Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Meeting hopes to settle tarpon dispute

State officials will hold a public hearing Monday in St. Petersburg to unveil new tarpon rules — primarily because the fishermen of Boca Grande just can't seem to get along.

For a generation, the charter boat captains who work "The Pass" each May through July have been at each other's throats.

On one side, you have the traditionalists, the homegrown guides who fish with live bait the way their forefathers have since the early 1900s. These local guides have powerful allies: the affluent residents of Gasparilla Island who own some of the most expensive plots of real estate in Florida.

On the other side are the out-of-towners, traveling guides who overrun this old fishing village when the bite begins.

There also are the tournament anglers, most of them blue-collar weekend warriors who use artificial lures to fish in the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, a $500,000 catch-and-release competition that takes over weekends during peak tarpon season.

The locals and their politically connected allies who own land in Boca Grande want the PTTS to simply go away. The tournament anglers, a large majority of who live in the greater bay area, say they have the same rights as the locals to fish the pass that links Charlotte Harbor with the Gulf of Mexico.

Biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are caught in the middle. They are usually tasked with developing regulations designed to protect species from overfishing, not mediating disputes.

When a stock gets in trouble, such as the snook after several recent freezes, the FWC is supposed to step in and take action.

But this is not the case for tarpon. According to FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley, they are not in "biological jeopardy." And state records show that thanks to the tarpon tag program, only six fish were killed statewide in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

So if tarpon are not in danger, why should we spend countless hours and dollars to change regulations? And why does the FWC plan to move ahead with new rules that will make the tarpon fishery catch-and-release only even though for all practical purposes, it already is?

Because in the rules, there will be "special allowances" for "temporary possession." Among the examples cited, "photography purposes, measuring and scientific sampling." The rule also will allow an angler to buy a tag to kill a tarpon in pursuit of a world record.

But the new rule leaves a question unanswered: Can anglers, such as those in the PTTS, still tow their catch to a floating scale, weigh it then release it?

According to Nalley, the issue of floating scales is still being discussed.

"No decision has been made as to whether or not to include it in the proposal," she wrote in response to written questions.

State officials need to decide this issue soon. The charter boat captains who target tarpon, the tournament anglers getting ready for this year's season and the land owners who care about their investments deserve an answer.


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