Florida Keys

This prized sport fish may get some protection

Florida Keys angler Sarah Kelly shows a permit taken on a flat off the Lower Keys before the fish was released. Conservationists seek a longer closed season on permit in South Florida.
Florida Keys angler Sarah Kelly shows a permit taken on a flat off the Lower Keys before the fish was released. Conservationists seek a longer closed season on permit in South Florida. Key Flat Charters

Permit, one of the most elusive sport fish cruising Florida Keys flats, could be in for an added measure of protection.

An existing three-month closed season on taking permit from South Florida waters may be extended to four months under a proposal reaching the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board at its Dec. 7 meeting in Gainesville.

Adding April to the current May-through-July harvest ban would further protect permit during their spawning aggregation, advocates including fishing-guide associations and conservationists contend.

The Keys are “the only place in America where you can catch this fish, at least in shallow water,” said Capt. Luke Kelly, vice president of the Lower Keys Fishing Guides Association. “Given this, it’s simply amazing we don’t have this protection already.”

“Based on the experience of flats guides,” he said, “we believe the spawning season for permit begins in March. [The no-take season] closes too late.”

FWC board members in December will decide whether to schedule a formal February hearing on adding the extra month to the permit’s Special Permit Zone, which covers all state and federal Keys waters, south of Cape Sable on the west coast and Cape Florida on the east coast.

“Recently, FWC staff heard concerns that the spawning season closure for permit inside the SPZ is not providing the level of conservation to permit spawning aggregations as originally intended,” FWC Marine Fisheries Management Director Jessica McCawley says in a report to the commission.

“Anglers and recreational fishing guides report substantial permit aggregations occurring within the SPZ during April and that these aggregations are being heavily targeted,” McCawley said.

The SPZ was enacted in 2011, the same year commercial fishing for permit in Florida was banned. During the open season on permit in SPZ waters, anglers are limited to keeping one fish per day with a fork length greater than 22 inches.

“On the flats, permit are a more challenging catch than bonefish, tarpon or any other sport fish that inhabits the area, according to Keys fishing guides,” says an FWC article on the species.

Permit, a member of the jack family, can reach 50 pounds but typically weigh about half that, the agency says.

In other items of Keys note at the FWC’s Dec. 5-7 meeting at Gainesville’s Best Western Gateway Grand:

▪ The Monroe County population of ospreys could be dropped from the list of state Species of Special Concern, along with three mainland species. The Keys ospreys were put on the list because it seemed possible that they are a separate subspecies. However, state researchers “concluded that Monroe County osprey are not genetically distinct from osprey elsewhere in Florida, based on results from a [2016] study,” says a commission report. The Special Concern changes are scheduled for the board’s consent agenda, which may not involve any discussion.

▪ A priority list for control of three nonnative species ranked as “management priorities” include lionfish and Burmese pythons, both found in the Keys. The black-and-white tegu. Commissioners will get an update on increased efforts targeting the invasive species Dec. 5.

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