This article was originally published in the May 23, 2013 issue of WaterLine Magazine.

By Josh Olive
Waterline Publisher

The Miller Lite Professional Tarpon Tournament Series season opener this past Sunday was protested by a locally based group called Save the Tarpon. I recently talked with Capt. Tom McLaughlin, the chairman of Save the Tarpon, about the protest itself and what the group has planned for the future.

WaterLine: Now that you’ve seen the PTTS’s new measurement system in action, what are your thoughts on what’s being done right and what’s being done wrong?

Capt Tom McLaughlin

Save the Tarpon Chairman, Capt. Tom McLaughlin

Capt. McLaughlin: Fish-handling related issues with the PTTS are not confined solely to the measurement system. There are welldocumented issues with the increased fight times required to bring a tarpon to complete exhaustion (a point at which it can be subdued on a 3-foot leader). Considering that the PTTS takes place in a pre-spawn aggregate area, during the peak time of pre-spawn activity for North America’s only mass migration of spawning tarpon. It’s about time they go to a catch-and-release format. While the idea of their measuring tools may be great under certain circumstances, they are simply not appropriate for Boca Grande Pass in May and June.

Little if any of the handling-related issues have been addressed by the new format. These changes seem to be more superficial and for political reasons rather than out of real concern for the well-being of the sometimes 50- to 60-year-old fish that bring the PTTS its revenue stream. Fish still had to be restrained using a gaff-like device, fish were still towed for extended periods of time, and handling was still excessive. At one point, a single fish was held for 29 minutes from the time the LipLock was attached until the time the fish was released. This included no more than 3 or 4 minutes of revival. The fish was immediately seen floating back to the surface, where an official PTTS camera boat accelerated hard in reverse while pointing at the fish in an obvious attempt to run the fish over. There was no attempt to retrieve the fish for further revival; rather, efforts were directed at concealing the fish using the vessel’s prop wash.

There were numerous fish that were sighted and photographed struggling, sinking or floating at the surface after being handled. Enough is enough — it’s time to start catch-and-release.

“…the PTTS, its owners, employees and its participants have publicly attacked, bullied and attempted to humiliate those who choose to speak out against the PTTS for nearly the last decade. This includes not only rival guides but also recreational anglers, community members and concerned citizens. There are many who, while passionate about the cause we are fighting for, simply chose not to subject themselves to the threats and intimidation. We don’t blame them, but it will not deter all of us.”

WL: With so many Save the Tarpon supporters in the local area, why were there not more boats in attendance at the protest? Are there plans to bring in more boats for future protests?

McL: We tallied right around 25 boats for the protest. There were guides from various user groups, local community members, as well as recreational anglers who traveled for more than an hour and a half by boat to attend. We felt this was a sufficient number without being excessive. Our intentions were to disrupt the filming of the TV show and make those we feel are attacking our community as uncomfortable during their tournament as non-PTTS passgoers are. We did not, however, want to interfere with the actual fishing taking place. Based on feedback from FWC and independent onlookers, this goal was accomplished.

Though we have no ultimate control over the actions of those who attend a public protest, we do feel somewhat responsible for their actions. With that in mind, this was what we consider to be a manageable number.

Further, the PTTS, its owners, employees and its participants have publicly attacked, bullied and attempted to humiliate those who choose to speak out against the PTTS for nearly the last decade. This includes not only rival guides but also recreational anglers, community members and concerned citizens. There are many who, while passionate about the cause we are fighting for, simply chose not to subject themselves to the threats and intimidation. We don’t blame them, but it will not deter all of us.

WL: Were the goals of the protest met?

McL: Absolutely. The filming of the PTTS was interrupted. The tournament was uncomfortable at times for participants and employees alike. Our boats operated safely, did not interfere with the fish or actual running of the tournament itself, and we captured a veritable mountain of footage showing many of the fish “weighed” in the tournament showing signs of extensive distress, likely resulting in death. Photos and videos were obtained of numerous fish hooked outside the mouth, not only in the clipper, but also in the septum of the throat (the area between the gills), the gill rakers and near the eye socket. According to official results, all of these fish were counted in the tournament.

