Here’s Gary Dutery’s column as printed in the Charlotte Sun, Tuesday, September 11, 2012. He spoke briefly with Tom, but this was completely unexpected. Nice to see someone in the media get it right.
By: Gary Dutery
This is a fish story that began back in May as David versus Goliath II, but this one was fought with hooks, lines, Tshirts and Facebook pages. The biblical David has come to symbolize the abject underdog, the anonymous little guy whose faith and tenacity took down the Philistine Man Mountain with just a sling, a stone plucked from a nearby brook and one between the eyes. It was the ultimate bad day to be an Iron Age bookie.
The Davids haven’t fared all that well since chalking one up in the Valley of Elah. They’ve barely managed to cover the spread let alone bring home anything close to a win. But while the rest of us have been focused on the politics of pilfered yard signs and fact-checking the sensory onslaught of Mitt versus Barack, a small group of local residents decided that, perhaps, David was due.
They apparently didn’t know the odds. Aligned against them was the heavy machinery of state government, a Fortune 500 of corporate clout, two TV networks and 44 million cable television eyeballs. And that’s just for starters. But on their side they had, uh … well, nothing. Just a little band of fired up folks bent on making a bunch of noise on their inevitable journey to the land of crash and burn.
That sound you just heard was Goliath once again being dropped to the mat. Or, more precisely, tossing a sweat-soaked towel into the middle of the ring. And the setting was a bit closer than the Valley of Elah. This one quietly took place last week at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, a few minutes from Tampa International, where the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gave the improbable win to the Davids. In this case, a grass-roots group of locals who fashioned themselves into a movement of sorts that somehow morphed into what ultimately became a fairly sophisticated political force that the Goliaths never saw coming. Until it was too late.
The role of the modern David was played by a four-month-old organization known as Save The Tarpon. It has since tacked an “Inc.” to its name. It’s now a Florida nonprofit. Over in Goliath’s corner stood a handful of corporate for-profit entities that comprise a TV show known as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. Standing behind Goliath were heavy hitters like Miller Beer, Yamaha and many of the major players in the fishing and boating industry. The overunder on this one came with a comma.
The feud over fishing in Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande Pass likely began within minutes of Ponce de Leon claiming Florida for Spain. The Pass, as the locals call it, isn’t just about tarpon. It’s about money. The strong tides at the entrance to our harbor bring us more than fish and bait. Two years ago the Everglades Foundation and the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust funded a study that conservatively estimated the economic impact of tarpon fishing — just tarpon fishing, just Boca Grande Pass and just from Southwest Florida — topped $108 million. That’s here. Charlotte Harbor. Us. And this is annually.
Tarpon season lasts roughly two months. But during those two months, 26,900 anglers drawn from the fourcounty area surrounding the fishery made the trip to Charlotte Harbor with the idea of landing a tarpon. This figure translates into an incredible 268,000 days on the water and in our shops, our restaurants, our Kwiki-Marts, our hotels and, in one way or another, your bank account. Factor in money imported from the rest of the state (and the world), and we’re easily looking at an annual economic boost closer to $300 million. This isn’t just a fish feud.
In a nutshell, as Save The Tarpon’s supporters grew from a few dozen to well over 2,000, its call for the PTTS to end what many see as an obsolete, needless and downright harmful practice of gaffing and dragging tarpon to the beach — where they are hoisted from the water and weighed — began to resonate within the fishing community and the normally tone-deaf halls of Tallahassee.
Under current law, it’s legal. All it takes is a $50 “possession” tag purchased from the state. If, that is, you bother getting one. Save The Tarpon used the FWC’s own records to show that more than a few PTTS participants weren‘t bothering. The FWC was cornered into an admission that the whole tag thing — the foundation of the TV tournament’s defense — couldn’t be enforced.
But the PTTS stood firm. It would stop gaffing, dragging, hoisting and weighing, it said, only when “someone” made them stop. This past Thursday, the cable TV tournament more or less got its wish as the FWC commissioners laid out a plan to create a “sport fish” designation that would, ultimately, make tarpon a catch and release species. No more televised gaff, drag, hoist and weigh. To quote Bob Dylan, the PTTS Goliath didn’t need a weatherman to tell it which way the wind was blowing on this one.
“We will no longer allow teams to gaff, tow, and weigh in their catch. Rather, weights will be determined by a measurement of the fish’s length and girth,” tournament host Joe Mercurio pre-emptively told the seven-member commission. The same Mercurio who just three months earlier pledged to gaff, tow and weigh until “someone” told him to stop. Goodbye scales, hello tape measure. Goodbye Goliath, hello David.
David had the good sense to put four more stones in his pocket that day. And Save The Tarpon will be the first to admit this fight isn’t over. However it ends, it’s hard not to notice that people working together can, perhaps, still move mountains and, sometimes, slay giants. But then again, this is just a fish story.
Gary Dutery is a Sun columnist. A veteran journalist, he resides in Port Charlotte. Readers may reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ GaryDutery.