You’re right, Josh: ‘It’s not just a handful of people …’

Protest

June, 2012 – ‘A handful of people …’

Save The Tarpon’s supporters and members now number nearly 15,000 worldwide. Worldwide? Yes – worldwide. But that’s just part of the story when it comes to spreading the message of a group that is less than eight months old.

WaterLine Publisher Josh Olive wrote in the magazine’s Feb. 28 edition that he once viewed Save The Tarpon as just a few people with “axes to grind.” He’s since changed his thinking on this one. “Turns out it’s not just a handful of people on Boca Grande,” he says in a column he headlined “Mending the bridge to Boca Grande.”

He also notes “I was wrong to take at face value what I was told by (PTTS) tournament supporters.” He’s likely not alone. Maybe it’s a good idea to take a moment to tell the story of Save The Tarpon’s growth over these past eight months. It is, of course, your story. You wrote it. You made it happen.

Now

February, 2013 – A really big handful. (Eleven days later and this number is now approaching 14,000.)

When Skeeter Boats recently announced it was ending its sponsorship of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, the news reached 58,172 people in the United States alone. And that’s just through Facebook. And it’s just the beginning.

When Farlow’s on the Water in nearby Englewood told us they were finished with the PTTS, the news reached 6,256 potential customers in Sarasota, 2,487 in Port Charlotte, 1,884 in Englewood, 1,335 in nearby Venice, 1,272 in Fort Myers, 1,078 in Tampa, 856 in Cape Coral, 779 in Punta Gorda and 747 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Okay, maybe the folks in Barquisimeto won’t be dropping by for dinner tonight, but they certainly know where to eat if they’re in the neighborhood.

At the same time, the numbers tell us there are 116,993 people who likely won’t be living the High Life – as in Miller High Life – along with their Farlow’s scallop salad. Miller/Coors is a sponsor of the PTTS. Just as we once did with Farlow’s prior to this past week, we’re asking our supporters to continue to stay away from the company’s products as long as it’s associated with the tournament. And, according to Facebook, those 116,993 people who dropped by for a visit in the last seven days passed the word along to 5,554,577 of their friends and neighbors online.

Somewhere in Barquisimeto, there’s a cantina owner wondering why everyone has suddenly switched to Budweiser. And somewhere at Miller/Coors corporate headquarters in Chicago (so much for the whole Rocky Mountain shtick) there’s a marketing exec wondering where 5.5 million customers went. Hint: Ask Skeeter Boats. Ask Tires Plus Total Car Care. Ask Costa del Mar Sunglasses. Or ask one of those PTTS team captains who isn’t getting a freebie wrap boat this year, is peeling all those sponsor patches off his NASCAR-style fishing shirt and is now faced with shelling out the tournament’s hefty entry fee –  from his own pocket.

Did you know that last week there were 182 people who read our Facebook page in a dialect of Norwegian? Or that 1,079 of you visited us online from Paris? As in Paris, France? In fact, the page was translated into French 11,502 times. The language is ranked third, behind English (63,629) and Spanish (39,219) among our visitors. And in case you’re wondering, the French word for “tarpon” is “tarpon.”

Tarpon fishing is popular in Venezuela. Which probably explains why 18,632 of our recent visitors call the country home. Did you know there’s a Boca Grande in Venezuela? It’s also an island. The similarity ends there. It’s ranked among the most affordable places in the world if you want a beach a few steps from your front door. Our Boca Grande didn’t quite make the list.

When Save The Tarpon talks about preserving our fishery for future generations, those future generations are paying attention. And they really do care. A remarkable 60.4 percent of our visitors are under the age of 34. And 75.3 percent of our visitors are in the target “under 45” demographic that brands like Miller/Coors spend millions in advertising dollars to attract. Money that’s being largely wasted through the company’s affiliation with the PTTS – and through your affiliation with and support of Save The Tarpon.

