May 14, 2021
Ground-breaking survey by state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reveals support for ending two-year regional closure.
"Florida Shuts Down the Big Three of Inshore Fishing on SW Coast / Snook are no longer on the menu starting May 11, 2019"
The above headline from the Fishing Wire was included to provide a little context for this column. A little more than two years ago, Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) made a pre-emptive strike on restoration of inshore fish on the state's southwest coast devastated by red tide and the harmful algae blooms as a result of Lake Okeechobee discharges. In areas affected by the extensive fish kills, documented between November 2017 and February 2019, the commission subsequently shut down all harvest of the Big Three of Florida fishing: snook, redfish and spotted seatrout.
The closure, which began May 11, 2019, was scheduled to last one year, until May 31, 2020, but 12 months ago was extended by executive order for another year. The Big Three have remained catch-and-release ever since. The closure for red drum, snook and spotted seatrout extended from the Pasco-Hernando county line south (including all waters of Tampa Bay) through Gordon Pass in Collier County.
Abig topic of conversation around docks, forums and the Florida Sportsman office this spring: What are your thoughts regarding the Big Three? Continue the closure for all harvest? Or open the fishery to full or limited harvest?
The FWC wants to know. Really. And they've made a significant effort to find out how you, the recreational angler, want to proceed. According to Amanda Nalley, public information specialist for the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries, the commission is taking your input very seriously.
“We've held three virtual workshops, have kept our website open for comment and just closed, April 18, one of our most participated surveys we've ever done,” said Nalley. “Both science and stakeholder input play an important role in how we manage our fisheries. We listen to our anglers, they're the front line. Anglers know before our researchers in a lot of cases.”
Well, over 10,000 of you, the anglers, are officially now on record.
Florida Sportsman's own position, over the years, has been that if the science supports a limited harvest, we've always supported a limited harvest. But speaking with industry leaders and many anglers in recent months, our staff has sensed a bit of a change in tides: Many of those we contacted seemed uncomfortable with re-opening snook, redfish and trout for harvest, even if stock assessments showed they could handle it.
Several common threads kept emerging, supporting extending the ban on any harvest of the big three. One consistent comment was since COVID, there are too many anglers. Another was the increase of anglers using live bait. Another was the highly publicized Piney Point discharge of nutrient-laden wastewater into Tampa Bay, and the looming threat of another bad water-year due to toxic algae blooms and red tide.
“We are in favor of the extension (keeping the fishery catch and release), and we would also like to see it taken from the middle of Collier County down and into Monroe County,” said Trip Aukeman, with Coastal Conservation Association Florida. “We've seen a substantial increase in the number of fishermen headed that way.”
From a tackle manufacturer on Florida's Gulf Coast: “We may sell more lures opening the fishery to harvest, but I'd like to see snook and reds remained closed,” said Eric Bachnik, president of MirrOlure. “We've had a little comeback but not like years ago.”
Another manufacturer who feels similarly, Clark Lee Jr., of Marine Metal Products, which builds a live bait aerator bubbler, said he'd also like to see the region remain closed. “Our business was up 47 percent in 2020. The Big Three are too valuable swimming, there are other fish to eat,” he said.
Ashley Little, tackle manager at Economy Tackle in Sarasota, agreed with the closure extension, saying, “We focus a lot more on catch-and-release, and the locals want to keep it closed. Sales have been insane, we're setting records every month.”
Comments like these seemed to suggest a preponderance of Florida anglers would be lining up to urge FWC to keep snook, redfish and trout catch and release only.
But that's not what happened.
OVER 10,000 WEIGHED IN
Who, exactly, commented on the FWC survey? Ninety five percent of the respondents were recreational anglers, 50 percent were from the Tampa Bay area, 34 percent from the Charlotte Harbor and south area. Forty five percent indicated they had fished for more than 11 years, and 44.5 percent said they target these fish at least once or twice a week. They fish a lot.
The survey by FWC showed that anglers somewhat oppose or strongly oppose continuing the closure (55% vs. 32%). Equally, a much higher percentage strongly support or somewhat support opening harvest versus extending the closure (50% vs. 35%). Basically saying the same thing two different ways.
Fifty four percent of the respondents opposed an option of opening trout only while maintaining catch and release for snook and reds. Nearly half (48.5% vs. 35%) supported the idea of opening up trout to current FWC rules while limiting snook and reds to one fish per vessel, for each species.
Some other interesting snapshots of how inshore anglers in west/southwest Florida feel were revealed. Catching a limit of any of the big three was pretty unimportant (less than 10%, for redfish or trout, with snook at 4%). But, catching lots of fish in general was the most important (25%). Size matters for some, with (20%) preferring to catch large fish, but almost as many just like being on the water (15%).
Very seldom do you get a sampling of anglers this large, and based on FWC's apparent inclination to take the testimony of anglers on the water to heart, I expect FWC, at the May 12-13 meeting, will allow the executive order to expire, thereby re-opening the Big Three to a limited harvest.
Florida Sportsman will provide updates on our website and via our social media channels.
Now, we just need to get the state and federal governments to manage our waters like they care about our fisheries, our environment, our economy and our way of life. FS
Published Florida Sportsman Magazine June 2021