Save The Tarpon seeks to block ‘hoax’ PTTS bid to force forum to turn over names

Internet Forum TrollSave The Tarpon Inc. took action, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, aimed at blocking attempts by Gary Ingman and the company that owns the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series that, if the PTTS gets its way, would  force the popular Florida Sportsman online forum to reveal the identities of its members.

In a two-page motion filed Monday with the Charlotte County Circuit Court clerk’s office, attorneys for the Southwest Florida-based conservation group argued that the subpoena sought by Ingman and the PTTS “is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” and that the forum’s more than 18,000 members “have an expectation of privacy and confidentiality.”

The motion is the latest exchange in the protracted legal battle Ingman and his company, Silver King Entertainment Inc., have been waging in the courts as part of an ongoing PTTS strategy to silence Save The Tarpon, its more than 22,000 supporters and those who have spoken out against the PTTS and its methods. Ingman claims the group’s efforts have cost his controversial Boca Grande Pass TV tarpon tournament more than $500,000 in sponsorship and other revenues since Save The Tarpon’s formation in May, 2012.

Save the Tarpon Objection

Click to read full documents.

In its written objection, Save The Tarpon’s attorneys formally entered a copy of Silver King’s contemplated Florida Sportsman Forum subpoena into the public court record as an exhibit in support of its motion.

Silver King’s lawyer, Tampa attorney Dennis A. Creed III, had omitted the actual subpoena on Monday, Nov. 12 when his “Notice of Non-Party Production,” a reference to the Florida Sportsman Forum, was initially filed.

PTTS supporters among the forum’s ranks have claimed a copy of the subpoena posted last week to Save The Tarpon’s website wasn’t real, that it was a hoax contrived by the group as a ruse to further sway opinion against the tournament.

As word of the PTTS attempt to ferret out the identities of Florida Sportsman Forum members began to circulate online last week, reaction from forum members ranged from approval of the PTTS move to harsh opposition and even claims Save The Tarpon had somehow invented or fabricated the court records the group published to its website.

Forum regular Gary S. Colecchio was among the deniers, repeatedly urging his fellow Florida Sportsman members to “never believe anything posted on STT,” as he argued that the subpoena was a Save The Tarpon ploy designed to “cause outrage at PTTS among forum members” while continuing to insist “again, you simply cannot believe anything posted on that site and forum.”

When a forum member, in a reference to Colecchio’s earlier hoax claims, asked “are you saying that the subpoena for the forum information is a fake made by STT?” Colecchio, who has tallied nearly 9,500 forum posts since June of 2011, did not respond.

The subpoena sought by PTTS lawyer Creed targets Wick Enterprises Inc. as the supposed owner of the fishing forum. While Blair Wickstrom, publisher of Florida Sportsman Magazine, is also vice-president of Wick Enterprises Inc., the Stuart, Fla. company does not own the publication or its related online forum.
Colecchio, in yet another post to the forum, noted the PTTS lawyer’s apparent error, then cryptically hinted that despite its attested filing with the courts, “the PTTS knows that the Wickstoms (sic) don’t own Florida Sportsman.”

PTTS demands Florida Sportsman name names of its forum members

Silver King Entertainment Save The Tarpon Subpoena To Wick Enterprises, Inc. 1 Page 1

Click to enlarge image.

Southwest Florida boat dealer Gary Ingman and the outfit behind the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series are back in court again, this time in an attempt to force the owners of a popular online outdoors forum to publicly name names and fork over other personal information contained in its corporate database of more than 18,000 members and nearly 1.7 million posts.

The latest maneuver by Silver King Entertainment LLC in its protracted legal battle to silence Save The Tarpon Inc. and others critical of the PTTS surfaced November 12, 2013 in papers filed with the Charlotte County Circuit Court.

Port Charlotte-based Silver King is claiming Save The Tarpon, its directors and its more than 22,000 supporters worldwide have caused the televised Boca Grande Pass fishing tournament to lose more than $500,000 in sponsorship and other revenues since the tarpon conservation group’s efforts began in May of 2012.

