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Fillet 'em at home, plan requires

Soon, it could be illegal to clean fish on boats, piers, jetties or bridges. The reason? Enforcement of fishing regulations.

Lifelong fisherman Gonzalo Rodriguez has a warning for the angler who waits to get home to clean his stinky catch.

"Your wife," he said, "will raise holy hell."

Soon, Florida fishermen may not have a choice.

A proposal by the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to clean almost any fish on boats, piers, jetties or bridges. An angler could remove the innards and gills, but nothing more.

No chopping off the head or tail. No scaling. And definitely no filleting.

"Yes, there are going to be people that are inconvenienced. If there are cleaning tables out on a pier, that is not something they would be able to use," said Maj. Bruce Buckson of the commission's marine enforcement bureau.

The proposed restrictions were not designed to create headaches for honest anglers, though they could do just that. They're aimed at dishonest ones who try to skirt other rules limiting the type, size and amount of fish they reel in.

One example: the angler who knowingly catches an undersize cobia and fillets it before a marine officer can arrive with his measuring tape.

Or the angler who snags an off-limits fish, cuts it up and passes it off as a legal species.

"Once you have a fillet, it's hard to say what it is," said Julie Morris of Sarasota, chairwoman of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Many anglers may not know it, but state law already applies the proposed restrictions to 13 popular, protected fish, including grouper, king and Spanish mackerel, pompano and snook.

By expanding the restrictions to all fish (except mullet and sharks, which have their own rules), marine officers will be better able to enforce the regulations that govern those vulnerable species, the argument goes.

"It's about consistency," Buckson said. "Ultimately, it goes back to trying to protect the species and making sure there are good numbers of fish."

Charter boat operators and commercial fishermen aren't too worried about the proposal. Charter captains could keep cleaning fish at the marinas where they dock. Commercial fishermen usually leave the job to fish houses and processing plants, said Jerry Sansom, executive director of Organized Fishermen of Florida, a statewide commercial fishing association.

"It's a pretty good conservation measure," Sansom said about the proposal.

It's the angler like Rodriguez, 69, who is more likely to feel the effects.

Rodriguez spent Friday morning fishing off one of two public piers at Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County. Like most of his fellow anglers, he washed his catch at the cleaning station, a sink with a faucet and a cutting board, and sliced off the heads and tails.

Because he happened to be slicing through a Spanish mackerel _ one of the 13 species currently off-limits to a fillet knife on a boat or pier _ Rodriguez was already violating state law. The proposed rule would make it a crime to do the same to any fish.

Mackerel, Rodriguez said, are especially nasty to clean.

"They're bloody as hell," he said.

Wayne Clore, 57, fishes from the Fort De Soto piers three or four times a week. Clore said he could see applying the proposed rule to anglers on boats, but not to people fishing on a pier.

"They have the opportunity to check us as we come in," he said.

If caught by marine officers, violators of the current anti-filleting rules or the new proposal could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor. That's the same charge issued for soliciting a prostitute or failing to make your child attend school. Violations are punishable by up to 60 days in county jail and fines of up to $500, Buckson said.

The nine-member Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, appointed by the governor, is scheduled to consider the expanded rule at a public hearing May 25 in Pensacola.

Morris, the commission chairwoman, wasn't sure how she would vote. She said Friday that she needed to learn more from marine officers and anglers about how the new rules would affect both groups.

The proposed rule

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering new restrictions on what anglers can do with their catches. The proposed rule, to be considered at the commission's meeting Thursday in Pensacola, is as follows:

"All finfish shall be landed in a whole condition. The possession while in or on state waters, on any public or private fishing pier, on a bridge or catwalk attached to a bridge from which fishing is allowed, or on any jetty, of a finfish that has been deheaded, sliced, divided, filleted, ground, skinned, scaled, or deboned is prohibited. Mere evisceration or "gutting' of a finfish or mere removal of gills before landing is not prohibited."

To comment on the rule: write to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 620 S Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600. Or call (850) 488-4676. The commission's Web site is http://www.state.fl.us/fwc/index.html.

The commission is scheduled to hear public comment on the proposal at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Holiday Inn, 7200 Plantation Road, Pensacola.

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