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Home-Grown Reds?

Then we’d release them locally to add to the redfish stocks, triggering a resurgence that would produce a permanent fishery beyond our current dreams.

They call it Redstart.

Some might call such an idea a pipe dream.

But Redstart is a pipe dream that quietly became reality a few weeks ago when volunteers and biologists released a large school of near-adult reds into a pond on Sanibel Island.

In just a year, the fish were raised in tanks on Sanibel from tiny fingerlings to 14- to 16-inchers.

Now the fish are alive and well in a pond owned by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Association, where their growth and health will be followed.

“This really shows what volunteers and staffers can accomplish and the program could work everywhere,” said an enthusiastic Bob Wasno, Florida Sea Grant representative who helped spark the Redstart demonstration.

It’s a fascinating prospect, a potential way to move Florida’s slow-motion redfish hatchery program into a higher gear.

The fishing public for the most part loves hatcheries. When done correctly, they do wonders, without doubt. Hatchery fish can jump-start populations after traumatic events, bad year classes and overfishing, as well as provide much better angling. (The Texas redfish bag limit is three, largely because of that state’s huge stockings of 30-plus million fish per year.

Not that stocking should ever substitute for habitat protection. Both habitat concerns and good management, including hatcheries, must have equal standing.

At this point, Florida is putting millions into a new freshwater hatchery and research facility west of Orlando. But on the saltwater side, it’s putting up only nickels and dimes, even though millions in federal funds could be captured.

The state’s Port Manatee coastal fish hatchery is, however, making a noble effort with limited resources, concentrating on “Project Tampa Bay,” in which some 3.5 million reds, mostly small fingerlings, have been released since early 2000.

Some legal-size reds of hatchery origin already have been caught by Tampa Bay anglers. But next there will be long periods of evaluations and report writing. Unfortunately, there is little momentum among current officials for getting a Texas-style program really rolling. That’s a shame.

All of which makes the community Redstart idea especially appealing. In short, fisheries supporters around the state could provide a huge force of volunteers and localized resources for growing out large numbers of reds after first getting the fingerlings from Port Manatee.

White seabass have been grown this way in California to compensate for gill net massacres that wiped out that fishery years ago. Florida has an opportunity to follow suit.

The possibilities are endless.

What’s needed now is for Florida officials, angling clubs, the Coastal Conservation Association and marine-oriented interests to take the ball and run with it, for a Redstart touchdown.