First, the good news: Anglers may soon fish year round for spotted seatrout.
Now, the bad news: State officials may also expand the commercial season for Florida's most popular sport fish.
"We are worried about increased commercial pressure on this popular species," said Don Roberts, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida. "We would really like to see spotted seatrout some day get game fish status, like snook and redfish."
Few would disagree that spotted seatrout are the mainstay of Florida's recreational fishery. You can catch this member of the drum family just about anywhere on just about anything.
"They are not like redfish or snook, which take a little more skill to catch," said Roberts, a longtime angler from Tampa. "You can hook a seatrout wading, fishing off a sea wall, pier or boat. They are the people's fish."
Next week in Key Largo, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is expected to adopt new rules that will do away with the confusing, zoned closures that have been in effect since 2000. For example: Anglers fishing waters south of the Fred Howard Park Causeway in Tarpon Springs cannot keep trout in November and December while those fishing waters just north off Pasco and Hernando counties can only catch-and-release in February.
The closures, along with conservative bag and size limits, have helped the state's spotted seatrout stocks exceed management goals in all areas of the state. As a result, state officials are considering allowing anglers in the Northeast Region of the state to keep an extra fish. If approved, the bag limit would increase from five to six fish per angler.
But the proposed change to the commercial regulations has prompted the CCA and other fishing organizations to call on supporters to oppose the new rules that would:
• allow new gear, specifically beach and haul seines, with a "bycatch" of 75 fish;
• change the commercial vessel limit from 75 to 150 fish if two licensed fishermen are on board;
• allow commercial fishermen to target fish during the colder months when trout are most vulnerable to cast nets;
• and permit the commercial sale of seatrout 12 months a year.
Roberts said Florida could follow the lead of other states (Texas, South Carolina and Alabama) that already have banned the sale of seatrout. Georgia makes its commercial fishermen follow the same rules as recreational anglers.
Instead, Florida is expanding the state's commercial seatrout fishery. Roberts and others in the CCA argue that seatrout are more valuable as a recreational than commercial species.
"It doesn't make sense," he said. "This is a step in the wrong direction."
Sport fishermen pump about $31 billion into the U.S. economy each year, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Florida leads the nation with a $16.7 billion recreational fishery. Texas ranks second ($3.2 billion), followed by California ($3 billion).
Anglers still have time to weigh in on this issue. Another group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has asked the governor's office to intervene. The FWC meets Nov. 16 in Key Largo, but you can comment by going to http://www.myfwc.com/contact/staff-contacts/senior-staff/commissioners.
If approved the new rules will not take effect until Feb. 1, 2012.
Catch and release
With the trout biting during the closed season, anglers should land their catch as quickly as possible. If possible, leave the fish in the water and unhook it using a pair of pliers or a dehooking tool. If the hook is too difficult to remove without tearing additional tissue, wet a rag and use it to lift the fish out of the water. Back the hook through the original wound or, if that fails, cut off the barb of the hook and try again.
If the hook has been swallowed or is deeply embedded, cut the leader as close to the shank as possible and leave it in the fish. Most non-stainless steel hooks will dissolve in a few days.
If you want to take a photograph of your catch, do so quickly. The sooner you release the fish, the better its chances of survival.
A little history
The state designated seatrout as a restricted species in 1989 and set a 14-inch minimum and 24-inch maximum size limit as well as a 10-fish bag limit. In 1996, the state imposed the first regional closed seasons, reduced the bag limit and increased the size limit to 15 inches. In 2000, the state modified the regional closed seasons, dropped the maximum size limit to 20 inches and reduced the bag limit once again to four per person per day in the South Region and five per day in the Northeast and Northwest regions. Those regulations remain in effect today.
The spotted seatrout season in Tampa Bay is closed now, but it will reopen Jan. 1 in the South Region, which includes all waters south of the Flagler-Volusia counties line in the Atlantic and south of a line running due west from the westernmost point of Fred Howard Park Causeway, which is about 1.17 miles south of the Pinellas/Pasco counties line in the Gulf.