Tarpon, often referred to as the silver king of game fish, could become a catch-and-release-only fishery if new rules under consideration by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are adopted. But first, state officials must establish what constitutes a "game fish."
Florida has game fish rules for several species of freshwater fish, including largemouth bass, but no similar designation for saltwater species. In most states, game fish status means no commercial sale or harvest.
But Florida officials are thinking about having two levels of protection for several recreationally important species: "game fish" and "sport fish."
"Sport fish status would offer a higher level of protection," said Jessica McCawley, director of the FWC's Division of Marine Fisheries Management. "And that may include catch and release."
Such a designation would be controversial. Sport fish status for tarpon would impact a popular, big-money tarpon tournament trail in Boca Grande, where weekend anglers and native guides have been at each other's throats for more than a decade.
The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, a six-week, $500,000 catch-and-release competition that runs through May and June, has been the target of lawsuits and protests.
Participating anglers, many of them charter boat captains from the Tampa Bay area, catch tarpon and then tow the fish alongside their boats to a floating scale, where the tarpon are weighed and then let go. Critics contend this procedure can weaken, injure and even kill the tarpon. But tournament participants counter that they abide by the law and take great care to assure the survival of released fish.
Florida currently requires that anglers who want to "possess or harvest" a tarpon must buy a tag for $50. During the 2011-12 fiscal year, anglers purchased 375 tags but, according to FWC records, killed just six tarpon.
Many of those tags were purchased by PTTS anglers who technically "possessed" a tarpon while they were towing it to the weigh station. But if the game fish or sport fish status is adopted, the tarpon tag law may become obsolete.
The subject of game fish and/or sport fish (the two terms are often used interchangeably) has come up several times in recent years in regard to bonefish, permit and snook. But the issue moved to the front burner earlier this month when incoming FWC chairman Ken Wright made clarifying the language a top priority.
"Florida can compete with Belize and Mexico as a world-class fishery where an angler can go catch a bonefish, tarpon and permit all in one day," Wright said. "But we have to show that we are serious about protecting these species. Sport fish designation could be the first step."
The issue is scheduled to be discussed next week when the FWC holds its regularly scheduled meeting in Tampa. Anglers and guides on both sides of the Boca Grande controversy are expected to attend.
"I'm not interested in getting into a debate that pits fishermen against fishermen," Wright added. "And I don't want to talk about gear. This is about what is best for the species."
Wright, an avid angler and hunter from Winter Park, knows the importance of language when it comes to the law. The 64-year-old is an attorney with an Orlando law firm and has spent five years on the FWC board.
Wright asked that the question of a new designation for tarpon be put on the agenda for September at the last minute because the next meeting isn't until December in Apalachicola.
"I wanted the folks who would be most affected to be able to come to Tampa," he said.
Game fish laws vary from state to state along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Texas lists 12 species of game fish, including red drum, sailfish, marlin and tarpon. Louisiana, however, lists just three species: red drum, sailfish and marlin.
In Florida, state officials have identified five species that may get "game fish" or "sport fish" status: tarpon, bonefish, snook, red drum and billfish, according to FWC records.
But a new designation for tarpon may not end events in Boca Grande Pass. "We can run our tournaments without weighing fish," said Joe Mercurio, who runs the PTTS. "I don't think (sport fish status) will have a negative impact on us at all."
The International Game Fish Association has developed rules for anglers who want to release fish yet have their catches considered for world records. For example, measurements of length and girth can be calculated to give an estimated weight.
"It can be done," Mercurio said. "In the end, like most responsible anglers, we want to do what is best for the fish."