MillerCoors, the signature sponsor of the PTTS through its Miller Lite brand, recently moved to sever its ties to Ingman’s controversial NASCAR-style, made-for-TV tournament after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted in September to outlaw a fishing method commonly used and promoted by PTTS participants throughout the event’s nine-year Fox Sports-affiliated cable television run.

SUBPOENA TO PRODUCE THINGS WITHOUT DEPOSITION
TO: WICK ENTERPRISES, INC.

YOU ARE COMMANDED to appear at Feldman Morgado, PA, 501 N. Reo Street, Tampa, Florida 33609 December 12, 2013 at 5:00 p.m. and have with you at that time and place the following:

1. Any and all documents, records, correspondence, legal documents, files and information regarding the user accounts of forum participants for user names RJ Kirker, WhiteBacon, Joey Buttons, OldHewes18Red, Jirvin70 and RestlessNative in connection with the website forums of http://forums.floridasportsman.com.

If you fail to appear, you may be in Contempt of Court.

Ingman and his Silver King partners are directing their current legal salvo at Wick Enterprises Inc., a Stuart, Fla. company that publishes Florida Sportsman Magazine and operates a companion Florida Sportsman Forum. The Florida Sportsman Forum is a widely-read online message board that hosts a broad range of candid member discussions centering on local and statewide fish and game topics.

In a two-page notice filed with the court, Ingman’s company revealed its intent to go after Florida Sportsman’s business records in an attempt to ferret out the identities of forum members who have posted comments critical of the PTTS and its methods.

The PTTS move comes close on the heels of a now-deleted Florida Sportsman Forum conversation that centered on certain documents offered up by the tournament’s lawyers as potential evidence in its lawsuit against Save The Tarpon and others.

The PTTS documents that triggered the short-lived forum discussion were, according to information posted to the Florida Sportsman site, found to contain links associated with sexually explicit and compromising material reproduced by the tournament’s host and general manager Joe Mercurio.

The PTTS is seeking to force Florida Sportsman to turn over private personal information about its forum members.

The PTTS is seeking to force Florida Sportsman to turn over private personal information about its forum members.

Following a brief, two-page discussion contained within a 2,068-post conversation boasting 108,569 views, Florida Sportsman moderators locked the thread and ultimately deleted all references to Mercurio and the compromising material turned over by the PTTS lawyers.

In apparent response, PTTS attorney Dennis A. Creed III of the Tampa area firm of Feldman Morgado P.A., is aiming his latest legal broadside at the Florida Sportsman Forum and six of its 18,000-plus hunting and fishing enthusiast members. His notice filed with the court, and the corresponding subpoena, both fall under Florida’s sweeping public access and broad open records laws.

His demand that Florida Sportsman produce the identities of its members, who traditionally post under so-called “screen names,” is a move likely to draw the interest and ire of online privacy advocates. Florida Sportsman could also opt to invoke privilege under Florida’s “Shield Law” in response to Creed’s forthcoming subpoena.

If Creed prevails in his bid on behalf of the PTTS to pry open Florida Sportsman’s books, the tactic also runs the obvious risk of creating a precedent-setting chilling effect.

There are, among the thousands of registered forum members, many who would likely be alienated or driven away by the potential prospect of having their personal and professional identities revealed if they permit their screen names to be attached to future Florida Sportsman forum posts.

Creed’s subpoena would give Wick Enterprises Inc. and Florida Sportsman until December 12 at 5 p.m. to turn over “any and all documents, records, correspondence, legal documents, files and information regarding the user accounts of forum participants.” Creed then identifies six of those forum members by their adopted screen names.

Creed also delivered a warning to Florida Sportsman’s owners, threatening that if they fail to turn over the forum member identities demanded by the PTTS and its lawyers by the December deadline, “you may be in contempt of court.”

Tarpon statewide snagging definition, gear rules in Boca Grande Pass changes effective Nov. 1

Tarpon Jig

Changes that will add language to the current statewide snagging definition for tarpon and modify what types of gear can be used when fishing in Boca Grande Pass will go into effect Nov. 1.

