This article, written by Captain Tom McLaughlin on behalf of Save the Tarpon, Inc., will be published in the upcoming edition of WaterLine Magazine at the request of publisher Josh Olive. We are posting it here first as submitted. WaterLine is published weekly and distributed in the Sun family of newspapers each Thursday.
Just as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s was poised last week to move forward with a plan to make tarpon a catch and release species, the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series suddenly and unexpectedly announced it would abandon the controversial practice of gaff, drag and weigh in the events it holds each season in Boca Grande Pass.
While obviously too late to compensate for the harm already done, the decision was welcomed by all Floridians with a stake in the health of our shared local tarpon fishery. While not entirely voluntary, of course, and accompanied by a chorus of protest aimed at the FWC from PTTS corporate management and tournament participants, Save The Tarpon Inc. sees the decision as a step in the right direction.
Thursday’s capitulation by the PTTS is even more significant as just three short months ago, as Save The Tarpon was still finding its footing, the tournament insisted it would continue to gaff and drag tarpon until told to stop. When it became apparent that state regulators were laying the groundwork to do exactly that, the tournament softened its stance and found what appears, in theory, to be an acceptable alternative. We are certain the PTTS is up to the challenge of making it work in practice. We will, of course, be there on your behalf to make sure this happens.
That’s just part of why Save The Tarpon Inc. and savethetarpon.com exists. Thanks to your efforts and the work of our more than 2,000 supporters here in Florida and throughout the world, we were able to provide the FWC with the assistance and encouragement it needed to begin work on a plan that will statutorily bring an end to the days of the beach-side corporately sponsored weigh boat and those now-vanished Internet glory shots of PTTS teams proudly posing with large, roe-laden tarpon cradled in their arms rather than in the water where common sense tells us they obviously belong.
Under the plan now proposed by the PTTS for the season to come, a tape measure and laptop computer will replace the gaff, the sling and the scale. As currently proscribed by law, the fish will be immediately released at the back at the boat rather than at a beach more than a half-mile and up to 30 minutes away. As we said, clearly a step in the right direction.
The initial concept of the Save the Tarpon movement was to act as an intermediary in the user group conflicts that have, unfortunately, become synonymous with Boca Grande Pass. Our mission was (and still is) to act on behalf of all users by not only protecting the fish, but by also ensuring anglers equal and safe access to the fishery.
As input was compiled from tarpon anglers and community members, it became apparent the problems in the Pass centered around the PTTS. However, the goal was not to fight the PTTS, but to garner its support and cooperation. Working together was obviously the best way. Or so it seemed.
Possible changes to tournament policy were proposed by Save The Tarpon to Gary Ingman, owner of both the PTTS and Ingman Marine. Ingman flatly refused. “We will stop weighing those fish when the state ends possession of tarpon,” Ingman insisted. What a difference a few months and 2,000 voices speaking as one can make.
It was made apparent from day one that ownership and management of the tournament were concerned solely with how change for the better would impact their highly profitable cable TV show. There was no talk of the fishery, not other anglers, not our local economy, not even you.
The founding principle of Save the Tarpon back then was to save the tarpon by calling for an immediate end to the PTTS. It was, it appeared, the only option left. You told us that if the PTTS was unwilling to reform its gaff and drag policy, hyper-aggressive pursuit of the fish, exclusion of other user groups, unsafe boating practices and manipulation of gear, it was obvious the conflict in Boca Grande Pass would never subside. Most importantly, it was equally obvious the health of the tarpon fishery was at stake.
What goes on in Boca Grande Pass in May and June would appear to most to be more of a demolition derby on water than sport fishing. The PTTS agrees, promoting its tournament as a form of “controlled chaos.” If you’ve seen the TV show, you know. A pack of more than 60 boats will race to position themselves directly atop a pod of fish. As the tarpon are driven from the pass, the pack gives chase. You don’t want to find yourself and your family in their way.
There are those who say fish caught during PTTS events and other times on artificial devices are being deliberately “snagged” or foul-hooked by anglers using the so-called Pass jig. It’s hard to tell. PTTS participants routinely block attempts made by Save The Tarpon and others to figure out where on any given fish the hook has managed to lodge itself. The PTTS has now pledged to stop hiding its fish and have hook placement observed and recorded by a third party.
The PTTS has partially addressed some issues, but others remain. Save The Tarpon, for instance, is not entirely comfortable with the tournament’s continued opposition to the FWC’s efforts to make tarpon a catch and release species. It will be ending possession, it says, in the name of “conservation.” Yet in the next breath it insists there are no conservation issues with the status quo. It’s tough to have it both ways. We expect the PTTS will clarify its true position once it figures out what, exactly, it is.
Our members are also concerned with something else. Something not as tangible as catch and release or hook placement. It is, quite honestly, the culture of institutionalized, pack mentality disrespect the PTTS has created and apparently fostered simply to make better TV. It’s there. Fish the Pass during a PTTS tournament. You can see it, you can feel it, you can almost even smell it. There’s an implied sense of ownership of a public fishery taking place. Recreational anglers aren’t welcome. Just ask the competitors in their NASCAR style outfits and NASCAR style wrapped boats. They’ll tell you. If not, they’ll see to it you get the hint.
We remain concerned that despite the concessions promised by the PTTS in light of the proposed FWC action, the fishing public will still be denied access to the fishery and will continue to be bullied out of the Pass. Is PTTS behavior altering the habits of the fish? Honestly, we don’t know. What we do know is that the impact on the fishery as a recreational destination is clearly evident.
Save the Tarpon isn’t resting on last week’s victory in Tampa. It was a good start, but it’s just that. A start. It is our intention to work towards meaningful and enforceable improvements to special regulations the FWC already has in place for Boca Grande Pass. As we begin this effort together, we want your thoughts. Go to savethetarpon.com or look for us on Facebook. Give us your ideas. We look forward to hearing from you.