Save The Tarpon began in June, 2012 as a small group of people standing on a beach overlooking Boca Grande Pass. We watched as the PTTS gaffed and dragged fish to that beach to be tossed into a sling and weighed. We watched the PTTS pretend these fish weren’t dead or dying as they dumped them in the deepest part of the Pass. We counted the corpses the following day. We resolved to take PTTS host Joe Mercurio up on his offer to stop what the tournament was doing to the fishery “when someone tells us to stop.”

Eight months later, a few dozen have grown to nearly 15,000 who have come together to tell Mercurio it’s time to stop. And the message continues to grow. Or, as Olive now admits, “turns out it’s not just a handful of people on Boca Grande.” The folks in Barquisimeto would likely agree.

FWC deals PTTS another setback; commission to move ahead on gaff and drag ban

fwc-LOGOThe Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted Wednesday to move forward with plans to put an end to “gaff and drag,” PTTS-style fishing by making tarpon a catch-and-release only species. All seven FWC commissioners endorsed the measure.

The commission’s vote paves the way for new regulations governing tarpon fishing in Boca Grande Pass and throughout the state to take effect in June. The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series opposes the FWC’s plan, but did not make the trip to Orlando to speak against the measure.

The FWC’s action came after nearly two hours of debate over language contained in a proposed rule creating a broad “sport fish” designation for tarpon and other species. As a result, the commission opted to temporarily set aside action on the new classification while forging ahead with protections aimed specifically at protecting tarpon.

If language expected to be introduced next month is approved, the measure would sound a death knell to the controversial fishing tournament’s televised weigh-ins, a practice PTTS host Joe Mercurio told the FWC in September it continues to support but has agreed to “voluntarily” end. Under the current definition of catch and release, tournament competitors would be required to immediately turn loose all fish caught – where they are caught – or risk prosecution. Gaffing, or any other form of “possession,” would be unlawful. The tarpon “kill tag” program would also be scrapped.

Most of Wednesday’s debate focused on other species targeted for inclusion in the proposed “sport fish” program. There was no opposition voiced against the tarpon proposal backed by Save The Tarpon Inc. and other conservation groups. Save The Tarpon board members attended Wednesday’s FWC meeting to represent the group’s more than 12,000 members and supporters worldwide.

FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright said the decision to move forward now on the tarpon protections outside of the “sport fish” classification signaled the commission’s desire to expedite a package of measures aimed at protecting the tarpon fishery. The plan, as proposed, has the support of Save the Tarpon Inc.

A Mostly True Account of What May Have Happened at the 2012 PTTS Tarpon Cup Championship

Actually, it’s completely true.

June 17, 2012 6:45 AM:  Today is not just the day of the PTTS Tarpon Cup, but it also marks the first time the community of Boca Grande has organized and come together to show their displeasure for this tournament and the actions of its participants in the form of a protest during filming of the season’s final event.

I’m dilly dallying just West of the Pass, trying to affix my “Stop the PTTS Tarpon Kill, SaveTheTarpon.com” banner to the t-top of a borrowed boat, wondering what today will bring.  The plan was to have a peaceful protest on the beach by community members, while a few guides attempted to interrupt some of the filming of the made-for-TV series by navigating our boats into a position where the banners could be seen on camera.  We hoped this would cause enough frustration for the show’s producers and owners that the pleas of the community, and sportsman from around the country, would stop falling on deaf ears.

The PTTS thought things would go smoothly for them today.  Scoffing at the idea that even a small group would actually show on the beach. Our newly formed rag tag not-for-profit thought things would go smoothly for us too.  Thinking the deep passion our community held for the cause would carry us far.  FWC apparently just thought we were all going to lose control and need to be arrested. I could already see their army of officers, complete with paddy wagon.  None of these things happened that day.  The truth is no one was arrested, no tickets were written, the paddy wagon left empty and things definitely did not go smoothly for the PTTS.  How would things turn out for us?  Well, lets just say that I couldn’t have pictured what would happen that day in my wildest imagination.