These changes will provide further protection for this iconic fish.

The first part of the adopted changes includes adding language to the snagging definition to prohibit catching or attempting to catch tarpon that have not been attracted or enticed to strike an angler’s gear. This change will apply to tarpon fishing statewide. The current definition for snagging or snatch-hooking is the intentional catch of a fish by any device intended to impale or hook the fish by any part of its body other than the mouth. Adding language specifying that gear must entice the fish to strike with, and become hooked in, its mouth will help further protect tarpon from the act of snagging.

The second part of the changes prohibits fishing with gear that has a weight attached to a hook, artificial fly or lure in such a way that the weight hangs lower than the hook when the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod (see photo below). This change will apply to fishing for all species year-round within Boca Grande Pass.

If this prohibited gear is on board a fishing vessel while inside the boundaries of the pass, it cannot be attached to any rod, line or leader and must be stowed. This change will further reduce the likelihood that tarpon in Boca Grande Pass will be snagged.

These changes will provide further protection for tarpon.

To learn more, visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Tarpon.”

Waterline publisher warns ‘defiant’ Mercurio, PTTS: Don’t ‘skirt the rules’

Josh Olive, Waterline Magazine, Southwest Florida

“That’s just not true,” Waterline Publisher Josh Olive tells PTTS host Joe Mercurio in response to Mercurio’s repeated complaints the FWC banned the jig “in spite of any scientific data.”

The publisher of an influential Southwest Florida outdoors magazine says the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series needs to do some “soul searching,” admit the now-illegal bottom weighted “jig” was, in fact, used by PTTS anglers to foul hook fish, and distance itself from what he says are efforts to “skirt the rules” designed to put an end to years of tarpon snagging in Boca Grande Pass.

Josh Olive, publisher of the Suncoast Media Group’s widely read weekly “Waterline” supplement, used his Thursday, Oct. 10 column to refute PTTS host and general manager Joe Mercurio’s repeated allegations that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission banned the controversial device “in spite of any scientific data … that indicates an abnormal amount of fish caught using the Boca Grande jig were being foul hooked or snagged.”

“That’s just not true,” Olive replied, noting that instead of accepting the opinions of recognized experts and the resulting 7-0 FWC vote to ban the device, Mercurio’s “tone has been rather defiant” and that the PTTS continues to base its opposition on an obsolete hook placement study that has been widely discredited by the scientific community and renounced by those it cited. (Read Joe Mercurio’s September 19th letter to the editor here.)

Joe Mercurio, PTTS Host

Read Joe Mercurio’s Sept 19 letter to the editor following the recent FWC ruling.

Olive, once a booster of both the PTTS and the jig favored by the TV tournament’s participants, used his weekly column to call for  Mercurio and his tournament to heed Save The Tarpon’s message. “Tell us you’re going into 2014’s tournament season with the right attitude: Respect the fish. Respect the Pass,” he wrote.

“Well, now we know. The Pass jig snags tarpon. The Pass jig snags tarpon! What remains to be seen is how former jig anglers cope with the loss of a very effective fish catching tool. Will they try to skirt the rules and develop new devices that adhere to the letter, but not the intent, of the law? Much of their reaction may depend on how the PTTS chooses to proceed,” Olive warned.

Olive might have reason to be concerned that a “defiant” PTTS could be attempting to “skirt the rules.”

Shortly after his pro-jig, pro-PTTS “Florida Tarpon Anglers Association” lost a pivotal procedural vote on the new regulations in June, the group’s vice-president Craig Abbott posted a photo to a PTTS-backed social media site that purported to show a jig clone Abbott claimed had caught two tarpon in 12 minutes.

Sea Hunt Boats representative and PTTS captain, Larry Jett, spoke out after the September FWC ruling.  Sea Hunts Boats is an official sponsor of the PTTS.

Sea Hunt Boats representative and PTTS captain, Larry Jett, commented on the PTTS Facebook page after the September FWC ruling. Sea Hunts Boats is an official sponsor of the PTTS.

