Wildlife Conservation officials look to protect tarpon
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took an important step Thursday toward ensuring that tarpon and other popular game fish will be given legal status that will protect them for future generations of anglers.
Although the discussion at the Tampa meeting was just a preliminary pitch of an idea that has yet to be fully formed, the notion of two new designations for saltwater fish — game fish and sport fish — was sufficiently interesting to draw more than a dozen people to speak before the commissioners.
Basically, the new designations will be about preventing the exploitation of fish that are more valuable alive than dead. Rather than managing these species for a biological threshold of the number that survive to spawn (the way it’s usually done), these fish would be managed for abundance in an effort to maintain Florida’s edge as a world-class fishing destination.
Although several species of fish are being considered for these new protections, the one that is of most concern in Southwest Florida is tarpon. If tarpon are granted sport-fish status, it likely would mean the end of the current system of tarpon harvest tags.
The single biggest user of the tags is the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, which is fished each year in Boca Grande Pass. But both fans and foes of the PTTS sat up and took notice when FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright said the new law will be written such that, although catch-and-release would be mandatory for tarpon, anglers legally would be allowed to bring their fish boatside, measure them for length and girth, and take photos — exactly the system PTTS organizers said just this week that they’ll be adopting for their 2013 events.
“Our events have always been based in conservation,” said Joe Mercurio, spokesman for the PTTS. “That will always be the case. We are very concerned about the future of the tarpon fishery.”
Capt. Tom McLaughlin, leader of a PTTS protest group called Save the Tarpon, says the sport-fish protections for tarpon are a welcome change.
“I think it’s good the FWC is looking into this,” he said. “We definitely support the elimination (of) a possession of tarpon.”
During the public comments, one thing that was mentioned several times was that it would be a good idea to mandate the use of circle hooks for tarpon fishing. Circle hooks, which usually hook fish in the corner of the mouth, actually originally were designed for commercial fishing with unattended lines. They have been widely touted as conservation tools because they eliminate or reduce gut-hooking.
“If Save the Tarpon is really interested in saving the tarpon, they should get behind this circle-hook effort,” Mercurio said.
“We absolutely are open to looking into re-evaluating the Boca Grande Pass seasonal tarpon rules,” McLaughlin said. “For most anglers, there won’t be much change. The overwhelming majority of bonefish and tarpon caught are already released, and redfish and snook are already tightly regulated and protected from commercial fishing.”