March 22, 2012
Written by Bob Wattendorf, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
From Florida FishBusters' Bulletin, April 2012
Jack Dequine's (1917-2011) 94 years of life reflects dramatically on the history of fisheries science in North America and especially in Florida. In 1985, I wrote a brief history of freshwater fisheries management for a state legislator. It quickly became evident that one of the pre-eminent names in that history would be Jack Dequine.
Almost from the moment of Ponce de Leon's landing on a Floridabeach in 1513, the recognition of the tremendous diversity and value of Florida's fisheries resources, and their exploitation, began. For several hundred years, Spanish and British colonists relied upon these abundant natural resources for survival. In 1845, Floridabecame the 27th state and, within 10 years, had its first freshwater fishing regulation, which prohibited use of haul seines. However, it wasn't until after the Civil War in 1875 that hunting licenses were required; those funds were used to begin a conservation movement.
In 1879, the state passed an act to protect food fishes and regulate fisheries, and counties were authorized to hire fish bailiffs. In 1889, a short-lived Florida Fish Commission was created, replaced in 1913 by a State Department of Game and Fish. However, two years later, the state relinquished central authority to the counties. In 1917, the Legislature reversed that decision and vested ownership of game, birds and fish with the state, as it remains today.
The next step in the evolution of a bona fide statewide science-based fisheries conservation effort was again short-lived. The new Department of Game and Fresh Water Fish appeared in 1925.Floridawas the 46th state to establish such a department.
Gov. John W. Martin pointed out that fish were “one of the state's most valuable commercial assets, as well as one of her greatest tourist attractions. Our fresh and salt water fish should be conserved and the supply increased by the employment of scientific methods of propagation,” he said.
Although the state did not hire any trained biologists, it did create the first statewideFloridafishing licenses, which sold for $2 (equivalent to $26 in 2012) for out-of-county residents and $5 for out-of-state visitors. County residents didn't need a license. Based on public opinion and what seemed like common sense, several rules were imposed. The state established a minimum 12-inch bass size and 12-bass creel limit, with a March 15 to May 15 closed season, and utilized spawning refuges and fingerling bass stocking.
The Great Depression challenged the will of the people to conserve resources. For instance, bass harvest restrictions applied to recreational anglers but not to commercial fishermen. In 1929, all of the agency field staff (200 employees) were laid off. By 1931, commercial fishermen harvested 3.4 million pounds of bass, reducing the landings by approximately 50 percent. Conflicts between recreational and commercial anglers began to escalate and in two years the agency dissolved.
Another transient, politically driven approach, the state Board of Conservation took over in 1933, made up of the governor and Cabinet. One deposed commissioner decried the move, saying that “the sportsmen's interest has been bartered for personal or political gain.” The Legislature continued to pass local laws pertaining to fish and wildlife with no scientific oversight. In 1935, the federal government stepped in and passed the Black Bass Act, which prohibited sale or commercial taking of black bass.
Sportsmen complained about complicated local laws governing taking of fish and wildlife and organized the Florida Wildlife Federation. The FWF sought a modern conservation program to include restoration, management, harvest and wise use of natural resources. Meanwhile, the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program passed Congress in 1937, creating an excise tax on hunting equipment, handguns and ammunition. The tax revenue is returned to the states for conservation. This hallmark program, which now includes a Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration component, is celebrating its 75th anniversary along with adoption of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Both are tributes to American sportsmen's resolve to ensure fish and wildlife are held as a public trust and scientifically managed by the states for sustainable use.
Florida, without a strong game commission, was unable to accept federal funds from 1937 until 1941. In 1941, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment (efforts in 1937 and 1939 failed) to establish a Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC), which a constitutional referendum approved.
Adopting the new North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, the GFC began hiring trained biologists. Enter Jack Dequine. Dequine graduated from theUniversityofMainein 1940. He quickly became chief of fisheries for the Kentucky Game and Fish Commission but moved toFloridain 1946 as the first professionally trained GFC fishery biologist and later our first fisheries chief. He brought a commitment to the scientific method, as well as a well-tuned empathy for both commercial and recreational anglers.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he strove to resolve conflicts between commercial and recreational fishing interests and to evaluate rules governing freshwater fishes. Research on closed seasons and stocking fingerling bass in established populations led to elimination of closed seasons statewide in fresh water, and realization that dumping fry or fingerling (approximately 1-inch long) bass into lakes where predatory fish abounded was fruitless. Herbicide control for exotic hyacinths commenced to reduce their spread and allow native aquatic plants to thrive.
During Dequine's tenure, the first Youth Conservation Camps were held in Auburndale, and a permanentOcalacampsite opened in 1954. His initiative also led to the first survey ofFloridalakes and streams to catalogue the resource status.
Dequine's philosophy was: “The fisheries biologist must learn from past example that his proposed management practices must be based upon facts and conclusions that have been thoroughly analyzed and critically examined.” Perhaps that is why so many of the resource projects and decisions emerging in his time were so successful, and why we still strive to critically analyze decisions based on the best current data and public input.
In 1952, Dequine became the first President of the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society. The AFS mission is to improve conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting development of fisheries professionals. Dequine was also a prominent figure at nearly every meeting of the Florida Chapter of the AFS from its inception in 1980 to his death. His consistent interest in developing the next generation of professional fisheries biologists led to both the Southern Division and Florida Chapter naming awards after him to continue his legacy.
Dequine left the agency in 1954 and started Southern Fish Culturists Inc., a private fish production and environmental consulting business. As a fish culturist and consultant he continued to be an active resource user and mentor to new fisheries scientists.
In 1998, the public again saw the value of the GFC and North American Model and by constitutional amendment merged the old GFC with aspects of the Marine Fisheries Commission and components of the Department of Environmental Protection. The new agency, created in 1999, is known as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The FWC continues to thrive, providing Floridians with the type of practical, science-driven conservation management to which Dequine dedicated his life.
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