Saltwater recreational fishing pumps more than $5 billion into the state's economy every year, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That's three times more than any other state or U.S. territory, making Florida's sport fishery the most valuable in the world. But as more people fish, the pressure on popular species such as spotted seatrout, snook and redfish continues to grow. Fish hatcheries, such as the one on the south side of Tampa Bay, will play a major role in the future of fishing in Florida. But one hatchery won't be able to do it all. The state wants to add seven hatcheries on the east and west coasts of Florida at a cost of $138 million to assure the state's fishing future.
The FWC has been raising redfish at its Manatee County facility since it opened in spring 1988.
To date, more than 6 million juvenile redfish have been released statewide, the vast majority in Tampa and Biscayne bays.
Early stocking efforts met with mixed results. So state officials stopped, took a step back and re-evaluated the program. In order for any stock enhancement program to be successful, it must be economically viable.
The larger a fish is upon release, the better its chances for survival. But it takes more time and money to breed a big fish.
The Port Manatee Stock Enhancement Research Facility (or SERF) keeps brood stock — mating pairs of redfish, which were caught in the wild — in large tanks.
A single fish can produce several hundred thousand eggs, which are collected and incubated until they hatch. The fingerlings are then moved to outdoor ponds, where they grow until they are ready for release. The fish are then classified by length: phase one (11/4 inches), phase two (3 to 41/2 inches) and phase three (6 to 7 inches.) Phase three fish have roughly 10 times the survival rate as phase one fish.
After the fish reach the targeted size for release, they are tagged so they can later be identified as a hatchery-raised fish if caught by an angler.
The smallest fish can be identified by their genetic blueprint, which differs from fish in the wild. The midsize fish have a coded wire tag that can be identified by field biologists. The largest fish have a tag that is clearly visible and imprinted with a toll-free number so the angler can report the catch. Some large fish may also be implanted with a sonic tag so biologists can track their movements.
With only one hatchery in the state, Florida officials have a hard time meeting demand.
Having additional hatcheries around the state would limit the distance the fish need to be transported before release. It would also maintain the genetic integrity of the stocks by ensuring that the brood stock comes from the same areas in which their offspring will be released.
Although Texas has the largest fish hatchery program in the country, Florida is far ahead of the other gulf state in developing a system that is economically viable.
And if the system is successful, millions of fingerlings could be raised, ensuring that future generations will have fish to catch.
The Florida Marine Fisheries Enhancement Initiative will be implemented gradually over the next 10 years. The Wildlife Foundation of Florida has taken the lead in generating public awareness and fundraising under the umbrella "Support Florida Sportfish." To learn more, go to www.supportflorida sportfish.typepad.com.