6:50 AM, still just West of the Pass: I glance up to see a twenty seven foot pink center console coming our way at high speed. Rusty Hooker approached, stereo blasting, belching smoke from its ancient twin outboards as they were pinned at full throttle in reverse, coming to just rest inches from my bow as I sat drifting and still fumbling with that silly banner.

“You ain’t fuckin’ goin’ no where,” said the captain as he took a swig from his beer…at 6:50AM.

Now, I know what your thinking, I should have expected things would not go quite as easily as I had imagined. But, I guess I just gave a little too much credit to the “P” in PTTS.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking the view of a tarpon being "revived and released" by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking Capt. Tom’s  camera view of a tarpon being “revived and released” by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Over about the next fifteen minutes a few more choice words were exchanged by both parties as the captain of the Rusty Hooker shifted frantically from forward to reverse, over and over, in a desperate attempt to keep us from interfering with the tournament that had now started.  I’m pretty sure the nearby FWC officer must have overheard my boisterous objections to this blatant disregard for Coast Guard navigational safety, as he made his way over to us and had a few words for the captain of the Rusty Hooker.   Who had, by the way, quickly stashed his now empty ‘breakfast of champions’ somewhere under his console where it appeared to have a few friends.  After a little more bantering he scurried towards the PTTS support crowd that was now gathering on the beach.

The tournament had started but the beach side protesters and other boats weren’t scheduled to show up for several more hours.  I hopped in the tower, cranked her up, and sped around the corner into the Pass.  Banner flapping in the wind, still not securely attached to the boat,  apparently upside down, and smoke billowing from my ears. But I didn’t care. I was absolutely fuming about the unprovoked little exchange that had just taken place.  If this was how we were going to play today, I was ready to blow off a little steam. To hell with the plan.

8:55 AM, Boca Grande Pass:  For nearly an hour, I had been expressing my extreme displeasure for the previous exchange, mainly in the form of heckling, complete with words only appropriate for a true sailor.  My four-letter word barrage was hap-haphazardly directed at anyone involved with the PTTS who was unfortunate enough to get within earshot, including a few participants of the tournament, PTTS owner Gary Ingman, host Joe Mercurio, the production crew for the show, and at one point, even the acting Captain for our region of the FWC (whoops).  It was starting to look like they might need that paddy wagon after all.  And then something brought me back. A grounding reminder of why we were here this day.

Up until now, I had jumped around, chasing the camera boat, getting in a few shots here and there, beaching next to the weigh boat for a short while, and generally just causing a little confusion.  On the outside it appeared to be a brilliantly orchestrated effort as we confused our newly adopted shadow boats with unpredictable and random movements.  But in reality, I was just really pissed off and had forgotten ‘the plan.’

We had been posting up a little West of the weigh boat, tight to the beach, and made a habit of following the Tires Plus “release boat” as they dragged once mighty fish slowly away from the crowd of proud PTTS family and friends.  As the Tires Plus “drag and dump” crew (as I had now dubbed them) came by, we quickly took position.

By this point, we had already followed more than a half dozen or so other fish as they had been towed away, watching as some of these fish would struggle momentarily, roll on to their sides, and quietly sink into the dark water and swift moving tide of Boca Grande Pass.  Others, not willing to show signs of life, were quickly stuffed underwater by the PTTS “trained professionals” in an effort to hurry back to the beach and pick up the next nearly-dead “live release” victim of television entertainment.

A few of these fish had briefly floated to the surface, and one was even deliberately run over by the drag and dump boys. I had managed to get a short series of still photos of that little gem, but after spending a few minutes to review them my heart sunk as I realized that I was holding a pretty poor excuse for a lens and lacked two vitally important things needed to accurately depict the gravity of what was unfolding before my eyes.  A polarizing filter and an even the slightest inkling of skill as a photographer.

If you ever had a bucket full of minnows as a kid you don’t need a PHD and a half-million dollar study to understand what happened to those fish as they swirled around.  I’m sure you would be able to recall what it looked like as the minnows spiraled out of control on the surface in ever tightening circles, rolled belly up, and sank to the bottom.  They were not napping.  They were dead.  Just think, giant minnows in a giant bucket.

