This month, thousands of mutton snapper will make their way to reefs like Western Dry Rocks off Key West to spawn. Hot on their trail will be hundreds of bloodthirsty anglers.
The blood lust for mutton snappers -- especially when they are easy targets during the spawn -- has some anglers calling for more protection.
Lower Keys spear fisherman Don DeMaria proposed closing down Western Dry Rocks, as the reef is only one of two major snapper spawning areas off the continental United States, DeMaria said. The other major snapper and grouper spawning area is Riley's Hump in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which was closed to fishing in 2001.
Both reserves produce mutton snapper that migrate throughout the Florida Keys and Florida, said DeMaria, a member of South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel.
DeMaria also serves on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Ecosystem Protection Working Group, which will make recommendations to the Sanctuary Advisory Council on setting aside closed areas. His proposal is part of a management review process the sanctuary is currently undertaking.
"It's the goose that lays the golden eggs. Why would you want to kill it and eat it?" DeMaria asked. "It's like clockwork; fishermen go there and target muttons. They know where to go and when to go."
Western Dry Rocks has been featured in national fishing magazines as one of the best reefs to hunt mutton snappers during the spawn. A 2007 edition of Saltwater Sportsman featured Western Dry Rocks specifically in an article titled "Mutton Moon Madness."
"As the April moon waxes full, mutton mania grips South Florida," the article states.
Last year, members of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel recommended the council "consider" making Western Dry Rocks a closed spawning area -- or at least implement a seasonal closure during the spawn.
A June 2012 report from the fishery's Law Enforcement Committee states that most of the mutton spawn fishing occurs at Western Dry Rocks and Eyeglass Bar, also off Key West.
"Law enforcement officers report witnessing many fishermen making multiple trips in one day and harvesting over the individual or vessel limit," the report states. "Law enforcement officers suspect that many of the fish are being sold directly to local restaurants and the harvest is likely not being properly monitored."
The report also states the spawn "is the one time of the year when the 10-fish bag limit of mutton snapper is likely to be caught. During the remainder of the year, mutton snapper are not plentiful enough in the area for most fishermen to catch their bag limit."
The South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils have discussed implementing reduced bag limits and establishing closed areas during the spawn, but have not moved forward with a formal proposal.
The Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association is calling DeMaria's proposal too restrictive. Instead, the association calls for reduced bag limits during the spawn. The current bag limit is 10 fish per person per day.
"We don't need any more closed areas, as this could be corrected through changes to bag limits," said association board President Capt. Ernie Piton.
Three working groups are working on recommendations to the Sanctuary Advisory Council. The council will have a "rich discussion" on the recommendations at its July meeting, said sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton. But working groups will not make their formal recommendations to the council until either the August or October meeting, he said.
Any fishing regulation changes will be made in conjunction with the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Morton said. There would also be environmental and socio-economic impact studies done before changes to fishing rules are implemented.