Anyone who fishes in saltwater in South Florida likely has been befuddled trying to stay within the law while simply catching dinner.
Nowhere is this problem more vexing than the Keys, where an angler could be subject to four sets of regulations — Atlantic federal and state waters and Gulf federal and state waters — on a single fishing trip. Throw in special regulations in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and Everglades and Biscayne national parks, and it’s enough to make an angler’s head explode.
Said Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council member John Sanchez of Homestead: “Right now, honest to God, you’ve almost got to bring your Philadelphia lawyer with you when you go fishing. Let’s make this a little simpler for the public because some of this is absolutely crazy.”
Simplification is what a joint committee of the Gulf and South Atlantic councils set out to do at a 2 1/2-day meeting last week in Key Largo: identify species suitable for South Florida-specific regulations and cut down on cross-jurisdictional, conflicting rules. A separate ad hoc steering committee was established to tackle the controversial issue of whether to reopen the harvest of Goliath grouper, closed since 1990 after the fishery collapsed. The meeting was the first of several, and any and all recommendations will have to pass muster with both councils and NOAA Fisheries.
“Up to now, we’ve tried to treat everything one-size-fits-all, and it doesn’t work,” said South Atlantic council member David Cupka of South Carolina. “I’m glad we’re moving toward regional management.”
The joint committee’s opening session was slow going. After a day of discussions Tuesday, the panel named five species — yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, hogfish, black grouper and mangrove snapper — for detailed staff analysis on the feasibility of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission taking the lead on management. None of those stocks are in trouble or show up in great numbers outside the Sunshine State. Under federal law, all are subject to annual catch limits, and Florida already accounts for the lion’s share of landings.
At Sanchez’s behest, the committee also examined several snapper and grouper species now managed under inconsistent size and bag limits and closed seasons between state and federal waters in both the Gulf and Atlantic.
The panel unanimously adopted a recommendation to set a universal 10-inch total-length minimum size for vermilion snapper. They also said yes to removing schoolmaster, dog, mahogany and black snapper from the South Atlantic fishery management plan, which would allow Florida to set regulations in both state and federal waters. The panel declined to move on other snapper-grouper species where stock assessments are pending.
Whatever the ad hoc Goliath committee recommends for future management actions is bound to stir a heated reaction. A recent survey conducted by the University of Florida of more than 5,800 stakeholders showed commercial fishers and divers and recreational anglers disagreed with the current closure and tended to favor a strictly regulated reopened fishery. Sightseeing divers and conservationists strongly opposed any harvest.