But as this particular fish was pulled past my boat, something just felt different about it.  My interest was piqued.   It wasn’t the lifeless calm it exuded as the release team member held tight to its lower jaw. It wasn’t its size or who caught it. Quite honestly, there was really nothing notable about this fish, it wasn’t all that unusual. It was just a feeling I got.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Up to this point there had been nothing we could do except stare in abject horror and snap a few photos as fish after fish was hauled off and stuffed beneath the waves in what had become an obvious attempt to hide it from the view of the crowd.   But as the drag and dump boys pulled away and out into the deep waters of the Pass, the worn tarpon surfaced slowly in a feeble attempt to catch her breath.  It almost appeared like she had an expression on her ancient face.  I don’t know how to fully explain it.  I swear when I looked into her eye, she returned a fleeting look back as she sunk back beneath the surface. It was probably nothing, but I took it as a sign to pay close attention to this one.

As they eased by, bracing for the onslaught of insults I’m sure had now become nothing more than background noise for the PTTS drag and dump boys, I instantly transformed from a profanity wielding Tasmanian devil on the verge of being hauled off by the clam cops, to some type of big cat quietly stalking its prey. Or, something like that.

We trailed closely, jockeying for position with the BudgetHeating.com boat who was trying to keep us from taking pictures.  We finally got a solid position next to the donated Sea Hunt piloted by the Tires Plus drag and dump boys. We had to push in a little more closely than was probably comfortable for all of us, but if we gave an inch, tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher was sure to stick his BudgetHeating.com boat smack dab in between us to obscure the fish from the view of our prying eyes and cameras.  The feeling I had in the pit of my stomach about this fish made me press a little harder this time.  I was willing to take the risk as well as take full responsibility for anything bad that might have happened to any of us or our boats.

They dragged this one much farther down the beach in order to get a little bit more distance between themselves and their cheering section who seemed to have taken notice of the previous fish as it awkwardly thrashed about on the surface in obvious distress. What the crowd didn’t see from the beach was, after the gut wrenching display, the fish then rolled on its side and fell to the bottom like too many others had in just the past two hours.

I was well-aware ‘some’ of the fish in the PTTS did not fare so well after being released. I had stumbled onto enough evidence of that, bloated and rotting, on Monday mornings following the weekend events.  What I certainly did not know until this moment was that based on what I had already seen this day, and the calamity that was about to ensue, the carrion at the foot of the lighthouse after each event was just the tip of the iceberg.  Unless its normal for healthy tarpon to sink motionless, upside down, after being released, then fully half of the fish I had seen let go today today had perished.

My guess is that the wind, waves, current, and sharks take out most of the PTTS trash before it can become the all to familiar silver flotsam that turns the stomach of every true sportsmen or sportswomen unfortunate enough to run across it on Monday morning.

9:05 AM, still in Boca Grande Pass:  I continued to follow as closely as possible, without becoming a physical danger to the release team. I maintained my position despite the constant maneuvering and blocking by the Budgetheating.com boat, still captained by tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher, as well as our suds-guzzling friend from earlier in the morning aboard the Rusty Hooker, who was now accompanied by several friends as well as what appeared to be the vessel’s namesake.

The drag and dump boys in the Tires Plus shirts were taking us on a different route this time, running parallel to the beach and heading offshore instead of towards the middle of the pass.  It seemed that the spectators’ reactions to the prior struggling fish were not sitting well with whoever was calling the shots today.  Although we were surely headed for waters farther offshore, running along the beach allowed tournament detractors to follow us on foot and observe what was happening from the waters edge.  A fact that was visibly upsetting the drag and dump boys.

