Florida Keys

Barracuda fishing limits coming

State fishery managers endorsed new limits for barracuda catches Thursday, and approved a bonus lobster for effective lionfish hunters.

New commercial and recreational bag limits for barracuda passed a first hearing of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the board’s Sarasota session.

“A pretty broad swath of the recreational-fishing community showed up and everybody was on board with this,” said Will Benson, vice president of the Lower Keys Guides Association. “I think we got something done.”

Commissioners, who showed little interest in tightening barracuda protection during a November meeting on Key Largo, quickly agreed Thursday to a more restrictive commercial bag limit than suggested by FWC staff.

Conservation groups seeking barracuda limits “were stunned,” Benson said. “There really was no discussion about it [among commissioners] at all.”

The Lower Keys Guides endorsed most of the FWC staff proposal, but sought a reduction in a proposed daily commercial bag limit — from 20 barracuda per person per day to a daily cap of 20 per vessel.

When the barracuda rule returns for a final hearing at a September meeting in Broward County, the 20-per-vessel commercial limit will be the preferred rule. Currently barracuda fall under a general provision that allows recreational harvesters to take up to 100 pounds per day, with no limits for commercial harvest.

Other rule changes would see a daily recreational bag limit of two barracuda per person and a size slot limit of 15 inches to 36 inches to protect small fish and larger breeding stock.

“A slot limit would contribute to barracuda conservation by eliminating harvest pressure on the youngest, more vulnerable fish, while also conserving the largest fish, which are the ones responsible for the vast majority of reproduction,” an FWC spokesman said.

“FWC staff did an amazing job breaking down the issues,” Benson said.

If approved, the barracuda rules will apply from Martin County south through the Keys, and include Collier County.

More than 10 people spoke in support of the rules, intended to stem a perceived increase in harvests of the predator fish, during public comment Thursday. A February workshop in Key Colony Beach drew more than 50 people, with most supporting more protective rules on barracuda.

“This is a very forward-looking management decision, and we guides applaud the commission,” Benson said. “It’s managing a situation before we have a problem rather than after it occurs.”

Lobster, lionfish

Lobster mini-season divers this year will be able to take an extra lobster — providing they already have 10 dead lionfish they can show marine law officers.

The FWC board approved a pilot program for this year’s July 29 and 30 mini-season that “encourages divers to remove invasive lionfish by allowing them to take one extra spiny lobster each day during the two-day sport season” provided they have harvested 10 lionfish.

“Our hope is that once lobster divers realize how easy it is to remove lionfish, they will continue to do so throughout the regular lobster season,” said Brian Yablonski, newly elected as FWC board chairman.

The daily bag limit would be seven lobster, rather than six, for divers with 10 lionfish. The lionfish would have to be kept whole so lobsters divers could prove they were caught that day.

Mahi-mahi harvest closing for commercial fishermen

Commercial fishermen have protested a federal closure to the Atlantic dolphin fishery that’s effective this coming Tuesday for the seafood industry.

Recreational anglers can continue catching legal-size dolphin, also known as mahi-mahi, with daily limits of 10 per person, up to 60 per boat. No freshly caught dolphin can be sold as of Tuesday.

“This closure is necessary to protect the dolphin-wahoo fishery because the commercial annual catch limit will be reached,” the federal South Florida Fishery Management Council said in a Wednesday statement.

The commercial closure was scheduled to take effect June 24 but has been extended until 12:01 Tuesday since “some vessels are far offshore and need additional time to return to port.”

Bob Jones of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, a commercial-fishing group, urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue an emergency extension of the dolphin season.

“The anglers are not reaching their 1 / 8harvest 3 / 8 allocation and the fishery is not overfished or undergoing overfishing,” Jones wrote to NMFS Regional Administrator Roy Crabtree. “There is no valid reason not to let our fishermen continue to produce this wholesome fish.”

Bill Kelly, director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said a ban on sales of dolphin by charterboat crews “has significantly increased the need for greater allocation to the commercial sector to meet consumer demand.”

“A commercial closure at the height of the dolphin season will only increase dependence on foreign imports when a healthy and sustainable fishery exists up and down the Atlantic coastline,” Kelly said in a letter to NMFS.

“I understand that this closure is disruptive for some fishermen,” Crabtree responded, “but we cannot stop the closure using an emergency rule or other mechanism…. Meeting the dolphin catch limit does not meet those 1 / 8emergency 3 / 8 criteria.”

The annual South Atlantic commercial harvest for dolphin now is about 1.16 million pounds whole weight. An increase in the commercial harvest, to 1.53 million pounds, has been tentatively approved but it received not yet been formally adopted.