A week later, part-time fishing guide Mike McCarty followed up with a post alleging “a start of full production is a couple of months out in order to have them for next season. There’s discussion of letting the PTTS reveal this new bait first. No worries there (sic) coming.”

Since then, the internet has been buzzing with rumors of experimental and “totally legal” lures designed to take over for the banned jig when the PTTS resumes next year.

On September 5, in the aftermath of the final FWC vote, the PTTS boasted on its Facebook page that “our world class competitors have already developed new artificial lure designs that have proven to be very productive, and we’re confident additional designs will continue to be developed.”

On the same day, Tampa fishing guide and Team Sea Hunt angler Rick Silkworth wrote “we are not going anywhere, the new jig is coming, mold is being made to poor (sic) new jig head.”

Capt. Dave Markett

Outspoken jig proponent and PTTS Team Power-Pole captain, Dave Markett, spoke out September 20 on Facebook.

More recently on September 20, high profile PTTS Team Power-Pole leader Dave Markett claimed the next generation jig was already on the market. Markett said the devices were being sold by a Tampa area tackle shop. He thanked the store “for already having a full rack of brand new and totally legal Boca Grande tarpon lures already on their shelves.”

“Welcome “Knockers” to our world,” Markett wrote. He then added “And the FOOLS thought we were whipped. Not quite, Not EVER!!”

Olive said that he had “searched his soul” as his opinion of the jig, the PTTS and Save The Tarpon evolved.

“The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series intends to go on, and I’m concerned that tournament organizers may not have done the same level of soul searching,” he wrote.

(Read Josh’s column here.)

PTTS general manager and host posted this quote to Facebook.

PTTS general manager and host posted this quote to Facebook.

Pro-jig Tallahassee lobbyist seeks clarification

Lane Stephens

Tallahassee lobbyist Lane Stephens lost his case before the FWC in September. He was hired by the pro-jig Florida Tarpon Anglers Association, a group closely tied to the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series. His pro-jig stance was also mirrored by the Coastal Conservation Association and the Florida Guides Association.

The following correspondence from Lane Stephens, a partner in the Tallahassee lobbying firm SCG Governmental Affairs, is dated October 2, 2013:

I need to point out a couple of inaccuracies in your report of the vote on the jig in Pensacola.

First, I never “demanded” that the FWCC hold workshops. I made a request, on behalf of my client, the FTTA, that workshops be held. This is allowed by Chapter 120, Florida Statutes. After the initial publication of a notice of proposed rule development (which occurred in August), affected parties are allowed to request public hearings. My request was not out of the ordinary and was not a demand.

Second, you indicated that “lobbyist” Tim Atkinson represents the Florida Tarpon Anglers Association. This is not true. He is an attorney and is not registered to lobby for FTTA, and he has never represented FTTA legally or as a lobbyist. Please do not attribute his statements that he made on behalf of his client to my client, or try to insinuate that he speaks for FTTA, or that my comments to the Commission are in any way associated with him.

Lastly, I never threatened the Commission with any of my comments regarding potential action that could occur. I respectfully pointed out that Florida law allows small businesses certain protections during the rule development process, and in my opinion, FWCC failed in its economic analysis of the potential impact of this rule.

I would appreciate your correction of this misinformation on your website.

(Editor’s note: Save The Tarpon stands by its reporting.)

Oertel, Fernandez, Bryant Atkinson, P.A. Environmental Law, Regulatory Law, Administrative Law, Governmental Law, Licensing Attorneys Counselors

Excerpt from Mr. Atkinson’s bio on the Oertel, Fernandez, Bryant & Atkinson website. Note the last sentence.

 

Join us for happy hour

Happy Hour InviteWe hope you’ll be joining us this Thursday, September 26 at 5:30 pm as we enjoy a a few cocktails together at Zydeco Grille in Placida.  Nothing fancy and you’ll have to buy your own food (you can thank the ongoing and still ridiculous PTTS lawsuit for that).  But the drinks are buy-one-get one until 6pm and Save the Tarpon will be providing a champagne toast to help celebrate.

