FWC considers seatrout, flounder and other species for regulatory review.

Rusty Layland with a big seatrout that took his topwater in Jacksonville waters.

Seatrout Forever

Over the summer the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held workshops statewide to gather information about people’s opinions of their seatrout fishing and to answer questions about methods and results of the 2017 FWC stock assessment of local seatrout populations. The responses they garnered from the numerous workshops were documented and presented to the FWC, with an eye toward possibly making changes to regulations for seatrout.

In all four Florida zones, seatrout populations are in good shape, according to the FWC’s 2017 assessment. “Good shape” means that populations are exceeding the spawning potential ratio (SPR) target of 35 percent, a measure of the reproductive capacity of the population compared to what it would be if there were no fishing.

Despite the good report, angler concern about seatrout populations has been voiced in local areas across the state. FWC managers have heard suggestions from anglers on how to protect seatrout populations, including removing the charter captain’s bag limit, eliminating the legal possession of one over-slot-size fish, or putting a maximum size limit on that one over-slot fish. Many anglers’ concerns about protecting larger seatrout stem from the biological knowledge that the largest fish are females, and though they may have the same amount of eggs as females of a smaller size, their eggs are of higher quality, resulting in better reproduction rates.

The essential question that FWC managers will consider will be to what degree anglers want to catch more legal-size seatrout and to what degree they prefer a fishery that can produce the largest specimens of the species, commonly known as trophy fish. This management balance also governs the regulations for snook, which is widely seen as a successfully managed species in Florida, producing both fish to keep and fish to brag about.

The Trouble with Sheepshead

Sheepshead are far, far from a glamour fish like bonefish, and are even considered far less of a sporty catch than seatrout, though they’ll hit flies and jigs when presented properly. Still, they’re much better known as a worthy catch than they were 30 years ago, and for many people around the state they’re a reliable species to target when other fish are put off by cold or rough weather. In fact, they’ve become a staple, kind of like potatoes.

The current stock assessment, which came in a few months ago, found the species to be in good shape throughout the entire coast of Florida and exceeding the goal of 30 percent SPR.

However, along with a greater familiarity with the species, knowledge of their winter/spring spawning habits has also grown. The trouble is, sheepshead gather at known, accessible locations to spawn, which makes them very easy to target. The bag limit of 15 fish has been called excessive by many recreational anglers, especially considering the minimal yield from a just-legal fish of 12 inches. Florida Sportsman Field Editor Tommy Thompson, of the Big Bend Region, sums up the views of many conservation-minded recreational anglers when he says, “The 15 fish per angler bag limit is ridiculous. That means a ‘guide’ with a 6-angler license can kill 90 fish. I’m not sure what the official fish stock numbers are for the species, but local talk on the Big Bend is, ‘It ain’t what it used to be.’ It seems they’re getting smaller every year.”

Draft changes to sheepshead have been discussed by the FWC and will be brought before a future commission meeting.

The Tripletail Mystery

Draft changes to tripletail have also been discussed by FWC officials and, like sheepshead, will also come before a future FWC meeting. “There is still a lot not known about their biology, life history, and we need more catch data,” said the FWC’s Amanda Nalley. There is no current stock assessment available.

The mystery really isn’t one. Tripletail fishing has become a lot more popular in the last decade. From a total recreational catch averaging about 50,000 pounds in the early part of this decade, it’s up to close to 200,000 pounds in the middle of the decade. The fish averages 15 inches in its first year (the legal minimum), and only about 50 percent of them are mature at 18 to 19 inches total length. You can connect the dots on this one.

Cobia

Heard much about the spring cobia run in the Panhandle recently? We didn’t think so. For years, stakeholders in the Panhandle have requested management changes to protect cobia. Draft rule changes were to be brought before the FWC at their September meeting for a final public hearing. The changes were based on stakeholder commentary, species biology and an effort to continue sustainable management of cobia fishing in the Gulf. These proposed measures may include increasing the minimum size in Gulf state waters from 33 to 38 inches fork length, reducing the commercial trip limit in Gulf state waters from two to one fish per person and reducing the recreational and commercial vessel limit in Gulf state waters from six to two per vessel per day. FWC staff did not recommend any changes for cobia in state Atlantic waters.

However, recreational fishing for cobia in federal Atlantic waters north of the Florida/Georgia line to New York has been closed since late January.

Goliath Grouper

Why we love Florida: Will there be a season for keeping goliath grouper? Will it be run by a permit or a lottery system? Will there be a slot size for the rotund grouper that can weigh 600 pounds or more? What do you do with 400 pounds of grouper fillet? Will divers and anglers get into fights at wrecks during such a season?

Public meetings on what should happen with goliath grouper fishing were ongoing this summer and will continue this month. They start at 5 p.m. sharp:

Oct. 9: Jacksonville, Pablo Creek Regional Library, 13295 Beach Blvd.
Oct. 10: Titusville, American Police Hall of Fame & Museum, 6350 Horizon Drive.
Oct. 11: Stuart, Flagler Place, 201 SW Flagler Ave.
Oct. 12: Davie, Old Davie School Historical Museum, 6650 Griffin Road.
Oct. 16: Pinellas Park, Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure, 9501 U.S. Highway 19 N.
Oct. 17: Port Charlotte, The Cultural Center of Charlotte County, 2280 Aaron St.
Oct. 18: Naples, Collier County Public Library – South Regional, 8065 Lely Cultural Parkway

If you cannot attend an in-person meeting, you can submit comments online by visiting MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments.

What Do You Think?

We took an unscientific poll of the Florida Sportsman audience on social media and asked what readers thought were changes that should be made to sheepshead, tripletail, flounder and seatrout and goliath fishing in Florida. The response was strong, with more than 1,000 responses in one day, which makes it clear how passionate anglers are about their resources. Of all the responses, the two most common and supported suggestions were for an increase in the minimum size limit for flounder and an opening of some sort of limited season for goliath grouper.

There were a few outlier responses to the effect that it doesn’t matter what people say, because the government will do what it wants regardless of popular opinion. The pervasive nature of this concern, whether you believe it is true or not, is probably the single most important issue in fisheries management today. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine October 2017

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