish out there?
TH: Im not sure. I dont think so. I thinkthey cant anchor.
LB: They cant anchor, but I think they can bottom fish.
TH: In 1998, this area was incorporated in the Oculina Bank HAPC. Fishing for with a bottom longline, trawl, or dredge was prohibited in this expanded area, as was anchoring of any vessel.
LB: Mm-hm. But you could power drift and bottom fish.
TH: Now, this is the essence. The designation of marine areas that are closed to fishing is being used more frequently as a fishery management tool. What do you think of the use of closed areas to fishing compared to other types of management regulations, such as quotas, closed seasons, trip limits, slot limits? What do you think about the use of closed areas to fishing compared to other types of management regulations?
LB: Im not a big fan of the other type of management. You catch a fish and you hook him badly, he becomes shark bait. You catch a fish, you reel him up too fast, hes shark bait. You can let the air out of their bladders or do whatever you want. Youve traumatized this fish. On his way down, hes not normal. He becomes bait. Now, that might be different for sailfish or something of those nature, but a bottom fish, if he isnt up to 100 percent, hes a piece of bait. Soon he gets halfway down, somebodys gonna get him.
TH: So you think the size and slot limits are not good, because of the loss of so many fish?
LB: Yes. I dont think they recover like you might expect them to recover. In a river, might be different. But out there, theres just too many big predators.
TH: The depth, the change of pressure?
LB: Yes. Most of those fish arent gonna survive. You yank them up from twenty-seven fathoms; youve changed their whole world. I dont think they recuperate on the way down.
TH: So, you do like the HAPC, you said?
LB: Theyre hard to get used to, but after a few years, you learn to fish around them. Like I said before, I think they replenished the fishing areas that you do use. Theres only so many fish can live on one reef. After that, theyre gonna venture off of that reef and go somewhere else. Unless they do that, they come into the areas of fishing where youre allowed to fish. This is more like a hatchery to me; thats my idea. When they first take them away, Im not a happy camper.
TH: Im throwing this one question out to other people. What if they made the northeast grounds an HAPC?
LB: I would be very, very unhappy.
TH: (laughs) Me, too. If you couldnt troll there, anyway. Okay. Very interesting. And quotas? How about quotas? Closed seasons?
LB: Quotas, probably, because we dont reach our quotas, but most of the timebut we come back with more than enough fish for ourselves. The closed seasons, thats hard to get used to, too. They just took the best grouper fishing away from us, but well get used to it eventually and well fish around it.
It is an important time for the fish to not be molested. Theyre not biting because theyre hungry; theyre biting because theyre in a protective mode. I mean, there are a lot of things that can be done out there. It seems like they are reactive. The fisheries commission is reactive instead of preventative. I see a lot of things that they wait till the fish population is in a crisis before they do something, instead of doing small increments way in the future, like commercial fishing of finger mullet. During finger mullet season in this river, you could walk on the finger mullet. Youre hard-pressed to find a finger mullet now. I havent heard them come out with, Okay, thats enough. Stop. Theyre gonna wait till theres one finger mullet left, and theyre gonna cut it off completely forever and ever. Do something small in advance.
LB: Dont wait till youre reactive and you have to do catastrophic measures to save a fish. I dont understand that technique.
TH: So my next question is, if you were managing the fisheries, what do you think the most equitable and fairest way to manage the fishery?
LB: I dont know the political arena they have to play in.
TH: This is not politically. This is what do you think would be the fairest, more equitable to the fishermen and to the fish?
LB: Boy, Id hate to throw this out there, but like I stated before, when I see a boat come in with three or four hundred pounds of grouper on there with a single shot to the head, that upsets me. I understand the market is there; we all have to make a living. But if you added that to the people that wouldve tried to go out there and catch that fish, versus this one guy bringing it in and making a hundred bucks off of it, I think were losing money there. I like the limits, the way the limits are set right now. If you hit your limit, youve got more than enough fish.
TH: To feed yourself and your family.
LB: And the people on the boat.
LB: I mean, we bring four people on the boat, and we always have enough fish. We dont, versus the cost of going. We dont purse it as that, cause we go on the boat anyway. It would cost us money anyway, but we like being on the water. Its a lot nicer being on the water. But to seeand I dont want to badmouth the commercial guys, cause theyre not breaking the laws, but are we gonna wait till grouper gets in a position where we have to stop it altogether? Are we gonna wait till, you know, theres a limit of two fish a year before we slow it down? Lets take a good look. How many people did it take to catch this many fish, recreational? How many people did it take to catch this many fish, commercial? They waited till tilefish were almost extinct before they said you did anything about it. The snowy grouper, youre lucky to catch one twelve pounds anymore. I mean, why do we need to wait that long before we do something? I think thats just reactive, not proactive.
