By Chris Adams

On a dock off the Gulf of Mexico near St. Petersburg, Florida, Jason DeLaCruz is both a fisherman and banker – but not in the traditional sense.

At Wild Seafood, his commercial fishing operation that specializes in grouper, red snapper and other Gulf fish, DeLaCruz oversees an operation with a dozen boats he owns or off-loads that last year processed 600,000 pounds of reef fish. His markets range from a restaurant up the road to those across the nation.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, DeLaCruz and Paul Parker, president of Catch Invest, described “permit banks” – one of the key strategies employed by the nation’s fisheries to manage a finite resource.

Parker and Catch Invest created a program in 2017 called “Catch Together,” which seeks to build a nationwide network of community permit banks that it says will connect fishermen’s long-term access to the fisheries resources they depend on.

A permit bank is a simple concept: Because fish are a limited and shared resource, the federal government – through the Magnuson-Stevens Act and NOAA Fisheries – puts limits on how many snapper, grouper, tuna or any number of other species can be pulled from the water in any given year. Without those limits, some species would be overfished, threatening the fish’s viability and decimating the fishermen and towns dependent on them.

Permit banks are a way, Catch Together says, to “bring the local fishing fleet together to work toward a common future.” They are community organizations that purchase fishing quotas and lease them to local fishermen.

The organizations also facilitate tagging and tracking fish, giving fish caught under its permits a barcode tag that, for example, allows a chef or a restaurant patron far from the Gulf to see where the fish they are about to serve and eat came from.

“We stick a tag on every single fish – basically its own Social Security number,” said DeLaCruz, who in 2016 was recognized by the White House for his efforts at sustainable fishing. He is part of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance.

His operation, tucked onto a boardwalk in Madeira Beach, is a mom and pop – rather, Jason and Vicky – operation that has become a successful business. He is involved in every aspect of the seafood chain, from customers buying at dockside to selling to retailers and wholesalers.

A recent day saw a handful of boats come in with more than 20,000 pounds of grouper, packed on ice and tagged. Off-loading all that fish will take a full day, with the fished packed into 50-pound boxes that are then banded for shipment across the country.