How do we deal with balancing responsible fishery management and its massive economic impacts? Both are necessary, yet the solutions to one must not be exclusive of the other. We need to have fish, but we need the fishing economies to thrive also. How can we determine a working balance? We have 22 million residents and 120 some million visitors annually. Not everyone fishes, but a lot do.
We must cut back our harvest and wasteful discards. Discards are the dead or dying fish we throw back, and the first place to address. Many folks fish for food. Unfortunately, sustenance fishing is history in Florida. Many are content with a meal or two, then they stop fishing. Some are just as happy with only catch-and-release fishing.
How do we save the fish stocks and our fishing economies at the same time? Balance requires sacrifices on all sides. In fact, if it’s done right, both sides will probably be mad! Seriously, if both sides are equally unhappy, we’re doing the best balancing that can be done in this impossible situation. If one side is happy, you aren’t balancing things. Compromises must be made.
How do we allow the fishing industry to thrive but also protect the fish? Strict bag and size limits and seasons are some effective methods. What is enough and what is too much? Can we enforce the rules we make? How do we accurately count fish to manage them? Who can accomplish this task since fish live underwater and we don’t?
We have snook, trout, and redfish closed indefinitely from Tarpon Springs south to Naples. It seems to be helping fish stocks recover from last year’s red tides. I’m hearing about impressive catches of all three on social media. Have stocks recovered? Maybe reduced pressure is leading to better catches by the few who are fishing? Unfortunately, red tide blooms are currently killing fish from Naples as far north as Gasparilla Pass. That’s a factor we must also deal with.
Can’t we stop red tides? No, but we can reduce the nutrients that fertilize it. We can pick up the dead fish and prevent them from feeding the red tide organisms. Many still chose to throw around the blame game. You say it’s all agriculture? We always had agriculture. What’s different now? All the new developments and people, maybe? Redirected water flows, destroyed wetlands, and added nutrients from new developments with green grass yards. Who do we blame? Every individual contributor is at fault, so let’s not forget to look in our mirrors. Look to any ways we can reduce the nutrient contributions and reduce outbreaks of red tide.
Let’s consider the economic impacts of fish restrictions. Consider that fishing and water sports drive our waterfront tourism, which drives our economy. If we don’t maintain water quality, we lose the money and entertainment.
Also consider this: Most of our local businesses are directly or indirectly dependent on fishing and water quality. It’s easy to understand that boating and fishing gear sales depend on access to fishing. Resorts and restaurants house and feed fishermen. Grocery, hardware and even housing all depend on fishing income. Remember that if I’m not making any money, I’m not spending either. Why build or buy a home here if the waters are trashed? If you take away the appeal of the water, why would people choose to stay here?
Let’s consider how we can have a few fish for dinner, protect the fish stocks for the long term, and support our economies. Many have become catch-and-release anglers. That’s great for them. Catch-and-release helps reduce mortality, if you handle and release them properly. Discarded dead fish are not releases.
The more care you use in handling fish the better. Don’t even touch fish unless you must; use dehooking devices instead. Don’t wrap fish in dry towels or put them on hot, dry decks for your pictures — that’s like putting an electric sander on your skin. Do not hold them out of the water for a stack of pictures if you want them to live. A quick shot of a horizontal fish held carefully with wet hands is the best choice. Holding a fish out of water longer than you can hold your breath is too long.
We have two bright spots to enjoy. Spanish mackerel and kingfish are abundant seasonally with liberal bag limits. Spanish have a 15-fish bag limit and larger kings have a three-fish bag. These are about the only fish you can harvest enough of to share with friends and families.
Some of you don’t think you like mackerel. Most of you tried fish that was not iced properly and eaten fresh. Mackerel are a healthful and delicious fish if you handle them properly. Take plenty of ice and add clean salty water to your cooler as you begin to catch fish. Never leave fish, especially mackerel, un-iced!
I’m trying to set up some events next spring to show you just how good these fish are, handled properly and fresh. I will let you know as things develop. Enjoy the blessings we have and please protect our fishing economy as well as the fish. Thank you for caring; and please share your thought-out ideas.
Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.