shark bait

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A kingfish head is a great shark bait — but it’s also an illegal one. Many fishermen break the law without ever realizing it.

I was watching a TV fishing show yesterday afternoon. The format was typical of many of these shows: A celebrity host was taken fishing by a charter captain, who probably did not get paid for the trip but who was willing to provide the trip in the hopes that the attendant publicity would result in charter bookings, or perhaps because he liked the idea of seeing himself on TV.

This particular show caught my attention because it was filmed out of Sarasota, which is practically in our backyard. The guys headed offshore to an artificial reef which the captain said was in 67 feet of water. He was hoping they’d catch some permit. Unfortunately, permit did not eat any of their freelined crabs, at least not in the portion of the show that I watched, so after a while they put their permit rigs in rod holders and dropped some baited rigs to the bottom to catch live bait for use later in the trip.

First fish up was a mangrove snapper, which they announced was too small to eat but which they were keeping for live bait. Next was a lane snapper, which met the same fate. And they caught a bonita and some other bottom fish. That’s where I lost interest and went channel surfing.

But here’s the thing: In federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s illegal to use reef fish or parts of reef fish for bait. And the captain said they were in 67 feet of water off the coast of Sarasota — an area in which federal waters begins at a depth of 50 feet, more or less — so it would appear that he was breaking federal law. Obviously he didn’t realize it, or he wouldn’t have said and done the things he did in front of a camera.

Recently I was browsing online and came across a discussion about the effectiveness of using chunks of Spanish mackerel for tarpon bait. Various Southwest Florida anglers chimed in with opinions. Some agreed that pieces of Spanish mackerel are good tarpon bait, while others posited that ladyfish or mullet or catfish made better chunkbaits. At least a dozen anglers took part in the discussion (and it’s probably still going on, so there may be many more by now).

But no one mentioned that in Florida waters Spanish mackerel are on the list of fish species which must be landed in whole condition. It is illegal to possess cut-up Spanish mackerel, because it’s difficult or impossible for law enforcement to determine whether the fish met their minimum size limit. You can use Spanish mackerel for bait, but they must be in whole condition and must be counted against your daily bag limit. It would appear from the discussion that none of the anglers were aware of (or perhaps none cared about) this regulation.

I believe that there were anglers who had long waited for the May 1 opening of amberjack season who did head out on opening morning, unaware that the season had been recently canceled by the Gulf Council. And it’s also likely that some fishermen did not get the word that, with only a few days notice, trout became catch-and-release only in Southwest Florida as of May 11.

The common thread among all these incidents is that it’s pretty easy to unknowingly violate fish laws. These laws change frequently, and they are crafted by several different government agencies. The FWC makes most of the fish laws for state waters and the Gulf Council makes most of the laws for Gulf federal waters, but there are plenty of exceptions.

For example, the Gulf Council does not create laws for most sharks in the Gulf. Sharks and other so-called highly migratory species are managed directly by NOAA Fisheries. And the FWC does not create all state fishing regulations. An example of this is the prohibition against fishing with castnets in canals in the City of Punta Gorda. That rule was created by the state legislature.

I think we really need a source for fishing regulations. One single source where any angler can go to get an always-current, always-accurate listing of all the fishing regulations for his location. And it should include a system where anglers should be able to subscribe to receive alerts whenever something changes.

The Gulf Council and the FWC do have systems similar to this, but there is no single repository (at least not one that I’ve ever seen) for all the regulations. I doubt that there are many private entities which would accept the responsibility and liability associated with such a comprehensive system, so it would probably have to be done by a government agency.

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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