Despite efforts to make it out of sight of the growing crowd and much to the dismay of the drag and dump boys, we  had made very little headway due to the incoming tide. Only having moved a few hundred yards in about ten minutes.  The reality of the situation was sinking in with the two sorry bastards in the Sea Hunt.  The fish was looking worse by the minute, numbers on the beach were growing, and it had become painfully obvious that anyone with a Tires Plus t-shirt was going to bear the brunt of the crowds’, and our, growing frustration.

She made a feeble attempt at taking a breath, showing us that she was still alive at least. They seized their moment. Her head was quickly shoved downward while she was on her side, making her body into a plane and sending her head first towards the bottom.  It was over.  There was a quick and awkward high five aboard the Tires Plus sponsored Sea Hunt as the duo turned back towards the weigh boat.  Then we saw it.  A silver flash just off our starboard bow.  She materialized from the murky depths and laid on the surface, broad side to the sky.  She halfheartedly fluttered her tail and began to move towards the beach.  We knew what was about to happen, and I quickly jammed the throttle and headed straight for dry land.  As we approached, the cameraman for the day hopped off the bow and ran up a few yards up the beach.  The commotion had now drawn the attention of not only the Tires Plus Sea Hunt, but also of tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher.

Our cameraman stopped running and waded out into the water to about waist deep, putting the camera underwater facing the Pass.  I stared in bewilderment as she swam directly to him, floundering along the bottom on her side.  With a few weak kicks of her tail, she was belly up inches from the sand.  The crowd gathered, shouts such as “This is because of you!” and “Come get your fish! Take off your mask!” began to echo from what I’m sure will be described as an angry mob at some point by the PTTS.  Despite the rising anger, the drag and dump boys were making their way slowly towards the beach.  They were intercepted by Taucher, who had  a quick word with one of the masked fellows.  After the exchange, Taucher slowly idled towards the Pathfinder sponsored camera boat piloted by tournament owner Gary Ingman, as PTTS front man Mercurio slouched in the fighting chair on the bow with a cigarette hanging from his lip.

 

Click here to see the video shot of the dying fish during the PTTS protest.

 

After the chat, the drag and dump boys once again headed towards the fish.  They beached their boat, one of them hopped in the water, and then nonchalantly reattached their rope to the hole in the fish’s lower jaw. After a brief attempt at feigning concern they quickly dragged the fish off towards the relative safety of waters offshore.

Looking back at the video after being removed from the events for nearly seven months, I can honestly say that my feeling about that fish was right.  As I watched the events of that day rerun on the monitor in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel like she knew exactly what she was doing.

What happened to that fish next would further solidify in the minds of all those who came to show their concern for the fishery at  Boca Grande that there was a much bigger problem with what is going on in the Pass during May and June than a few dead fish.  The events of the next half hour would prove that the actions of the PTTS, its owners, and some of its participants were not just a minor annoyance to local fishing guides.  Rather, this was a direct assault on not only the history, culture, and community of Boca Grande but a threat to the continued survival of the worlds first recreational tarpon fishery and the literal birthplace of  big game sport fishing as we know it.

PTTS tarpon seen dying on the beach of Boca Grande

This video was shot on June 17, 2012 as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) was filming their final episode of the 2012 season–the Tarpon Cup Championship.  The tarpon seen in this footage had just been “revived and released” by the official PTTS Tires Plus Release Team after being caught and weighed during the tournament.  Instead of quietly drifting down into the deep dark waters of Boca Grande Pass as the preceding four fish had, this one swam towards the beach.  The final fight for life ended with the tarpon drifting belly up under the gentle surf of Boca Grande’s famous lighthouse beach.  The lifeless tarpon was later retrieved by the Tires Plus Release Team and dragged off shore and out of view of the onlookers as it was stuffed into the prop wash of cooperating PTTS participant boats in an apparent effort to hide the evidence.

More video will be released in coming days illustrating the tragic cover-up performed by the PTTS management and its participants. Please stay posted.

See comments from Capt. Tom McLaughlin at the bottom of this page for more info on the filming of this video.

Sapp, PTTS crank up the noise machine – let the damage control follies begin!

