Flip Flop? Mercurio, PTTS tell FWC they oppose, support tarpon catch and release

Tom McLaughlin speaks on behalf of Save The Tarpon at the FWC’s meeting Thursday in Tampa.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission gathered in Tampa on Thursday September, 6 where it took the first steps toward creating a protective “sport fish” designation that would include tarpon.

If adopted, it appears likely to put an end to the gaff, drag and weigh of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series by making tarpon a catch and release species.

The PTTS was out in force to oppose any plan that would take the tarpon off the tournament’s scales by ending possession. It sent its supporters – most identified themselves as “professional” tarpon anglers – to the podium where they outlined their case against catch and release.

Catch and release, they claimed, meant no photos of fish (it doesn’t). Catch and release, they argued, would somehow take away your right to fish Boca Grande Pass (again, no). Catch and release would prevent 8-year-olds from living their dreams to someday land a Silver King. What?

Then Joe Mercurio, host of the televised  PTTS, stood before the FWC’s cameras and told the commissioners his tournament would be adopting catch and release next year. No more Millers Ale House weigh boat on the beach. No more sling. No more scales. No more “live release team.” The PTTS, Mercurio said, would be replacing all this with a tape measure.

Chairman Kenneth Wright prefaced the public comment period with a brief discussion of why creating protective designations for tarpon and other sport and game fish is an important step if Florida wishes to remain the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World.”

The idea of a “sport fish” designation is new.  If adopted, it would include restrictions on harvest methods and limit commercial sale. It would also likely designate tarpon catch-and-release only, eliminating recreational possession.  Species proposed to be included in this designation are tarpon, bonefish, and permit.  This proposal has limited impact on the state’s tarpon and bonefish fisheries.

The “sport fish” designation “essentially makes the species catch-and-release only,” as explained by Jessica McCawley, Director of Marine Fisheries Management for FWC.

Chairman Wright explained the FWC proposal won’t change how we manage these species.  Instead, it centers around a groundbreaking shift in philosophy.  Harvest for personal consumption is near zero in the case of tarpon and bonefish, and most of us already consider this “sport fishing,”

As a result, he said, the FWC’s goal is growth. “Until we’ve got these species coming out of the water and injuring small children and eating farmers’ crops, we don’t have enough of them.” He was, of course, kidding about the children and crops. But his point was made. With these protections in place, if you come to Florida, you’ll catch a fish.

FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright

Wright said it’s his goal to keep Florida the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World.”  Wright said “we all benefit from having as many of these ‘rock star fish’ swimming around as possible.”

Wright pounded home the point that a sport fish designation was in no way designed to infringe upon the rights of sport fishermen.  Wright was apparently aware that the PTTS and a newly formed group made up primarily of PTTS captains and participants, has recently resorted to playing the fear card to rally opposition to the FWC plan.

“This category of fish should be managed to abundance…until we’ve got these species coming out of the water and injuring small children and eating farmers’ crops, we don’t have enough of them,” Chairman Kenneth Wright explained as he introduced the Sport Fish designation.

“It’s not the intent of the tarpon advocates to change the way we fish, but to stop completely all the fishing within boundaries of Boca Grande Pass.” Craig Abbott, one of the founding directors of the organization, had previously claimed.

He apparently wasn’t paying attention when Wright said the purpose of the designation was to grow the tarpon population and increase fishing opportunities.

Speaking in favor of the designation were the Coastal Conservation Organization, the Florida Guides Association, the Organized Fishermen of Florida, the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, Mote Marine and the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association. Save the Tarpon Inc, of course, also addressed the commission.

NOTES: The “no photo” red herring was tossed at the commissioners by Abbott and several PTTS captains, sponsors, and participants. Wright made no effort to hide his bewilderment as he replied this clearly wasn’t the case, and that the existing definition of catch and release allows ample opportunity for snapshots – as long as the fish remain in the water.

Mercurio cited  “no scientific basis” for ending the gaffing, dragging, hoisting and weighing the PTTS broadcasts to a nationwide cable TV audience. As noted, in the same breath Mercurio said the PTTS would stop gaffing, dragging, hoisting and weighing – in the interest of conservation. He then repeated his opposition to any measure that would halt gaffing, dragging, hoisting and weighing.

The PTTS also argued Boca Grande Pass should be made a slow-speed zone during the months of April, May, and June. This isn’t likely. Boca Grande Pass, where the PTTS cable TV show is shot, is an international navigation zone. It is also a navigable and marked channel, as well as designated safety fairway. As such, it falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard.

There are no major inlets – including those far more congested and confined than Boca Grande Pass – designated as slow-speed zones. It’s not likely the Coast Guard or the FWC would opt to go this route.

However, strict enforcement of the state’s existing safe boating laws would give us all an overdue and welcome break from the “organized chaos” Mercurio boasts is synonymous with the Pass and the PTTS.

PTTS supporters also called on the commission to include gear restrictions in the sport fish designation plan. They asked that a policy requiring circle hooks in Boca Grande Pass be adopted.

Chairman Wright said throughout the meeting that the proposed designation is not about gear. He said, and later repeated, that tackle isn’t on the table – even though the PTTS was eager to open this door for discussion.

Comments

  1. David Futch says

    Designating tarpon, bonefish and permit as “catch and release” is a watershed moment and the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Assoc. and the Tarpon and Bonefish Trust are to be commended for fighting for the designation. Thanks to both groups and the FWC for ending the “slaughter” that was at the core of the PTTS kill tournaments. No more jigs. I live in California where they used to have millions of salmon return to spawn every year. Today, California’s salmon population is at near zero as a result of overfishing and damming of rivers. The once plentiful California salmon run is dead in the water. Don’t let it happen to the tarpon. Keep the heat on to ensure the “catch and release” only designation is approved so the tarpon will be around for another 100 million years.

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