Save the Tarpon Protest Boats

Protesters gather prior to the start of the 2013 PTTS opening event.

WL: Ethical objections aside, did STT observe PTTS participants doing anything that appeared to be illegal?

McL: Yes. There was at least one, and possibly two fish that appeared to be in severe distress, dead or dying that were transferred from the possession of participants who caught the fish to a non-participating boat, piloted by a participant of the tournament who was not fishing this day, for the purposes of being dragged away from the prying eyes of onlookers and our cameras. These fish were dragged away from the tournament area at a very high rate of speed. The vessel was approached, at which time they attempted to appear to be reviving the fish. However, this soon escalated to more high-speed circles in order to keep the fish on the side of the vessel where it would be obscured. The fish was eventually shoved under the boat into its prop wash. FWC officers on site agreed that the transfer of this fish was indeed illegal, but because they were not there to witness the actual transfer, they were unable to pursue any enforcement.

WL: To your knowledge, were any STT protesters subjected to harassment by PTTS anglers? By PTTS supporters?

McL: There was little harassment, if any, on the part of the PTTS participants or anglers. While there was some harassment by PTTS employees and contractors, it would be considered fairly minor. There were, however, numerous clear and direct threats of violence by PTTS anglers towards protesters, as well as encouragement by PTTS supporters, anglers, and employees to carry out these threats after the tournament.

WL: The FWC appears poised to rule that the tarpon jig is a snagging device. If that happens and the PTTS is forced to stop using it, will STT’s opposition to the tournament persist? If so, why?

McL: First off, the FWC is not poised to rule a tarpon jig is a snagging device. The best available science indicates that the rigging of any hook with a weight attached directly the beneath the bend or belly of the hook is likely being used to snag fish without a feeding or striking action on the part of the fish. Simply moving the hook to a location that is concurrent not only with laws of numerous other states and countries, but also a position that is found on all other jigs in the industry, is not the same as banning the Boca Grande jig. It is simply modifying the gear restrictions to eliminate the intentional snagging of tarpon through the use of the device the way it is being fished in PTTS events as well as outside the events.

Again, the best available science shows that these fish are not attempting to bite or strike the lure, but are being intentionally snagged. This avenue is the least intrusive to other anglers and has proven to have little, if any, unintended side effects on other fisheries.

The issues with the PTTS and the pack that was created by the tournament run well beyond the snag-hook (jig is in fact a misnomer) that is being used. The domination of the resource, encouragement of chaos for the sake of TV ratings, excessive fish handling, exclusion of other user groups, and the extensive damage done to the public perception of the community and the fishery all will likely take more time to work out.

The PTTS has shown a clear disregard for the destruction they cause, it is likely that elimination of the snag-hook will only serve as a single step in a very long walk to a peaceful and cooperative Pass that can be enjoyed and shared by all.

WL: If the jig is outlawed, do you think that will eventually bring peace back to the Pass?

McL: It will not be a silver bullet. The changes that will need to take place in terms of public perception, instilling respect for other users of the Pass, other anglers and the fish will not be an easy task to take on. It will likely take much more in terms of effort, education, and advocacy — but little in terms of regulation — to return some form of peace to the Pass.

WL: Besides the push to end the PTTS, is STT doing anything else aimed at improving the Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery?

McL: We recently agreed to provide both logistical assistance as well as funding for the Rosenstiel School of Marine Biology satellite tagging program at Boca Grande for 2013. This will be the most extensive single satellite tagging effort in the history of tarpon research. Despite mounting legal fees, we feel confident that we will still meet our goal of raising an additional $15,000 to $20,000 for this program.

We are also working on creating a video archive of interviews with some of the area’s longest residents, fishermen, guides and community members. We are working to make these interviews, photos and documents easily accessible via the internet. This will serve as an important educational and outreach tool as well as an avenue to disseminate accurate and historically significant information.

WL: If someone wants to learn more about STT or become a supporter, what should they do?

McL: Please take the time to visit SavetheTarpon.com. You can read our mission statement and access articles, videos and photos.

To continue reading, please visit: http://wlf.eed.sunnewspapers.net/olive/ode/waterline_swflorida/

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