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Recreational anglers land an inside guy

It has been a rough year for Florida's sportsmen. Anglers were, and still are, up in arms as federal officials push for more restrictions on the recreational grouper catch.

Not since the 1994 constitutional amendment to ban gill nets from inshore waters has an issue so unified Florida's angling community.

What will the New Year hold in terms of fisheries management? Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is for sure. The recreational angling community will have a strong ally in Tallahassee.

Charlie Crist, the Florida Conservation Association's legislator of the year in 1996, is headed to the Governor's Mansion.

Before I go any further, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have fished and boated with Crist numerous times over the past 17 years. On those many outings, we have discussed a long list of marine related topics, covering everything from the mullet roe season to the commercial grouper longline fishery.

I remember one particular trip in September 1993, when we targeted spotted sea trout. At the end of the day, Crist lamented the fact that we had only three fish between us to show for four hours on the water.

"I remember when I was a kid you could go off the St. Petersburg Pier and fill an ice chest full of mackerel," Crist said at the time. "But over the years the resource has been depleted to the point that now something has to be done."

Crist likes to call himself a "Reagan Republican," but in reality, I think the 50-year-old has more in common with another great president, Theodore Roosevelt. Crist carried a copy of Roosevelt's The Strenuous Life with him on the campaign trail, and he will be the first to admit that he admires the Rough Rider's conservation ethic.

"It is like buffalo hunting," the freshman state senator explained on that fishing trip. "We could just sit back and watch until the resource and the industry eventually disappears."

Instead of just talking, Crist did something. In the fall of 1993, the Save Our Sealife (S.O.S.) campaign was beginning to gather momentum. As activists gathered signatures, Crist drafted his own bill to ban gill and entangling nets from Florida waters. His fellow legislators failed to support his efforts, but his actions did not go unnoticed. The FCA and the Florida Wildlife Federation both named him legislator of the year.

More than a decade later, Crist (now Florida Attorney General) and I talked again about mullet. The night was exceptionally cold, and Crist had tagged along with members of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office on an anti-poaching patrol.

The sheriff's deputies and their counterparts with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had made several high-profile busts in recent months, but the poachers - lured by the prospect of making thousands of dollars in a night netting mullet fat with roe - still operated with impunity.

"You know from 1911 to 1957 it was illegal to buy or sell mullet roe," Crist told me. "One way to stop the poaching would be shut down fishing during the roe season."

Such a move would surely be controversial. The fish houses would undoubtedly fight any measure that would take mullet roe off the market. Crist would take some shots in the media, especially in the Panhandle, where a Wakulla County judge once refused to fine two men who had violated the roe ban on the grounds that since mullet have gizzards, they must be birds.

Recently, Crist and I have talked at length about the grouper fishery. His office of Attorney General recently subpoenaed records from more than a dozen Tampa Bay area restaurants as part of an ongoing investigation into bogus grouper.

But Crist, who likes to fish both inshore and offshore, knows the problem goes much deeper than fake fish sandwiches.

"I think we need to take a good, hard look at the entire grouper industry," he said. "If longlines are as destructive as many recreational anglers believe, then I think they should be banned."

Such talk will surely get the commercial interests riled. But Crist, like the original Bull Moose, doesn't pull punches when it comes to the great outdoors.

As Florida's new governor, he will have his share of battles to fight in coming years. The state's commercial fishing lobby is powerful and firmly entrenched.

But Crist has allies - a few million recreational fishermen. The net ban amendment proved that recreational anglers, when united, can be a formidable force. The tide could be about to turn.

Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808 or tomalin@sptimes.com.

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