LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - After listening to more than a hundred emotional opinions, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this week voted to move forward with a controversial proposal to modify the type of gear used to catch tarpon statewide.
They also made tarpon a catch and release fish for the first time.
The FWC's proposed rule, passed by a 4-3 vote, would prohibit gear rigged with bottom weights - a technique that is notorious for catching tarpon, even if they are not feeding. Tarpons, also known as "silver kings," can grow up to eight feet and weight over 300 pounds and are prized by fishermen because they jump and fight when snagged.
In Boca Grande Pass, the largest and most prolific tarpon nursery in the world, the hotly debated issue is whether illegal snagging occurs in during the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series' annual round of tournaments.
Conservationists claim that PTTS is responsible for many dead silver kings washing up on beaches during their contests.
Several speakers told the seven-member panel that the disagreements have degenerated to threats, intimidation and harassment.
The Save the Tarpon organization asserted that PTTS' reality TV show is the motivation behind the use of the flossing method that allows trophy fish to consistently be caught. The TV show has an audience of 44 million viewers, according to PTTS claims.
A lawyer for PTTS speaking at the public hearing threatened the commission with a lawsuit if it passed the proposed changes to the gear.
The Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce director Lew Hastings, a proponent of changes that may conserve the fishery, told the panel that the business community supports FWC's draft proposal. Hastings told The Associated Press that the fishery can collapse if not protected and that would bring economic devastation to his small island community.
Hasting's fear may have some basis. Half a century ago, the tarpon fishery did just that in Port Aransas, Texas, a small town that built its fortune on the silver kings and lost it when the fishery collapsed due to runoff pollutants. The town once known as Tarpon, Texas, is actively trying to restore the tarpon habitat.
Dave Markett, a long-time fishing guide who works Boca Grande Pass, called the acrimony that has destroyed lifelong friendships "a modern day tragedy."
"There is no scientific evidence that this gear causes snagging," he told the panel. "There is no biological issue with tarpons. No tragedy will happen today or tomorrow if you do a study." He urged the commissioners to table the proposal or to vote it down.
Several long-time fishermen told the regulators that numbers of tarpon have declined. They expressed serious concern that without action on the part of FWC, the tarpon will be driven away.
Charter captain Mark Futch of Boca Grande related to the panel that he invented the bottom-weighted circle hook that is currently used by members of the PTTS tourney to snag tarpon. He says he and fellow anglers quit using it years ago when they saw the resulting carnage washing up on local beaches. He told the commissioners that the snagging gear kills tarpon and harms the vulnerable fishery.
Celebrities who have lent sponsorship in the past to the PTTS include revered illustrator Guy Harvey and New York Times best-selling author and former fishing guide Randy Wayne White. Both have publically reversed their stance and supported the FWC's proposed restrictions.
The scientist in charge of the Tarpon and Bonefish Trust, Dr. Aaron Adams, also called on the FWC to protect the unique tarpon resource.
In explaining the FWC's decision to move the draft rule forward, chairman Kenneth Wright said, "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."
Commissioner Ronald Bergeron dissented. He said that he did not have enough scientific evidence to prove the gear is harmful. He said he will request further information before the final passage of the proposed rule is taken up in Pensacola in September.
The commission voted unanimously to make both bonefish and tarpon catch and release only. Possession of a single tarpon will be allowed only when in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record. Tarpon 40 inches or more must stay in the water at all times. FWC staff determined that larger fish are harmed if withdrawn from the supporting waters.
The PTTS and other tournament organizers have recently adopted a calculation of weight based on measurements that can be taken with the fish in the water, but the new rule will be now applied across the state.
Bonefish will not be allowed to be weighed and must be returned to the water with as little harm as possible. Neither fish is considered edible.
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