On The Hook: Managing the harvest

BILL WALSH

This week's article will be more of a vent than a story, although the issue at hand came about from inquiries raised by customers on a recent trip.

So, let's start there. A nice couple from the East Coast of Florida, that loved to fish but have a problem with the rough ocean waters of the Atlantic, sneak over here to the West Coast of Florida and enjoy fishing the placid backwaters, nice and calm.

Late last year they made a trip to an area just north of us and had an unusual charter experience. Upon arrival and introductions, the captain informed them that they would only be able to take a limited number of fish and he had rules as to what size would be considered keepers. They were both surprised at the injected rules further restricting the fish harvest over those promulgated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Here they were over a hundred miles from home, so they went with the rule constrictions – but not without discussion as to the causal issues. According to the customers, the captain went on at length, with great vehemence, as to the depletion of the various fishing stocks and the only way to reverse the decline was to voluntarily increase the size limits of the harvestable fish along with the number that could be harvested.

With that as a backdrop, we start out on our trip and one of the first questions from these two nice folks was "Captain, will you let us keep a few fish for dinner today?"

I put the boat in neutral. I told the couple that although their prior captain was well intentioned towards maintaining fish stock levels, he had little authority to limit them beyond the harvestable sizes and species limits as imposed by the state. They were paying big bucks for a charter trip to catch and keep what the law allowed, not some diminished standard imposed by a well intentioned but misguided captain.

They could keep fish, today, that met state requirements. Period.

We went on and during a hiatus in fishing action on the tide turn, these well meaning people, obviously impacted by the prior captain's crusade to save the fish stocks asked the question that sets the stage for this soliloquy, "Captain, what would you do to save the fish stocks?"

We all sat down and I told them they asked for this.

First put two issues together –size limits and release mortality. The state and the Feds have size limits on everything. Some are minimum sizes and some are slot sizes (i.e. the harvestable fish must be in a size range; too small or too big they go back).

So the angler, works catching many of the targeted species, to try and catch a "legal fish." Many of the targeted species are caught and worked to the boat with exhaustion with many either deep hooked or mishandled (like the photos you see of folks holding fish out of the water) and then released to their ultimate fate.

Tough to know the ultimate fate of the fish you toss back as too small or too large. Studies of the issue have estimated that somewhere in the 10-20 percent range of fish released are categorized as release kill.

So, let's follow the logic – the tighter government makes the harvest restrictions the more fish are killed anyway by way of release kill.

Let's do something different. How about if we allowed anglers to take one or two fish in a minimum size range and that's it. For example allow one keeper red grouper and one keeper gag grouper per day of a reasonable 18 inches. No four of this or two of that.

I think folks would fish for grouper; get their "limit" rather quickly and move on to another target species. There would be a greatly reduced number of catch and release and resultant immense reduction in catch mortality.

And what if you did the same for all protected species? Take home would be a reduced number of maybe smaller fish but the incessant quest to catch unrealistic keeper size would be totally mitigated along with release kill.

And while we're at it two other issues …

No one needs 15 of any species on any day. Spanish mackerel and sheepshead come to mind. You can reduce the bag limits on almost all species to two or three on small fish and one or two on medium size fish. There is enough there for a nice meal and will draw the angler back to the water again for their next fish instead of to the freezer for frostbitten filets.

My two anglers were now speechless and off kilter, but I told them, I was almost finished; just one more point: Fishing closures for brief periods don't work.

For example, when the state and Feds announced the closure for grouper in February and March, the number of boats going deep for grouper here tripled. All were going deep to get their share of what was closing. Those normally fishing kings or permit that time of year were totally focused on what would not be theirs in a few weeks. The catch of red grouper was phenomenal with limit catches all around. That's all that was focused on.

Same thing when the closure was completed, only more so. Boats came from everywhere and on those first days it looked like D-day with boats heading offshore for their four grouper per person. Some boats were filleting out 24 big grouper for their six anglers – close to a hundred pounds of filets and getting ready to do it again tomorrow. Does that sound like recreational angling?

So, to recap; reduce the size limits and allow a catch of one or two per species; reduce the current bag limits for all species to a sub five number and knock off the short fishing closures.

My customers, by now, were surely sorry they asked the question as to what would I do, but they said again and again that it made sense.

Think the state and the Fed's are listening?

Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to dawnpatrolcharters@compuserve.com.

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 3

Comingtonaples writes:

You have a lot of good points that I would support. Nobody needs more than two, or three nights of fish per family. My wife and I love fresh fish and don't eat any we don't catch and take care of ourselves. That means bleeding and keeping them in ice for at least 24 hours. Then we vacuum pack the two extra nights catch which are usually eaten within the next seven days. For the two of us, it takes about seven fair sized fish. By-the-way, if that is all we are after, we quit when we have our "limit".

mwk208 writes:

I agree that the rules are far too complicated and the closed grouper season does not help. However, reducing the minimum sizes and bag limits has some negative consequences. Let's say, as you suggested, the minimum size for grouper is 18 inches with a bag limit of 1. An angler may catch an 18-inch grouper and put it on ice and may or may not move on to another species. Later, they may catch a 20-inch grouper and put it on ice and throw back the dead 18-inch grouper. They may catch an even larger grouper at 27 inches, throw back the dead 20-inch grouper and keep the larger one. This already happens today but reducing the size limit will greatly increase the frequency of this practice, possibly resulting in more dead fish.

citizen writes:

You are over estimating release kill. If you catch a fish and handle it correctly it has a good chance to survive. i.e. keep it in the water do not hang it from the lower jaw. NDN needs to stop publishing photos of people mishandling fish. Too many over slot fish being held without supporting the weight.

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