ST. PETERSBURG — Managing Florida's fisheries is no easy task. Bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Florida Bay to the south and straddling the temperate and subtropical zones, in some cases you need multiple regulations for a single species.
The state currently manages spotted seatrout and snook geographically, but a similar plan for red drum has some anglers up in arms.
"It is a risky move," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association. "The management of redfish has been a huge success. Why mess with it?"
In the 1980s, the CCA built its reputation as the state's leading angler advocacy group through an aggressive campaign to end the commercial take and sale of red drum. The species' population, which can be found from Massachusetts to Key West and throughout the gulf, was on the brink of collapse, thanks in part to a "blackened redfish" craze that was driving up demand.
The CCA, then called the Florida Conservation Association, adopted the redfish, with its distinctive black spot on the tail, as its symbol. This powerful new group of recreational fishing interests succeeded in protecting redfish and helping convince state officials to embark on an ambitious rebuilding program. The movement continued to gain momentum in the early 1990s and was again successful in banning nets from inshore waters.
"This is our signature fish," Forsgren said. "A lot of work has gone into making this a successful catch-and-release fishery. To change the regulations, and allow a higher bag limit in some parts of the state, would be a huge step backwards."
At issue is a state plan that would allow anglers in the northwestern and northeastern areas of the state to keep two fish. South of the Pasco-Pinellas county line on the Gulf Coast and Volusia through Dade counties on the Atlantic Coast, the limit would remain as it is now, one fish per angler per day.
Florida's red drum fishery is unique because anglers typically catch and keep the young, sexually immature redfish, not the breeding fish usually targeted in other fisheries. Redfish spend the first few years of their lives in estuaries such as Tampa Bay before moving offshore where they can reach lengths of 45 inches and weigh up to 50 pounds.
Male redfish mature at 1 to 3 years, and females at 3 to 6 years. But drum are a particularly long-lived species. One specimen found in Florida was determined to be 40 years old. State biologists have determined that it is better for the long-term health of the species to protect the older fish, hence the current slot limit of 18 to 27 inches.
In order for redfish stocks to remain viable, fishery managers want approximately 40 percent of the young redfish in any given area to survive long enough to reach sexual maturity and "escape," or swim offshore to spawn.
In some areas of the state, particularly northeast and northwest Florida, escapement has been above 40 percent since 1987. But in other areas, such as southeast Florida, escapement has dropped below that management goal.
If the new rules are approved sometime early next year, redfish would be managed under the same geographic boundaries as spotted seatrout. But these rules are confusing, especially in an area such as the greater Tampa Bay area, which straddles two management regions.
Anglers from Pinellas County often travel north and fish the waters off the less populated Pasco County coast, which lies in the Northwest trout management region. But if an angler catches a trout off New Port Richey during the open season in the Northwest Region, they cannot bring that fish back to a dock in Tarpon Springs if the season is closed in the South Region.
"I can understand what the state is trying to do," Forsgren said. "Recreational fishermen have been hit so hard by recent changes in federal regulations (i.e., gag grouper) that they are just trying to give something back to the average angler.
"But they shouldn't do it with redfish," he added.
Florida and North Carolina currently have the most conservation-minded redfish regulations in the Southeast, with one fish per angler per day. Anglers in South Carolina can keep two fish, while fishermen in Texas, Mississippi and Alabama can keep three. Georgia and Louisiana let anglers keep five per day.
Six of eight Southeast states prohibit the commercial sale of redfish. Only Mississippi and North Carolina have commercial redfish industries.