Southwest Florida’s anglers, at least those who enjoy eating the fish they catch, may be feeling shell-shocked this spring as a result of regulatory actions in recent weeks which have resulted in no-harvest status for five popular species. Fishermen are an opinionated bunch who argue with each other about just about everything related to their sport, so it’s not surprising that there have been lively discussions among anglers about the situation.
Offshore anglers are unexpectedly prohibited from harvesting triggerfish and greater amberjack at this time. Unexpectedly, in the sense that the seasons for both these fish would now be open except that the Gulf Council announced closures on them due to overharvest of Gulf-wide landing quotas. And unexpected because offshore anglers often seem less aware of Gulf Council management decisions than of FWC decisions, which affect fisheries in state waters.
For example, the Gulf Council announced the closures of these two fish in a press release on March 20. Opening day of amberjack season was supposed to have been May 1 and it had long been awaited by anglers who were itching for their first chance at harvesting these fish since Halloween (amberjack season closed last Oct. 31).
But there were anglers who were unaware of the amberjack closure in the days before it took effect, and reportedly some anglers who inadvertently broke the law by taking advantage of what they thought was opening day. Opening day for amberjack will now be Aug. 1, when a three-month season will begin.
Amberjack are a major target species for offshore anglers in Southwest Florida, but triggerfish are more of an incidental catch. A delicious and welcome incidental catch, to be sure, but not a major part of the bag of most fishermen in our region. These fish are much more common in the northern Gulf, and anglers up there managed to catch the entire year’s recreational harvest for the Gulf in about two months.
So instead of the expected March-May spring season followed by an August-December fall season, we got to fish them only through May 11. The season will now remain closed until March 1. Angler access to triggerfish has been very limited in recent years.
The situations with amberjack and triggerfish are disappointing and frustrating to many anglers, but the FWC’s recent decision to prohibit all harvest of snook, redfish and trout in local waters has generated far more controversy. After last year’s prolonged red tide event, the FWC closed harvest of snook and redfish from Pasco to Collier counties, a stretch that includes Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.
This was done because of uncertainty about the impact of the red tide on the stocks of these fish. There is no way to quantify the loss of fish in such an event in anything near to a real-time way, and it will probably be another year or so before we really have a handle on the extent of damage done to the stocks of these fish last year. So it surprised many people when the FWC decided earlier this month that it would extend the closure on the harvest of snook and redfish through May 31, 2020 — and also add trout to the closure.
This is where the arguments among fishermen begin. Red tide tends to be patchy. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal. Different areas don’t see the same effects, including some areas where the impact can be drastically different right next door. Anglers who fish in areas that were particularly hard-hit are experiencing poor fishing, while other anglers whose home waters were not severely affected don’t see the problem.
Further, effects vary for different fish species, some of which are more inclined to temporarily move out of areas of red tide than are others. Since it’s impossible for scientists to quickly assess the health of fish stocks in large areas, the FWC is forced to make some of their management decisions without much science, relying instead on reports from fishermen about what they are seeing on the water.
It is very good that the FWC is willing to work this way when decisions must be made quickly. In general, it’s probably good policy for the FWC to err on the side of safety when there is a question about the health of our fisheries. However, it does open the door to a bunch of second-guessing. And fishermen are great second-guessers.
Here’s my own bit of second guessing: I believe that snook did better during the red tide than many people thought. We’ll know by this fall how successful this summer’s snook spawn is, and if it looks good I’d like to see a discussion about a possible re-opening of snook season for next spring.
On the other hand, I believe that redfish are in trouble, and that the trouble goes back for many years prior to last year’s red tide. I think that the current closure on the harvest of redfish, which will have been in effect for more than a year-and-a-half when it concludes on May 31 2020, will be a good experiment in redfish management: If redfish stocks rebound significantly during the closure, I think we will have learned that our redfish problems are related to overharvest. Hopefully, this would spur the FWC to look at tightening their harvest once the season does finally open.
Trout are the tough one of the three species for me to figure. The FWC heard from many, many anglers that trout were hammered by the red tide last year. When they closed snook and redfish there were a bunch of people questioning why trout were not included at that time. Still it was somewhat surprising when trout were added to the closure more than half a year after the fact.
I have no science to back me up, and I have no first-hand experience fishing for trout in some of the harder-hit areas post red-tide. But my seat-of-the-pants feeling is that a year-long closure on trout for the entire Southwest Florida region is a little much.
I would have liked to see it remain open with a reduced bag limit, perhaps as low as one fish per person, with a slight change in the slot limit to prohibit the harvest of trout over 20 inches. But I know there are other anglers who feel strongly that harvest should be closed, as well as others who think it should not be closed at all. Maybe a year from now we’ll have a better feel for who was right.
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.