Seems Capt. Troy Sapp just might have some explaining to do. And this time, it likely won’t be on some obscure Internet fishing forum.

As we all know, dead tarpon are commonly found floating, beached, bloated and sometimes gutted in or around Boca Grande Pass in the wake of Professional Tarpon Tournament Series weekend events in May and June.

The televised tarpon tournament’s viewers are “treated” to shots of the self-described “organized chaos” of the fight, the catch, the gaff and the drag across the Pass to the scales. What those basic cable subscribers aren’t seeing, however, is what takes place the following day – when the cameras have stopped rolling and the tournament’s touted “Tires Plus Release Team” is nowhere to be found.

After the  PTTS packs up and moves on, the rest of us are, of course, left to deal with the tournament’s morning-after, dead tarpon hangover.  With the creation of the Save the Tarpon this past May, the group joined with state researchers to  focus on DNA sampling what was left of these fish in an effort to learn how – and perhaps why – so many were turning up dead in the tournament’s aftermath. This week the answers began to emerge.

Capt Troy Sapp, Team Yamaha

Capt. Troy Sapp, high-profile PTTS participant and VP of the Florida Guides Association, drags a tarpon to the weigh scale for Team Yamaha.

As most of us have already learned, on June 4  a gutted and dead tarpon was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico not far from Boca Grande Pass less than 24 hours after the PTTS, its cameras and NASCAR-clone wrap boats had left town. A DNA sample was taken and sent, along with several others that day, to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.  Months later, this gutted  fish was positively identified by its DNA as a ‘recapture’ that had been caught, weighed and DNA sampled by Capt. TJ Stewart of Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats during the previous day’s PTTS event.

When last seen, this fish was being hauled to the deepest waters of the Pass to be “revived” by the Tires Plus Release Team. When next seen, it was dead. Slit open from tip to tail in an apparent and botched attempt to send the fish – telltale DNA and all – to the bottom.

Enter Sapp. He’s a Tampa-area fishing guide. He’s a  high-profile participant in the PTTS where he and his Team Yamaha Skeeter boat enjoy plenty of cable TV face time. He’s also senior vice president of the Florida Guides Association.  And in recent days, as the FWRI’s initial DNA study results were being released,  Sapp has taken the point as the damage control guy for the PTTS, his sponsorship deal with Yamaha and, of course, himself.

Here’s what Sapp scrawled on the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum on December 4, 2012. Let’s call this one Exhibit A:

“The STT campaign who’s (sic) sole purpose is to run out of town guides off are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating to promote their cause. Yes it died after release, but no one needs to hide anything.”

It died after release. A perplexing admission from someone who, just days earlier, was still beating the PTTS drum, repeatedly insisting the tournament can’t possibly be blamed for those schools of dead fish routinely found floating in the Pass or washed up on Boca Grande’s beaches in the immediate aftermath of PTTS events. Seems Sapp forgot all about those FWRI scientists in St. Pete who are still sitting on a small mountain of tarpon DNA samples.

And what Sapp also didn’t know as he flogged away on the fish forums, is that among those imaginary dead PTTS tarpon was a very real dead PTTS tarpon. And it was easily and positively traced back to Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat. Sapp’s Team Yamaha, the DNA revealed, had scored its own PTTS tarpon kill.

He likely didn’t know that researchers had scooped the now-dead fish from the Pass less than 45 minutes after Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat had towed the tarpon to the scales during Week 2 of the Women’s PTTS competition. That’s where the initial DNA sample was taken and recorded. And DNA doesn’t lie.

Dead Tarpon on Beach of Boca Grande Pass

This tarpon was found the day following a PTTS tournament.

Chalk one up to science.

But let’s get back to Sapp’s tin foil helmet claim that “the STT campaign … are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating.” It doesn’t merit a response. And it’s not getting one. Not here, that is. But let’s take a moment to revisit the facts:

1) The fish in question was DNA sampled during week 4 of the PTTS as having been weighed in at 124 lbs by Capt. TJ Stewart on June 3.

