This June the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is slated to reach a decision regarding stricter catch-and-release regulations for tarpon. And as hurricane season descends upon the State of Florida, a new storm’s a brewing.
Under current law Florida anglers can harvest two tarpon apiece if they have the required tags. Under the proposed regulations, which were released recently by the FWC at several public meetings around the state, anglers can only harvest one tarpon—with the required tag—in pursuit of an IGFA world record.
The heart of the conflict centers on the Professional Tarpon Tournament series (PTTS), which visits Boca Grande Pass every summer for a six-week swing. Local residents say the PTTS takes over the town, surrounding waters, and overstays its welcome. Local guides and conservation groups say the outsiders stress the fish with excessive pressure and careless post-catch handling.
“It’s screwed up,” said Tom McLaughlin, spokesperson for Save the Tarpon. “You have a for-profit private business that has dominated a public resource that’s excluded all other fishermen. They’re the only group in Florida fighting the catch-and-release (regulations), so they can continue making money off it.”
PTTS participants say they practice responsible stewardship and generate revenue and attention toward Boca Grande.
“Since our inception we’ve made changes that we believe would positively impact our events and TV show for the betterment of the resource, competitors, and our partners,” PTTS host Joe Mercurio said in an e-mail. “Previous changes include gear restrictions, mandated use of circle hooks, rules to limit fight time and fish handling, the addition of bonus points for collecting DNA samples, safe boat operation requirements, and ethical angling practices.
“We continue to review our rules annually and take steps to improve them with the health of the tarpon and the tarpon fishery at the forefront of those changes.”
The outcome may be decided by the fine print. Traditionally the PTTS has used a gaff-and-drag method to weigh its catch, but said it plans to adopt a length-and-girth measuring system. So far the proposed FWC rules don’t fully address “temporary possession.” Photography and scientific research are the only cited examples. Guidelines for competition and the PTTS have not been defined. It’s an issue that’s been debated in person, print, and cyberspace.
“I’m for the least amount of handling of tarpon as possible,” said longtime Homosassa guide Mike Locklear. “That does not include dragging a fish a few hundred yards to be weighed in, nor holding it up for a photograph. Take the picture of the fish in the water. Really a memory should be good enough.”
For all intents and purposes, proposed FWC guidelines will no longer allow tarpon to be harvested. Still undecided is the issue of landing and handling and how far the FWC will extend its reach.
“That’s where the discussion is going on,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, director of operations for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. “Of course we want people to be able to enjoy their catch and take photos, but research has been done on many, many species shows the more handling time there is—pulling the fish in the boat, all that kind of stuff—the lower the chances of a fish surviving after it’s been released.”
Although the Boca Grande standoff primarily involves parties with local interests, other anglers continue to weigh in.
“I’m aware of it,” said Rick Grassett, a guide based in Sarasota. “Number one, I stay away from Boca Grande, especially when it’s tarpon fishing time. We’ve got excellent tarpon fishing in Sarasota. It’s kind of a never-ending battle. It started with jiggers versus live baiters. Now it’s evolved into this. To me, fishing shouldn’t be all about drama. I stay uninvolved and out of it.”
Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.