State fishery managers will be in the Florida Keys next week to take input on new proposed protections for two of the most sought-after backcountry fish -- tarpon and bonefish.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will hold three public hearings across the state and a webinar and conference call in April to gauge the public's view of new rules for tarpon and bonefish.
FWC is proposing only to allow the keeping of tarpon when anglers are in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said. Currently, anglers are allowed two per vessel, but the fishermen are required to have a state-issued tarpon tag, which costs about $50 a piece, Nalley said. Under the terms of the new rule, anglers will still need to purchase the tarpon tag before landing and keeping the fish.
The FWC can issue up to 2,500 tarpon tags a year, but typically doles out less than 400 and has never given out more than 600 in a year, Nalley said.
The FWC is also reviewing its policies about the handling of tarpon. Tarpon "must immediately be returned to the water free, alive and unharmed," according to the FWC website. The vague guidelines have led to a debate about whether the fish can and should be pulled into the boat, which allows fishermen to take a photograph with the fish.
"You can take plenty of creative photos without pulling the fish into the boat," Lower Keys guide Capt. Will Benson said. "There is no reason to take the fish out of the water."
Benson takes the barbs of his hooks and uses 16 to 20-pound test fishing line when targeting tarpon, which usually allows the fish to break free after it jumps a few times.
"I know I am pretty extreme, but the best part of the fight occurs in the first five minutes," Benson said.
The ambiguity of the rules also raises questions about how tarpon should be measured in tournaments and for research or fitted with satellite tracking devices. Bonefish Tarpon Trust and the University of Miami are currently conducting tarpon satellite tagging programs.
Bonefish Tarpon Trust Executive Director Aaron Adams has said he would like to see prohibitions when it comes to tarpon being dragged behinds boats to fishing tournament weigh stations, which is the case with the famous Boca Grande Pass tarpon tournament off Fort Myers.
"We are very much of in favor of the new rules," Adams said.
Bonefish Tarpon Trust would also like to see greater protections with the proposed FWC rules.
The FWC is considering discontinuing a rule exemption that allows tournament anglers to temporarily possess bonefish for transport to a tournament scale, Nalley said.
Both fish are held in high regard and keeping the fish is frowned upon, making the fishery fairly "self regulated" and already "almost catch and release," Nalley said.
The experience of landing a tarpon has been likened to hooking a moving freight train, earning the fish the nickname "silver king." The elusiveness of catching the stealthy, fast-swimming bonefish led anglers to dub that fish the "gray ghost."
Anglers from all over the world come to the Keys and South Florida to fish for tarpon and bonefish, generating millions of dollars a year in taxable revenue. Florida currently holds 29 world records for tarpon. The Florida state record for tarpon was caught in Key West by Gus Bell. The 243-pound tarpon was caught on conventional tackle with 20-pound test line.
FWC will hold a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. April 3 at Key Colony Beach City Hall.