2) The fish in question was found dead and sampled again the next day,  June 4.

Sapp, however, is recklessly alleging the fish was gutted by some unknown but disgruntled local tarpon fishing captain trying to stop out-of-town guides, like Sapp,  from running carpetbagger charters on a part-time seasonal basis. It’s a dangerous stretch.

3) The fish in question was found floating on June 4 by a boater who seasonally fishes the Pass and surrounding water.

No, it wasn’t discovered, photographed and DNA sampled by some disgruntled “disenfranchised” local Save the Tarpon stooge, as Sapp wants you to believe. Kathy Guindon, PhD, who heads up the FWRI’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study, said the boater who found the fish – someone with no strong local ties or any affiliation with Save the Tarpon – decided to document the recapture with a photograph and DNA sample. Guindon said the boater – an experienced tarpon angler – knew immediately that the fish had been intentionally gutted.  And why.

But over in Sapp World, here’s what supposedly happened. A card-carrying member of Save the Tarpon found the bloated tarpon and gutted it. He’s not real clear how this Save the Tarpon type would know the fish had been caught the previous day by the PTTS. But we can let this one slide for the moment. Back to Sapp World, where Troy’s Save the Tarpon evil genius had cleverly calculated that, despite the hundreds of boats and boaters that were on the water that day, the one to stumble across the sabotaged tarpon would, miraculously, be armed with a DNA sample kit.

Makes sense to us. But strap on the tin foil hats. There’s more.

4) Chances of finding a dead intact tarpon floating near Boca Grande Pass in May and June are exceptionally remote.  The strong tides, high levels of shark activity, and many other variables mean an overwhelming majority of dead tarpon will, in fact, go unnoticed.  The odds of finding the same dead tarpon two times in less than 24 hours rival your chances of carting home the Powerball jackpot.

So once again, how did Sapp’s imaginary left-wing Save The Tarpon environmental extremist know this fish, among tens of thousands of other fish, came from the PTTS? Was it wearing a Team Yamaha tee shirt?  Unless, of course, the boater who discovered the fish already suspected  a majority of the dead fish found floating in or near the Pass are part of the collateral PTTS damage  Sapp and the PTTS noise machine say the tournament’s critics have invented.

Sapp repeatedly claims fish weighed in the PTTS are subject to the same mortality rate as all other catch and release fishing.  Unfortunately for Sapp, there’s the FWRI’s Dr. Guindon, the same Dr. Guindon whose seven-year-old study on tarpon mortality rates has, in the past, been repeatedly referenced by Sapp and friends. But that was then. Along came 2010, when the same Dr. Guindon did some additional research. Her newest findings?

“Preliminary results from research conducted in 2010 shows that the tournament weigh in procedures of the PTTS physiologically stress the Tarpon more so than catch-and-release recreational fishery that does not have a weigh in procedure that involves towing the fish.” Also, from the same source, “one can presume that mortality rates are higher in these weighed-in, longer handled fish.” For the record, Dr. Guindon was talking about the PTTS.

Two years later, after her newest study was published, Sapp and the gaff and drag gang at the PTTS  had suddenly put the now-inconvenient Guindon on Ignore. They continued to boast that they were, incredibly, doing what was “best for the fish.”  In fact, Joe Mercurio, general manager and host of the PTTS, looked into the camera on June 17 and told his audience that gaff and drag had “absolutely zero impact on the survival of the fish.” Kathy? Kathy who?

The PTTS noise machine, of course, doesn’t stop here. June 4, 2012 is a date Mercurio, Sapp and the PTTS would like to pretend never happened. And for good reason. In Part II, we’ll explain why. Stay tuned.

(NOTE: The moderators over at the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum apparently agree. Sapp’s post has been removed.)

