Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
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FWC may further ease lionfish rules

In another move to reduce exploding populations of lionfish, divers in Florida state waters may soon be able to hunt the invasive species without a fishing license.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) will vote Wednesday on a draft plan that would waive license requirement for taking lionfish, provided harvest is with a pole spear, Hawaiian sling or hand-held net.

Lad Akins, who oversees lionfish research and eradication programs for the Key Largo-base REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), called the rule a "step in the right direction," but said the FWC should waive the license requirement for spearguns, too.

"It shouldn't matter if they are taken with a speargun, hook and line or pole spear," Akins said. "It's a step in the right direction anytime you allow people to take them that otherwise wouldn't."

The FWC wanted to create a rule that would encourage people who don't regularly spear fish, said FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.

"People who have a speargun or are hook-and-line fishing probably already have a fishing license as they are targeting other species of fish," Nalley said.

The proposal also establishes hook and line rules. The rule allows for the harvest of lionfish with hook and line, or as bycatch by licensed commercial and recreational fishermen, and states there is no bag limit for recreational or commercial harvest for lionfish.

Lionfish are an invasive species native to the Indo-Pacific region. The Florida Keys have felt the impact of the invasion, as lionfish compete with native species for food. The FWC, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and ocean conservation groups have launched efforts to eradicate the invaders. Those efforts include lionfish fishing derbies, lionfish cookbooks and outreach programs to remind divers that there is no bag limit or size limit and lionfish are never out of season.

Commercial fishermen in the Keys also have begun to market lionfish to local restaurants.

In addition to Wednesday's vote, the FWC board must vote a second time in June on a final proposal before it becomes a rule.

The FWC board also will consider tighter protections for tarpon and bonefish. One rule for tarpon would bring some clarification on whether the fish can be pulled completely out of the water in order to snap a photograph or for research purposes.

The proposal states that all tarpon longer than 40 inches are to be kept in the water when photographed, tagged or weighed, Nalley said.

The current rule only states tarpon "must immediately be returned to the water free, alive and unharmed," according to the FWC website. The vagueness of that rule has led to a debate on whether the fish can and should be pulled into the boat, which is popular among fishermen who want to take photos of the large fish.

The FWC is also proposing to allow the keeping of tarpon only when anglers are in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association record, 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, 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 issued more than 600 in a year, Nalley said.

The FWC board also will vote on discontinuing a rule exemption that allows tournament anglers to temporarily possess bonefish for transport to a tournament scale, Nalley said.

Like the lionfish rule, the board will vote only on a draft Wednesday and will vote a second time in June on the final rule.

The FWC board meets all day Wednesday in Tallahassee.

tohara@keysnews.com

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