Its hard to believe how much has been accomplished since May of 2012.  Don’t you think its time we get together and have a little fun? We do.  Hope to see you there.

Zydeco Grille is a Cajun & Creole restaurant and is located at 8501 Placida Road in the Cape Haze Plaza in Placida FL.

Sorry, Joe – but the FWC vote really does change everything

By Bill Bishop

Anyone who says the vote didn’t change a thing is living in a dream world. The vote changed everything, including how the angling community and business owners will view violators in the future.

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio, poses next to the Hooters sponsored team boat.

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio, poses next to the Hooters sponsored team boat.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of a person’s reputation. Without that, success is virtually impossible.

The “success” of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is no different. The way I see it, the unanimous vote sent a message throughout the state and beyond that the commissioners believed the evidence brought before them was credible and something needed to be done to stop snagging. They were and will remain dead serious about this.

Anyone who says the vote didn’t change a thing is living in a dream world. The vote changed everything, including how the angling community and business owners will view violators in the future.

I recall a quote, “we won’t stop until we are told to stop.” They were just ordered to stop by the FWC commissioners. They were previously told they must stop gaffing, roping, dragging and weighing fish. They have now been told they must stop using the jig designed to snag fish.

They must also stop bypassing the process of enticing a fish to strike the lure. Earlier this month, the unanimous vote in favor of the proposal – and the change of the definition – changed everything. Any attempt to re-invent a lure that meets the guidelines – but is still used to snag fish – will be dealt with swiftly. Any attempt to sidestep the law will be done under a microscope and in the light of day.

Left to right: Capt. Mark Futch, Dr. Aaron Adams, Capt. Tom McLaughlin, and Mr. Bill Bishop.

Bill Bishop, at right, with (from left) Capt. Mark Futch, Dr. Aaron Adams and Capt. Tom McLaughlin.

Yet, here we have PTTS host Joe Mercurio was quoted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as saying: “We’re Americans, we’re anglers, we’re adapters, we’ll find a way, we’ve already found a way. If anything, this has united some of our fishermen in using the new baits that we can use.”

How about this, Mr. Mercurio? The WAY is to realize that at the very core of honest angling is the art of enticing a fish to strike. It takes a lifetime to master this art. Those who have bypassed this art by way of snagging fish have wasted time that could have been used to learn and become more proficient as anglers.

The WAY isn’t easy. It’s complicated and challenging, but it is also one of the most gratifying experiences a person can have.

Not one thing that lives inside an honest angler has anything to do with harming the fishery or offending other anglers. At the end of each day I know whether I fished well or not. I know if my conduct was becoming. I know if the decisions I made were fair and honest.

I also ask if a young budding angler looked at me – would I be a good example to follow or not? Adapting… to me means to continue to improve my skills as an angler while staying within the boundaries of good sportsmanship and fair play.

We have already found a “way” as well. It’s called angling. If you haven’t tried it, you should.

(Bill Bishop is a noted wildlife artist and an ardent tarpon angler. He is the author of “High Rollers: Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon” published in 2008.)

Judge guts PTTS lawsuit against Save The Tarpon, orders owners to put up or pay up

Judgefoster2

Judge Joseph G. Foster, pictured, ordered the owners of the PTTS  to pay Save The Tarpon $200 for failing to turn over financial records and sponsorship deals to the group’s lawyers. The fine goes up by $500 late next week if the tournament’s owners don’t comply.

Professional Tarpon Tournament Series principal owner Gary Ingman found himself watching helplessly from the sidelines Wednesday as a Charlotte County Circuit Court judge gutted his company’s lawsuit against Save The Tarpon Inc., dismissed all of Ingman’s claims against the group’s officers, and then ordered the PTTS owners to fork over $200 in sanctions for violating the court’s rules governing discovery and the production of records.

In addition to dismissing Save The Tarpon’s directors from the lawsuit filed in May by Silver King Entertainment LLC, which owns and operates the PTTS, Judge Joseph G. Foster hit the plaintiffs with a $200 assessment for attorneys’ fees for failing to turn over documents demanded by Save The Tarpon’s attorneys.

Foster gave the owners of the PTTS until Friday, September 6, 2013 to produce the records. If the PTTS ownership doesn’t meet that deadline, Foster said he would up the sanction by an additional $500.

Lawsuit Failed

The records the PTTS owners have been ordered to turn over to Save The Tarpon include all tax returns and financial statements for the past several years. Silver King is also being forced to produce its corporate sponsorship agreements as well as copies of its rules and regulations, along with any and all correspondence with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The FWC is poised to adopt a rule in September that would restrict the use of bottom weighted hooks in Boca Grande Pass. This rule would apply to the so-called “pass jig” favored by PTTS competitors.

Save The Tarpon’s counsel Brian M. Beason, a partner in the Port Charlotte law firm of Frohlich, Gordon and Beason, argued the group’s case before Judge Foster on Wednesday. Beason said Judge Foster’s decision to sanction Silver King was significant, and that he would “absolutely” be seeking reasonable attorneys’ fees from Silver King at the conclusion of the case. Beason said both Ingman and PTTS host and general manager Joe Mercurio are being scheduled to be deposed under oath. Additional depositions are likely, he said.

While Foster is allowing Silver King’s case against Save The Tarpon Inc. to move forward for the present, Beason noted that Silver King has already had to correct numerous deficiencies in its lawsuit—including filing the case in the wrong venue and misidentifying its own corporate name.

Tweed Roosevelt speaks out in support of gear restrictions for Boca Grande Pass to protect tarpon from snagging

Conservation quote from Theodore Roosevelt.Last week, Tweed Roosevelt,  the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, sent a letter to FWC’s seven Commissioners urging them to adopt the proposed rule amendments for tarpon and Boca Grande Pass gear restrictions.  The final public hearing for these proposed rule amendments will take place during the September 5 Commission meeting in Pensacola, Florida.

The proposed rule amendments would modify the existing snagging definition for tarpon statewide and prohibit anglers from attaching a weight to the bottom of a hook while fishing within the boundaries of the Pass.  Save the Tarpon believes these rules are a vitally important way to help protect the health of the Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery.  We couldn’t more pleased that Mr. Roosevelt agrees with us.

Here is the letter:

August 14, 2013

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
Ferris Bryant Bldg.
620 S. Meridian St.
Tallahassee, FL 3399-1600

Dear Commissioners, 

I understand that you are considering various alternatives for regulating the Boca Grande Jig.  I know a little about the controversy but not in depth.  Others who are far more knowledgeable will address the specific issues relating to this.  My purpose is to provide some context for making the decision as to what is best for all parties concerned based on my great grandfather Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership applicable to situations such as this.

TR’s approach is relative simple, straight forward, and sensible.  He saw that there are two fundamental approaches that are not mutually exclusive but both have their place – preservation and conservation.  An easy way to understand the difference is to compare the National Park service to the U.S. Forest Service.  Parks are meant to be preserved in a state altered as little as possible by man.  Forests are meant to be conserved so they may be a continuing source of natural resources from generation to generation.  A relatively small portion of the land should be preserved and by far the greater amount conserved. Theodore Roosevelt

In situations requiring conservation, the issue is always one of balance.  How much should be consumed today and how much saved for tomorrow.  One can always argue where the line should be drawn, and these are legitimate arguments, but the extreme and illegitimate positions are usually clear and inappropriate.  TR understood this but usually felt we should err on the side of protecting future generations, as the immediate benefits are so attractive that they can cloud our vision.

The Boca Grande Jig issue is clearly one that falls into the conservation side.  The job of the Commissioners is to decide whether or not the Jig is sufficiently destructive to require it banning.  Others will make the various arguments.  I urge you to remember TR’s wise approach to these kinds of problems and rule accordingly.  I think it is very clear where he would stand on this issue, that is saving the species for future generations so they can enjoy the fishery and I hope you will live up to his standard.

Best,

Tweed Roosevelt 

Tweed Roosevelt (born September 9, 1942) – The great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt via Roosevelt’s son Archie. He is Chairman of Roosevelt China Investments, a Boston firm. He occasionally lectures and writes on the topic of his great-grandfather. He is the President of the Board of Trustees of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.

Theosore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) – The 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt embodied the conservative values of personal responsibility, hard work and prudence. He abhorred waste and sought to protect capitalism from the excesses of greed. He believed that conservation was essential for keeping America strong. Roosevelt was a champion of the Burkean ideal that a moral partnership exists between present and future generations. That view helped instruct his passion for conserving America’s natural resources.

Bonefish Tarpon Trust gives its position on jigging issue in Boca Grande waters

The following article was originally published in the August 16, 2013 edition of the Boca Beacon.
By Marcy Shortuse

Under the proposed gear restrictions for Boca Grande Pass, a bottom weighted hook such as this, would be illegal.

Under the proposed gear restrictions for Boca Grande Pass, a bottom weighted hook such as this, would be illegal.

On Thursday, Sept. 5 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will make a decision that will impact Boca Grande tarpon fishing enormously. The proposal on the table, which was discussed at the FWC’s last meeting, is in part regarding the possibility of banning the Boca Grande jig. One organization of some influence in Florida, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, has weighed in on the issue just prior to the September meeting in Pensacola, where a final decision will be made.

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust supports the proposed new rules that would ban the Boca Grande Jig,” said Aaron Adams, Director of Operations at BTT.

The commission will decide at the September hearing how to refine the two-part proposal that would include the definition of “snagging” and the modification of gear used in the Pass. According to the FWC,

“The proposal adds language that prohibits catching or attempting to catch tarpon that have not been attracted or enticed by the angler’s gear to the snagging definition that applies statewide. This change would apply to tarpon fishing statewide. The second part of the proposal would prohibit fishing with gear that has a weight attached to the bottom of a hook. This change would apply to fishing for all species year-round within Boca Grande Pass.”

Currently live bait fishermen using traditional fishing methods in the Pass do not use bottom-weighted jigs (often referred to as the “Boca Grande jig”). Others, such as anglers in the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, do use them … frequently. The debate that has raged on for years in the Pass is this: Is a bottom-weighted hook a snagging device?

Boca Grande Pass Chart

In 2002-2004 FWC scientists conducted a study in the Pass, examining fish caught by both live bait and jig fishermen. At that time FWC researcher results showed that there was little difference in the mortality rate or the snagging rate between tarpon caught with live bait and those with jigs. However, the two scientists contacted to give their opinions in the study, Dr. Phillip Motta and Dr. Justin Grubich (two of the leading fish researchers in the world), have said that their opinions given in that study were not correct, and that they were not given enough information to make an informed and complete decision.

Since then, the people of Boca Grande and several conservation groups have said they witness more dead tarpon washing up on shore after some of the tournaments held in the Pass every year, in which many of the anglers use the bottom-weighted jig. Nick Wiley, the president of the Florida Wildlife Research Institute, said he believes it’s time to change some FWC rules, and said after all of the testimony they have heard, as well as after taking a close look at the equipment, his organization is not happy with how the jig is fished.

“I feel there was plenty of evidence that this jig could result in a snagging situation,” he said at the June meeting.

The agenda for the September meeting shows that the jigging and snagging issue is at the top of the agenda for the first day of the conference.

68B-32.002 states that the proposed final rule would enhance the definition in the tarpon chapter of “snagging” or “snatch hooking.” The second part of the proposal, 68B-4.018, Boca Grande Pass Gear Restrictions states, “The proposed final rule would prohibit the use and possession of gear rigged with a weight attached to the bottom of the hook in Boca Grande Pass.”

A vote to pursue refining these definitions was passed with a 4-3 vote by commissioners at the last meeting.

The following is text from the BTT press release issued on Thursday, Aug. 15:

Bonefish Tarpon TrustThe Boca Grande Pass – Charlotte Harbor estuary is a unique place, and is an essential location for the regional tarpon population.

Adult tarpon gather in both pre-spawn and post-spawn groups in Boca Grande Pass and Charlotte Harbor. The Pass provides a unique biophysical feature that provides special advantage to tarpon during their spawning process – a deep place to gather in inshore protected waters. The adjacent estuary is also unique in that it is one of the biologically richest in the region, providing abundant prey for large numbers of adult tarpon during spawning season. Satellite tracking data show that some of the tarpon that gather in Boca Grande Pass and Charlotte Harbor migrate seasonally, supporting the recreational fishery from the Mississippi River to the southeastern coast as far north as Chesapeake Bay.

Charlotte Harbor is also an important tarpon nursery. Oceanographic currents carry tarpon larvae from the likely offshore spawning locations to the extensive mangrove wetlands of Charlotte Harbor and southwest Florida, further increasing the importance of this location for the region’s tarpon population.

Much has been made of the fact that: 1) catch rates have not changed with the advent of the vertical fishing method with the Boca Grande Jig; 2) that the number of tarpon caught or snagged with the Boca Grande Jig was too small to cause a negative impact to the tarpon population. Both of these suppositions are problematic.

First, when applied to fishes that occur in groups, catch rates often provide inaccurate measures of population size and fishery health. More worrisome, they can provide misleading information that leads to overfishing. This is explained by the phenomenon of hyperstability. In effect, the overall catch rate can remain relatively stable even as total abundance declines because the total number of fish that can be captured is not correlated with the abundance of fish. For example, the maximum catch rate of tarpon might be two tarpon per boat per hour, which will remain unchanged even as the abundance of tarpon in an aggregation can decline from 100,000 to 10,000. However, such a massive decline in abundance is clearly cause for concern. By the time the catch rate declines, the damage has been done and recovery will be a long, slow process.

Second, because Boca Grande Pass is an important pre- and post-spawning location, it is not the number of fish snagged/caught that is of primary concern. The measure of concern should be how the fishing method alters tarpon behavior. Considerable research has been conducted on the complex behaviors often associated with fish spawning, with successful spawning dependent upon successful execution of these behaviors. Interruption of such behavior has potential negative consequences for spawning success. The concern in Boca Grande Pass is that the vertical jigging method is altering tarpon behavior in the pre-spawning aggregations. In the ‘traditional’ method of fishing in the Pass, boats drift with the tide, presenting bait or lures to tarpon that are in the pathway of the drift. This allows tarpon that are not going to eat, or are in a pre-spawning behavior mode, to refuse the bait/lure, which continues to drift down-current. The tarpon can remain in position within the aggregation. In contrast, the vertical jigging method entails using the boat motor to maintain boat position over a tarpon aggregation (the school of tarpon is recorded on Fish Finders), with multiple jigs lowered into the group of tarpon. This removes the ability of tarpon to reject the jig and remain in place. Instead, the tarpon must change location to avoid the jig, possibly interrupting behavior. Such behavior alteration may have deleterious population-level effects.

Other states have already realized and addressed the impact of snagging and associated angling methods in similar situations. For example, salmon on spawning runs or on spawning beds are susceptible to snagging and behavior-altering fishing methods. Implementation of bans on snagging gear and methods has resulted in improved fishing and increased fish abundance, with positive effects at the population level.

Lest we consider tarpon conservation as overkill, a recent international assessment of tarpon suggests a cautious approach to their management is required. The recent assessment classified tarpon as Vulnerable due to habitat loss and degradation, declines in water quality, and harvest in parts of its range. The Vulnerable status means that the population has declined at least 30% in the recent past and/or is expected to decline in the near future. Commercial fishing in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico caused a major population crash in the 1960s and 1970s, and ongoing issues threaten a future population decline.

Because of its importance as a pre- and post-spawning aggregation site, Boca Grande Pass requires application of the precautionary principal. When the health of the fishery is in question, it is imperative to error on the side of the fish and enact conservation-oriented measures. In conjunction with the catch and release regulations recently passed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which in part address angler behavior in Boca Grande Pass (e.g., prohibiting dragging tarpon after capture), the proposed changes to Boca Grande Pass regulations should decrease post-release mortality and allow tarpon to revert to previous behavior patterns, which should have positive implications for the regional tarpon population.