NOTE: One week after publication of the original story, the PTTS broke its official silence and issued a statement denying any involvement or responsibility. The statement is contained within the comments that follow, or it can be found here

 

 

 

PTTS fires off Facebook attack on ‘extremist’ supporters of FWC tarpon conservation push

As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is poised to adopt language endorsed by Save The Tarpon Inc. and other groups that would pave the way to make tarpon a catch-and-release species, a spokesman for the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is leveling harsh words against those who support the measure as well as the FWC’s other efforts designed to grow the state’s tarpon fisheries.

Joe Mercurio, VP & Host of the PTTS

Joe Mercurio, VP, General Manager and Host of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.

Joe Mercurio, host of the PTTS cable TV show, responded to a Facebook poster’s question on Monday by calling those supporting the FWC’s tarpon conservation efforts victims of “left wing, environmental extremist propaganda.” Mercurio added that those backing the FWC plan, which is expected to be approved by the seven-member commission on Wednesday, don’t have “the facts” and are “disgruntled and disenfranchised individuals.”

In September, Mercurio told the FWC commissioners that the PTTS is opposed to regulations that would force the tournament to stop gaffing, roping, dragging and weighing tarpon, a practice FWC researchers have labled “excessive handling” that leads to observed higher mortality rates.

Mercurio’s Facebook remarks are the tournament’s first in the wake of the FWC’s disclosure of preliminary results of its 2012 tarpon DNA sampling program. FWC researchers said last week that six fish weighed and DNA sampled during this past summer’s PTTS events had since been “recaptured.” Four of the recaptured PTTS tarpon were discovered dead within days of being caught and hoisted onto the tournament’s sling. A fifth PTTS sample was labeled “suspicious” by the FWC. Just one PTTS fish was recaptured alive.

Among the four dead tarpon that have been DNA-linked to the PTTS was a fish that was gutted in an apparent botched attempt to cause it to sink. The gutted fish was photographed and its DNA sampled by a passing boater. The fish was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Grande Pass on June 4, a day after it was caught, weighed and originally DNA sampled during a PTTS event.

FWRI Assistant Research Scientist Kathy Guindon, PhD, who oversees the tarpon DNA program and had seen the photo, agreed the gutting was suspicious. “I don’t know why they would do that,” she said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t give the fish a chance to survive.” The fish, a 124-pounder, was last seen after being turned over to the tournament’s Tires Plus “Release Team” to be “revived.” Guindon said the incision, which ran from the tarpon’s tip to tail, wasn’t the result of natural causes.

Later Monday, in a Facebook posting authored under the alias “Professional Tarpon Tournament Series,” the PTTS anonymously challenged the observations made by the FWC researchers as “baseless.” Mercurio had earlier discounted the FWC observations, suggesting instead that people “rely on credible news organizations and sources.”Joe Mercurio's Cash Cow

“EVERY weighed fish, over 80 were DNA sampled. More were sampled that were caught & released. We’ll present the full facts & figures in regards to the DNA sampled fish, and will address the baseless allegations & claims that have been made,” the PTTS said in its unsigned Facebook post.

The PTTS has otherwise remained mum concerning the gutted fish. FWC researchers have said that recapture rates in this type of study are, understandably, very low. Recaptures of less than one percent aren’t uncommon. So far this year, using the PTTS claim of 80 sampled fish, PTTS tarpon were recaptured at a rate of 7.5 percent – well above the numbers scientists say they would normally anticipate and need to conduct meaningful research.

Below is a screen shot of the PTTS Facebook page. It was made Monday, Dec. 3. Unlike that gutted tarpon, PTTS web content has a habit of vanishing. 

PTTSTV Facebook Dec 3 2012

 

New PTTS ‘economics’ angle flunks out with the FWC

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio

Joe Mercurio, PTTS Host

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.

 

Fish feud: David tumbles Goliath – again

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.

David vs Goliath

David vs Goliath

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 gdutery@sun-herald.com or on Twitter @ GaryDutery.

Off the gaff, but not off the hook

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.

Save the Tarpon, Foul Hooked Tarpon

Foul hooked? This hook placement is commonly seen in the jig fishery.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.