TH: Excellent. Finally, thinking ahead to the future: what do you think fishing in Fort Pierce will be like in ten years?
TH: FWC [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission].
LB: FWC. Eighteen miles offshore. I mean, they were out of their jurisdiction, but there they are out there, and thats fine cause we dont break the rules. I think the fishing will still be good.
TH: In ten years?
LB: I have no doubt that the fishing will be good in ten years here.
TH: And you havent talked about something else, besides the fishermen as the fishing pressure on the fish. Are there any other pressures on the fish that could affect fishing in Fort Pierce area?
LB: You know, I dive and I get to see the reefs. I dont see a big change from when I was a kid to where I am now, other than sea urchins in the shallow water. I do see multitudes of those. But there are still places that were there when I was a kid that are there now. Theres unbelievably beautiful
LB: Reefs. Live reefs. Theres still the great sandstone reefs in twelve feet of water. But in eighty feet of waterin ninety feet of water, there are places that are just beautiful, unbelievably beautiful: sea fans, corals, anything youd want to see is down there. From the shoreline, all the way out, Ive seen them all. And these artificial reefs, theyre getting real nice. Some of them are up into five and six years old now and theyre real nice, real nice diving.
TH: What I was referring to was the runoff, the freshwater runoff from [Lake] Okeechobee.
LB: I dont know that its had a huge effect on the ocean as much as the river. When I first came to Fort Pierce, I got a job right here on this little peninsula out in the middle of the river. You could see grass from here all the way to the power plant. Thats about as far as I ever went. It was solid grass. Theres no grass out there anymore. Theres no grass out there anymore, and I dont know if that had to do with anything with the nets, but it seems to coincide with that same time period. If you go around these mosquito retention lagoons that they have, the grass is totally different than what used to be there. Its some kind of rough, scratchy, nasty stuff with these black polyps in it. The fish dont go in there, the baits not in there anymore.
TH: What do you attribute that to?
LB: I cant say that its these mosquito lagoons that theyve made. They pump water in and out of there. Theyve had a lot of fish kills in there where theyve put pesticides and things like that in there. I dont know that thats the cause, but where you used to have just pristine ground, now theres houses with seawalls with fertilizer going in there, and lawn maintenance and this and that and this. The grass is gone out of the river. It used to be so thick you couldnt drive through it. Youd be lucky to find some now. It just disappeared. There are areas along the west shoreline where theres still some grass, but its a different type. Its not like the eel grass and the turtle grass that you used to see as a kid. Its different.
LB: In silver mullet season, summertime, just like the finger mullet; you used to be able to walk across those things. Theyre all gone. I mean, the river is changing, and its not changing in a good way. Its starting to look like where I grew up as a kid, you know? Once the sea cows came in, they ate all the grass; that sea grass taken out turned into a muck hole. The grass never came back and grew, the fish went away, the bait went away.
LB: If you lose the grass, youre gonna lose your river.
TH: Spawning grounds.
LB: Yeah. Its the (inaudible).
TH: You dont know whatyou dont keep your finger on what the cause is?
LB: When Im trout fishing, which is not too often, and I go by all those mosquito compounds where theyre shovin water in and out, and Im walking through that scratchy grass, yeah, I point the finger at them, because theyre right there. Theyre a point source. Whether theyre really the ones doing it or not, I dont know, but Im certainly pointing my finger at them. Man, thats whats doing it, right there!
TH: All right. Well, with that, one final question: do you have any unusual fishing experiences or tales youd like to tell?
TH: Or unique.
LB: This one stands out in my mind, and people, Im sure, dont believe it.
TH: (laughs) Lay it on me. I believe you from the start; I believe you.
LB: We were over in the Bahamas in white sands, twenty-six foot, little twin depot. Theres four of us fishing. We go all the time over there; fish-fish-fish-fish. Well, he had just got a new plodder with radar on it. We could actually(fumbling of equipment)
TH: He, who you talking?
LB: Emil LaViola.
LB: Were just taking a beating. This is maybe not hurricane force winds, but hurricane-size waves. We were getting hammered. And the fishing was great.
TH: You anchored?
