It’s become a tradition to use the week leading up to January 1 to step back for a moment and review the year that was as we look ahead to the year that will be. At Save The Tarpon, looking back means remembering we don’t have a year that was. We have barely seven months.
Our year, of course, didn’t really begin until June. That’s when a handful of locals came together on a narrow spit of sand east of the iconic Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. They had come to show their disgust with the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. It was supposed to be a big day, a showcase day, for the PTTS. Five hours of non-stop action, with the carnage captured on camera for the folks watching at home, to determine the winner of the coveted “Tarpon Cup,” the Super Bowl of gaff and drag, wrap boat NASCAR-clone fishing.
It didn’t work out quite as the PTTS had anticipated. It’s kind of tough getting that prized “money shot” of a near-dead tarpon being hoisted and weighed when you have to shoot around a few dozen protestors standing between the camera and the fish. And when you’re going for that up close and personal on-camera interview with the giddy angler who just brought that gaffed and roped tarpon to the Miller’s Ale House scales, it seems even a relatively small group of people can make a whole lot of noise when they set their vocal cords to it.
Out on the water it was more of the same. Action-packed footage of PTTS anglers fighting their gill-hooked fish came with a little something extra that Sunday morning: A traditional Pass boat or three looming in the background flying banners that sent a message to the tournament’s basic cable viewers that those tarpon at the other end of the line were being systematically sucker punched for little more than an hour of slick, over-produced Must See TV.
Joe Mercurio, the PTTS emcee and ringmaster, had good reason to be smug back in those days of summer. No ragtag mob of “environmental extremists,” as he would later call Save The Tarpon’s supporters, could hope to stand up to the tournament’s purchased clout. With big hitters like Miller-Coors and Yamaha bankrolling the tournament’s way, what could a small band of misguided “save the tarpon” local yahoos possibly be thinking, he snorted? He then spoke the words he would soon come to regret.
Pointing to the group’s demand that the PTTS end gaff and drag, Mercurio puffed out his chest and boasted: “We’ll stop weighing fish when someone tells us to stop weighing fish!”
Three months later Mercurio would find himself sheepishly standing in front of the seven members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as he dejectedly announced that what remained of the PTTS had “voluntarily” decided to stop weighing fish. It was too little and way too late, however. Moments afterwards, the FWC announced it was taking the first steps that would lead to the creation of a “sport fish” designation here in Florida. Tarpon, of course, would be included. And, under the FWC’s plan, the Silver King would become a strict catch and release species.
No more gaff. No more rope and drag. No more hoist. No more “Tires Plus Release Team.” No more Miller’s Ale House weigh boat money shots for the entertainment of the folks at home. Growing the state’s tarpon fishery, the FWC had concluded, was far more important than subsidizing a few cheap thrills for a basic cable TV audience. You don’t grow a fishery by killing off the fish.
You could see it in Mercurio’s eyes. What just happened? How did this happen? The swagger and smirk were gone. No more “we’ll stop weighing fish when someone tells us to stop weighing fish.” The FWC knew it. Everyone in the room knew it. “Someone” had told the PTTS and the world that the time had come. “Someone” had told the PTTS that the tournament’s glory days of gaff and drag, of hoist and weigh, had come to an end. “Someone” had, as Mercurio so publicly demanded, told the PTTS to stop weighing tarpon. And there was no question who that “someone” was. It was you.
As 2012 draws to a close, Save The Tarpon Inc. is approaching 9,000 supporters through its social media efforts alone. Add in those drawn to Save The Tarpon’s membership and petition campaigns, and the total exceeds 12,000 people here in Charlotte County, in Florida, throughout the nation and across the globe. And the numbers continue to grow. The weekly “reach” of our message now extends to well beyond a quarter of a million concerned sportsmen.
While the PTTS remains publicly tone deaf, as demonstrated by Mercurio’s contention that its abrupt decision to move the tournament away from gaff and drag had, on second thought, secretly been in the works for years, the tournament’s future is on the rocks and the tide is rising fast and strong.
The world, of course, knows the story of the gutted fish, DNA sampled at the PTTS “Miller’s Ale House Weigh Boat,” turned over to the “Tires Plus Release Team” and last seen being “revived” as it was towed towards the deepest waters of Boca Grande Pass.
In the board rooms of the beer brewers and boat makers, they know how this same fish was found the following morning, slit open from tip to tail in an obvious attempt to keep it from being found again – to eliminate any chance its tell-tale DNA could be used by Florida Wildlife Research Institute scientists to link yet another dead tarpon back to the PTTS.
And, of course, we’ve all come to learn that this is precisely what happened. The PTTS, already reeling from the discovery its competitors had been gaming the FWC’s tarpon tag program for years, spent the next week fabricating a denial – complete with an absurd and desperate offer to polygraph the entire “Tires Plus Release Team.” The image of your logo being strapped to a piece of lie detector equipment is, of course, the kind of wonderful publicity every sponsor craves.
The PTTS is now grasping for whatever rope it can reach to rescue itself from the collapse most observers now agree is all but inevitable. The TV show’s owner, Gary Ingman of Port Charlotte-based Ingman Marine, recently decided the tournament needed a public relations boost. He’s proposing the creation of a PTTS “ethics committee.” At the same time, however, Ingman continues to insist the tournament has no ethical issues. This bewildering irony hasn’t gone unnoticed, either here or in Tallahassee.
Over PTTS objections, the once pliant FWC adopted language in December that brings the commission a step closer to a rule creating the popularly supported sport fish designation. Catch and release, real catch and release rather than the PTTS version of catch and release, is quickly becoming a reality in Florida and Boca Grande Pass.
Save The Tarpon’s sponsor and advertiser boycott continues to gain traction. With the coming of the new year, this effort will move to the fore. And, of course, with the continued release of DNA sampling data, the news won’t be getting much better for the PTTS and its beleaguered sponsors in 2013.
PTTS apologists who once demanded to be “shown the science” have come to realize the science now, in fact, exists. They have come to understand that despite their shrill efforts to discredit the state’s leading tarpon researchers, the data is now in those same researchers’ hands. They know the numbers are there to support a 2010 FWRI study that showed PTTS methods and practices lead to higher mortality rates among the large, roe bearing females that have historically taken that one-way trip to the Miller’s Ale House scales.
The FWRI’s DNA study the PTTS once aided, and then so clumsily sought to sabotage and discredit, continues. Through you, Save The Tarpon has these researchers’ backs. We’re laying the groundwork to guarantee the state’s safe boating laws will be enforced if and when the PTTS bumper boats take to the Pass in 2013. If the state refuses, there are other police agencies standing by, willing to use their jurisdiction to step in and bring the insanity to a halt.
The PTTS now understands it can no longer hijack the public resource that is Boca Grande Pass. Save The Tarpon will continue to press for measures that will bring an end to the tournament’s weekend monopoly that has disenfranchised recreational anglers and others drawn to our Pass by the annual migration of the storied Silver King.
For Save The Tarpon Inc., the year that was exceeded all expectations. The year to come promises a continued sea change in regulatory thinking and practice that will help grow and preserve our precious Charlotte Harbor tarpon fishery for generations to come.