LAKELAND -- Tarpon, bonefish, and snook were the stars of a long and contentious meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday.
Basically, commissioners adopted increased protections for tarpon and bonefish and eased up on snook restrictions.
After listening to nearly four hours of emotional testimony from scores of speakers, commissioners voted 4-3 to move ahead with a controversial proposal that would effectively ban a popular type of tournament fishing gear used to catch and release tarpon in southwest Florida’s Boca Grande Pass.
If the rule receives final approval in September, competitors in the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series — as well as other anglers — would be prohibited from using jigs attached to the bottom of circle hooks for targeting tarpon in the Pass.
FWC staffers recommended the rule change after finding evidence the gear snags tarpon instead of enticing them to bite — a position enthusiastically backed by live bait anglers who have been feuding with jig fishers for more than a decade. That feud has degenerated into name calling and threats, both in person and on social media.
Scores of anglers on both sides of the controversy implored commissioners to side with them.
Jiggers defended their favorite gear, insisting it hooks most tarpon in the jaw — not elsewhere on the body — and does not have a negative impact on tarpon stocks. Live baiters claimed the onslaught of jig fishers during the tarpon’s pre-spawning aggregation in the Pass during spring and summer hampers reproduction and changes their movement patterns.
“There are maybe 20,000 fish packed in a football field-sized area,” said tarpon angler Rick Hirsch. “Tarpon are bonked on the head by jigs and snagged by jigs. It has negatively impacted the fishing for the entire southwest region. It disrupts the tarpon to such an extent they no longer return to Boca Grande Pass.”
Countered captain Dave Markett: “We entice a fish to bite for a variety of reasons. Lures, by their nature, entice a fish to take it and sometimes they don’t get it just right. The overwhelming majority of fish have been caught in the corner of the mouth. It sets a precedent for other people with other agendas that you eliminate a piece of gear with no scientific evidence that it snags fish.”
An attorney representing the PTTS threatened legal action if commissioners went ahead with the gear ban, but they voted to proceed to a final public hearing in September.
Said chairman Kenneth Wright: “As a legal matter, we don’t have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt with scientific certainty that it’s snagging fish. We’d be studying this to death. I think we have compelling evidence of the need for the rule.”
In a separate and final rule to take effect Sept. 1, commissioners voted unanimously to place even more restrictions on tarpon. The species was designated catch-and-release only — except for harvest of one per person per year with a tag to pursue an IGFA or state record. Large tarpon would have to be kept in the water for measurements and photos, and the new regulations would extend into federal waters. In the same rule, bonefish also became catch-and-release-only and an exemption to transport them to tournament weigh-in stations was eliminated.
For snook, commissioners voted unanimously to reopen the fishery in the Gulf, Keys and Everglades National Park on Sept. 1 following a three-year closure stemming from a massive cold kill in early 2010.
Commission staffers said west coast snook have largely recovered, and that juveniles harmed the most by the deep freeze, along with large spawners, will receive continuing protection through tight bag and slot limits implemented six years ago.
Wright said commissioners had pledged to anglers a year ago that they would re-open the harvest if the numbers supported it.
“We made a deliberate effort to be conservative and it looks like it paid off,” Wright said.
Commissioners also declared a permanent open season for divers spearing lionfish — an exotic, venomous predator from the Indo-Pacific. The new rule waives the requirement for a recreational fishing license to take lionfish with pole spears and similar devices. There is no size or bag limit.