Thursday, April 19, 2018
Outdoors

Protesters target Boca Grande tarpon tournament

BOCA GRANDE — Anglers fishing the opening day of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series on Sunday will have the usual challenge of trying to keep their catches away from hammerhead and bull sharks.

But this year, they'll have an added challenge: dodging on-the-water protesters.

Save the Tarpon, a nonprofit group founded by a Boca Grande-area fishing guide and his wife, wants to put the tour and its popular fishing show out of business.

"To all charter boat captains, be there or your (sic) fired!" reads Save the Tarpon's call to action on savethetarpon.com. "We strongly oppose, and call for the immediate termination of, the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series."

The PTTS (pttstv.com), meanwhile, has filed suit in Sarasota County seeking an injunction against Save the Tarpon and several of its officers, including the executive director of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, which incidentally plans to hold its own tournament a few days later.

Adding to the drama is an ongoing debate within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission over the legal status of tarpon and the tackle favored by anglers who fish the big-money tournaments.

Few would disagree that this narrow pass at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor is the world's most famous tarpon fishing spot. From May through June, hundreds of out-of-town guides descend on this fishing village to run charters and participate in the freewheeling tournaments.

The seasonal guides, many of whom make up to 80 percent of their yearly income in an 8-10 week period during peak tarpon season, tend to fish from small boats with artificial lures, while their competitors, mostly the local guides, fish with live bait and heavy tackle from boats that haven't changed much in 50 years.

The locals claim the out-of-towners snag fish and chase the large schools out of the pass with their aggressive tactics, ruining the season for everybody. The out-of-towners say the locals are just jealous because they're being "outfished."

"It is a simple user conflict," said Dave Markett, a Tampa guide who has been fishing Boca Grand every spring for more than 25 years. "You have one group of people that is trying to stop another group of people from using a public resource in a public place. They don't want the competition."

Tom McLaughlin, the Englewood-based fishing guide who started Save the Tarpon, agreed with Markett.

"It is a turf war," he said. "They have developed a pack mentality, a very aggressive style of fishing that has driven everybody else out of the pass."

Kevin Hyde, a local realtor who serves on the boards of both the chamber of commerce and Save the Tarpon, summed up the situation. "It's a zoo," he said.

"They have hijacked the pass," Hyde added. "Go out there during a tournament and it looks like bumper boats. Nobody can fish out there."

Hyde said he joined Save the Tarpon after visiting last year's Fort Lauderdale Boat Show, where the chamber set up a booth hoping to promote its two-day tournament, once one of the richest in the state.

"We tried to give away free fishing charters, but nobody wanted them," Hyde said. "They said, 'No way am I going down there to fish. … It's a mess.' "

Boca Grande started off as a phosphate port, but once the locals discovered they could make a living off the tarpon fishery, the economy turned to tourism. There's only one road in and out, across a locally controlled toll bridge.

There's no mayor or city council as the town straddles two counties: Lee and Charlotte. The population is small: 1,324 in 2010 and predominantly white (92 percent). The median age is 67 years old and more than 64 percent of the population is not in the labor force.

Lew Hastings, executive director of both the chamber of commerce and Save the Tarpon, said the PTTS has hurt business. "People think we are a circus," he said. "People no longer want to come here."

In addition to Sunday's protest, Save the Tarpon also has launched an aggressive boycott of more than 50 businesses, some with tenuous ties to the PTTS. Name brands such as Hooters, Verizon Wireless and the Miller Brewing Co., as well as a chiropractor in Cape Coral, a video arcade in North Port and a family owned roofing company in Tampa, all have been targeted by Save the Tarpon supporters.

McLaughlin said his organization has more than 6,000 members who have contributed approximately $30,000 combined to the Save the Tarpon cause.

Joe Mercurio, one of the co-founders of the $500,000 PTTS, which runs six events over a five-week period each May and June, said the issue is not tarpon but money.

"Our tournament competes with the local tournament," he said. "Get rid of us and you get rid of the competition."

Hastings, meanwhile, said Save the Tarpon and the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce are not trying to chase anybody off.

"Everyone is welcome to come down and enjoy this resource," he said. "Just enjoy it responsibly."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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