While continuing to argue with itself over whether it supports catch and release (“We will no longer allow teams to gaff, tow, and weigh in their catch”) or whether it opposes catch and release (“We do not support eliminating harvest for tarpon”), the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series and its chief economist Joe Mercurio have apparently decided it really is, on second thought, all about money.
Not theirs. That’s understood. Suddenly, it’s all about yours. The people who once seemingly claimed fish actually like to be gaffed and dragged have subtly switched gears and are now touting their home video cable TV show as an economic engine rivaling the state’s aerospace industry.
Mercurio put his employer’s fabricated fiscal self importance on full view at September’s meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tampa. It didn’t fly.
“From its inception, the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series has been conducted in a sporting manner with an emphasis on promoting conservation and the sport of tarpon fishing in Boca Grande.” There’s a trait the FWC commissioners have acquired over the years. The ability to keep a straight face. With Mercurio at the podium, it was about to be tested.
Mercurio’s mistake was a common one. He tried to be too clever. If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you better be right. Mercurio clearly wasn’t. And it was obvious on the faces of the commissioners, especially when he began playing economic make-believe. Joe was selling. The FWC clearly wasn’t buying.
When you stand before seven politically sophisticated people trained in the fine art of reading between the lines as they’re being fed half-truths told by actual professionals, the strained and amateurish phrasing of something like “our television show that is broadcast throughout North America and available in over 44 million homes” won’t get you very far.
Mecurio saw it as a clever little twist on words. The commissioners saw it as an attempt to play them for a bunch of dolts. Not the best way to win friends and influence the very people with the power to turn off the lights and declare your little party over.
Mercurio smugly calculated they’d hear “available in over 44 million homes,” swoon at the size of the number and not have the brights to mentally call him out. “Available?” Mercurio didn’t think they’d catch on. While his little TV fishing show might be “available” in those 44 million homes wired for cable or satellite, it doesn’t mean anybody’s watching. But it sure makes you sound important. Or so Mercurio thought.
A little harmless half truth normally isn’t a big deal. Unless you make it the cornerstone for your case that the PTTS is a Southwest Florida economic powerhouse that’s the only thing standing between a chicken in every pot and the locals being forced to take up sharecropping.
Mercurio needed to get the FWC to suspend disbelief and buy into those 44 million homes with mom, dad and the kids glued to endless rebroadcasts of shark attacks and gill-hooked fish being dragged through the Pass. He was desperately reaching to bolster his fabrication that “the PTTS events and television show provide a significant economic boost to Florida, and specifically Boca Grande and the surrounding areas.” But with his nose buried in his script, Mercurio didn’t notice what the rest of us saw. The commissioners had already stopped listening.
Mercurio, quite simply, had out-clevered himself. For all the FWC cared at that point, he could have spent the remainder of his time tap dancing to Zippity Doo Da while balancing beach balls on his nose. But the PTTS host, who probably should have stopped at “Good Afternoon Commissioners,” wasn’t through. It was about to get worse.
Mercurio boasted the PTTS attracts over 500 participants during the two months it confiscates Boca Grande Pass. That’s a cumlulative total, of course. In other words, if the same 50 people were to each fish 10 events, you’d get 500 “participants.” This one is actually true. Just one problem.
As the FWC already knows, non-PTTS recreational tarpon anglers account for more than 268,000 “participants” locally. As recently reported in the Charlotte Sun, more than 26,900 people are repeatedly drawn to Boca Grande Pass from our four county area during the same two months the PTTS comes to town. While Mercurio might not think so, the FWC can count.
Mercuro said many PTTS participants “live 100 miles or more away from Boca Grande.” In other words, Tampa. Because his anglers travel these vast distances, Mercurio told the commissioners “local hotels, resorts, rental companies, and restaurants benefit from their need for lodging and sustenance. These tourists and their families often purchase food and drinks, fishing equipment, and other goods and services from local merchants.”
Maybe he was talking about the vending machines at the Placida Boat Ramp. The commissioners know our hotels, resorts, rental companies and restaurants aren’t staying afloat on whatever business the PTTS brings in. Those 26,900 other people are a different story, however.
The FWC staff and commissioners also understand the host community hasn’t exactly embraced the PTTS. It’s hardly a secret. They also know PTTS participants don’t go out of their way to embrace Boca Grande. Or, for that matter, much of anything south of the Sunshine Skyway. It’s fair to say Team Yamaha shirts are probably a poor wardrobe choice if you plan on stopping by most island watering holes for a post-tournament beverage. Not one Boca Grande business is a PTTS sponsor or advertiser. Why not?
When the FWC put Mercurio on “ignore,” the commissioners likely missed out on the message that because of the PTTS “millions of people are exposed to the incredible fishing and wonderful attributes the Boca Grande area and Charlotte Harbor offers to tourists.” While the number is bloated, the message is unfortunately true. Just ask the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce.
Earlier this year, a chamber delegation traveled to the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show to promote the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament. They had five tarpon trips to give away. There were no takers. Not one. Seems the people who attend boat shows also watch fishing shows. Most were all too familiar with the PTTS. The commissioners know the story.
Nobody wanted anything to do with Boca Grande tarpon fishing. Not after seeing what goes on when the PTTS takes over the Pass. Mercurio says the PTTS cable TV show with its “controlled chaos” brings anglers to the Pass. The anglers and the chamber say otherwise. It’s keeping them away.
FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright made it clear that the protections envisioned through the proposed designation of tarpon as a “sport fish” here in Florida are designed to make sure we continue to attract a steady flow of recreational anglers to the fishery. Wright and his fellow commissioners are serious people who, contrary to the message Mercurio seemed to be sending their way in Tampa, weren’t appointed to the FWC because they randomly fell off some melon wagon.
They get it. They know Boca Grande Pass generates more than $100 million in economic impact just from Southwest Florida alone. They have seen the estimates showing our world famous tarpon fishery translates into more than $300 million from beyond our borders. The numbers, they know, are big. And the stakes are high.
The PTTS, with its clown costumed anglers and demolition derby wrap boats, has turned this vital economic resource into a comic strip creation that has distorted the world view of our historic tarpon fishery. The commissioners, like us, know what tarpon fishing is and what it’s supposed to be. They also know it’s not that traveling made-for-TV menagerie Mercurio and his carpetbagger carnival are piping into the upper reaches of those 44 million cable converter boxes.
They might be inclined to buy into some of Mercurio’s economic alchemy if this whole business wasn’t such serious business. But that, after all, is just one of many points the PTTS is missing. No amount of pretend conservation babble can wipe clean the stain the PTTS has left on public perception. The FWC clearly understands how this ultimately translates into empty hotel rooms, empty restaurants, empty shops, empty boats and empty pockets.
The FWC isn’t out to rescue our tarpon fishery. It isn’t out to sustain our tarpon fishery. It wants to grow our tarpon fishery. It’s part of the commission’s goal to make certain Florida remains the “Fishing Capital of the World.” It knows this doesn’t happen if the “Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World” is allowed to become a perverse parody of the history and tradition that has made Boca Grande Pass the ultimate destination for generations of sport fishing enthusiasts.
The PTTS now says it wants to talk economics. It’s a conversation we believe is long overdue.