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New year, new rules, new horizons

So here we are in the waning few days of the year.

Whether Y2K happened last year or is about to, it's time for a few outdoor New Year's resolutions.

First, let's understand that resolutions are solutions to circumstances that need positive change. And a number of positive changes have occurred to the management of our natural resources over the last year.

Looking back, we know where we have come from and where we want to go _ more fish and bigger fish.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is the chief steward over the wild and natural resources, and many positive rule changes have occurred.

Though changes often are looked upon unfavorably by those affected, the overwhelming impression I keep receiving is that without strict adherence to positive resolutions, scientists question the ability of Mother Nature to endure in a healthy way.

Thankfully, many anglers agree that tighter rules may be needed to improve recreational and commercial fisheries.

Yes, there are many rules, but they're necessary.

Ask someone from Florida what it was like to fish here 30 years ago and you will hear stories that would make a dead man jealous.

Trout were so large and numerous that in less than an hour you could catch a week's worth. Snook and redfish were everywhere. Mullet schools were so thick you could walk across them.

Grouper were so numerous in the near-shore waters that if you came back to the dock with a paltry 100 pounds, you tried to get back to the dock late so there wouldn't be anyone there to witness your tiny catch.

So what happened?

Among the myriad of environmental issues that exist, reality says that the answer comes down to rapid loss of habitat, dramatically increased fishing pressure combined with intense technological advances.

All these conditions have put the odds in favor of mankind emptying the oceans, or _ in our case _ the gulf. Without sound management, fisheries could collapse _ and it could happen quickly.

Improvements look good in spite of the above mentioned conditions. Fish and wildlife populations are under control and on the mend in many areas. It's doubtful that it can be the way it was, but the work must continue.

Let's look at some of the changes.

Snook rules have changed, though they changed on the last day of 1998 and have had over a year to work. Snook must be 26 inches minimum with a maximum of 34 inches, and a trophy fish over the size limit no longer is allowed. This leaves the best of the breeding population remaining in the water.

At this point, snook have been delisted as a species of special concern. Strict management policies have improved populations enough that they no longer meet the criteria for that designation.

Spotted sea trout, grouper, mullet, even horseshoe crab rules are undergoing change. Some have been simplified and improved.

Since July 1, spotted sea trout rules have been managed in two zones instead of four.

The bag limit in the northern zone beginning at the Pasco/Pinellas border is five fish 15-20 inches per person, with one trophy fish allowed over the slot size. Only four fish per person are allowed in the southern zone.

In the northern zone, February remains the closure month. It's November/December in the southern zone.

Now to one of the real grumbler rules.

Gulf grouper diggers fishing inside a 10-mile mark will have to release black and gag grouper under 22 inches as of Jan. 1. The previous size limit was deemed insufficient to address problems with populations of this popular quarry.

Here's the real kicker in that situation.

The rule change has been in effect outside of the 10-mile mark since June of this past year. Anyone fishing as they would normally _ usually more than 10 miles out _ and keeping grouper 20 inches, has been breaking the law.

With the changes as they are, rule-makers may be settling in for a period of watching and evaluating.

"We're headed in the right direction, but more education is needed," said Lee Schlesinger from the Tallahassee office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

So as we sit on the cusp of a new year and ponder our yesterdays and tomorrows, there is one certainty _ nothing is for certain.

Along that line of thinking, we should remember to do our best to enhance our outdoor experiences. The easiest way is by respecting them.

Rules are necessary and must be adhered to if we are to succeed in our conservation efforts. Besides, who honestly could say they don't want to catch more fish?

If you have a question or comment, call Capt. Mike Scarantino at (352) 683-4868.