LB: Yes. Flying fish are slamming into the boat, cause were the only light out there. And the strangest thing that Ive ever seen in my life, and I dont think Ill probably ever see it again, but baby flying fish were like dragonflies. They were coming straight up out of the water, flapping their wings, and I mean, theyre getting up eight, nine feet. Theyre way up in the spreader lines.
TH: Youre holding up your fingers, like, three inches?
LB: Yes, three inches. Yes. Theyre little tiny ones. They look like dragonflies flying around the boat. Ive always thought that they could only get up and skip across the water and just, you know, hightail it right across.
TH: Straight ahead.
LB: Yeah. These little fish looked like dragonflies. Theyre flying up into the lights, flying across the boat. Ive never seen anything like it. Whats this? I dont know if it was because the wind or what. Ive never seen them do that before.
TH: I never have.
LB: Strangest thing I ever saw.
LB: They were just flying all around the boat, one here, one over there, and the spreaders are two feet over my head. Im six feet tall; thats eight feet high, plus another foot to the water, and theyre getting up three-quarters of the way up there. Theyre six, seven, eight feet off the water just straight up in the air.
TH: Like a helicopter.
LB: And then take off across the boat and hitting the water. Id never seen anything like that in my life, and were all just looking at it. When you interview EmilI mean, he was there that night. It was the weirdest thing.
TH: Ive never heard anything like that. (laughs)
TH: You sure they were just flying fish?
LB: They were flying fish. What else could they be? I mean, were thirty miles from the nearest piece of land. Theyre not dragonflies; theyve got to be flying fish.
LB: We didnt try to catch them or anything, but flying fish are banging all over the boat, big ones, landing in the boat.
LB: Weirdest thing Ive ever seen.
TH: Ive never heard anything, and thats fascinating. I do believe you.
LB: Weve seen a lot of strange stuff out there. We see great whites off Fort Pierce. I mean
TH: Great white sharks?
LB: Yeah. Just standing there, and you see a fin thats sticking up twelve inches. It doesnt register for a minute, What is that, cause youthe size of them is too big for your small window view that youre used to, until you open that view up and say, Oh, my God, thats a shark. Hes as big as the boat! Ive got a twenty-three foot boat, hesIm standing in the front, his tail is back there by the transom, and his heads going by me. Thats how big this shark is! Huge shark. A great white is a big fish.
TH: Now, where did you see that, northeast grounds?
LB: Yeah, northeast grounds. Emil saw one, Ive seen one. Ive seen a whale shark out there. A sunfish tried to make love to my prop[ellor], kept slamming into it while it was turning. We were trolling, and he kept slamming into it. Thats the dumbest fish in the ocean. (TH laughs) Im calling, Hey, Bob! Are these things worth any money, cause this is dumb. I could gaff him, and hed never even know. He says, No. Just leave it alone. We didnt bother with it. By the time we left, he had scars all over the top of his head. Sunfish.
TH: Ive never seen one. Thats something.
LB: Theyre weird.
TH: Thats great. Any other last minute, and then
LB: Nope, other than getting caught out there in bad water where youre not supposed to be, and I think weve all done that. Ive been out there a lot of times and seen a lot of strange things, and I hope were smart enough to maintain it and keep it that way for the people who come up behind us, cause Id sure like them to see what Ive seen.
TH: With that, Larry Benning, I would like to thank you very much for the interview, and thank you.
LB: Youre more than welcome. Thank you.
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Larry Benning oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Terry Howard.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (52 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (33 p.)
Oculina Bank oral history project
Interview conducted August 31, 2010.
Oral history interview with recreational fisherman Larry Benning. Benning began fishing when he was a child and continues to fish at least twice a week if he can. He and his friend Emil LaViola prefer bottom fishing and frequently fished the Oculina Bank area when it was open. They have now found other places to fish. Benning supports the bank's closure, which he sees as necessary to protect the fish and the coral reef. Closed areas and quotas are his preferred fishery management tools. He does not like size limits or slot limits because so many fish are caught that cannot be kept, and he believes that many of the discarded fish end up dying anyway. Benning thinks that fishery management should be proactive, not reactive. In this interview, Benning also discusses his personal fishing history, the types of fish he catches, and the methods and equipment he uses.
Fort Pierce (Fla.)
Saint Lucie County (Fla.)
Howard, Terry Lee,
Gulf and South Atlantic Fisheries Development Foundation.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
Oculina Bank oral history project.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS