This is to my fellow anglers who are constantly complaining about the science behind new fishing regulations.
I'm an avid angler, coastal habitat restoration expert and member of the boating industry, and I say it's high time to stop the griping and "grab an oar." Let's roll up our sleeves and set the course as we work toward improved fisheries management. We need to get serious and protect our valuable species such as red snapper, gag grouper and amberjack, and prevent overfishing.
Federal fishery managers will be hosting public hearings in St. Petersburg and elsewhere around the Gulf of Mexico during the next few weeks, beginning at 6 tonight at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park.
They are considering new limits on fishing for gag grouper, whose population has been sliced nearly in half. And they are working on plans to prevent overfishing by setting catch limits now before more species get into real trouble.
If we don't act now, we will continue down the path of overfishing to cultural, economic and environmental collapse. We should support rebuilding populations of overfished species, protect and enhance water quality and habitats and support proactive ways to prevent overfishing. By doing so, we can reduce the chance that managers will have to ban fishing for major species.
Plans under consideration would set annual catch limits — the amount of fish we take out of the gulf each year — for dozens of federally managed species, including Spanish mackerel, gray or mangrove snapper, red grouper, yellowtail snapper, cobia. The idea is to set the limit at or near current levels of landings, so we're not talking about major changes in size or bag limits.
It's a good idea, however, to set catch levels a little conservatively for several reasons. First, new restrictions on some species mean fishing pressure will shift to other species, and we have to account for that unpredictability. Second, we don't know how the oil spill will play out ecologically and what harm might have occurred to fish (red snapper for example). And last, we never know when we might see the next fishing-killing plague of Red Tide. If we'd smartly managed gag grouper earlier, we might not be facing almost total closure on the fish, arguably the most popular and valuable species caught in the eastern gulf.
By setting annual catch limits, managers will have more ability to manage holistically and make modest catch level adjustments — a few more fish from this species, a few less from this one — instead of having to resort to major closures. They can modify length of seasons and offer warnings when we're projected to go over the annual limits, sparing us costly paybacks in terms of shortened fishing seasons the following year.
This approach will provide us, the fishing public, with more diverse options for species we can target and greater fishing flexibility. And since the council may lump some species into groups, it may give us aggregate limits across multiple species, so we don't have to throw back so many out-of-season species while hunting for an in-season species.
Simply put, annual catch limits would bring much greater stability and predictability to gulf fisheries. Considering how much passion for fishing there is in this community, and that fishing generates billions of dollars annually for the state, it's time to take these more proactive approaches.
R.P. Hite is the chief operating officer of Savage Yachts. He lives in Apollo Beach.