State wildlife managers approved new fishing regulations on Wednesday for three species of fish found in Florida Keys waters -- tarpon, bonefish and lionfish.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board agreed to rules that make tarpon and bonefish catch-and-release-only in state waters.
The new rules include eliminating all harvesting of tarpon with the exception of possession of a single tarpon when in pursuit of an International Gamefish Association (IGFA) record. Anglers also must have a tarpon tag.
Another approved rule for tarpon clarifies whether the fish can be pulled completely out of the water for a photo or for research purposes.
Tarpon longer than 40 inches are to be kept in the water when photographed, tagged or weighed. For all other tarpon, the FWC allows temporary possession for photography, measuring or scientific sampling.
The previous rule was that tarpon "must immediately be returned to the water free, alive and unharmed," according to the FWC website.
"With a little creativity and with all of the technology, I don't see why you can't take real good photos and still keep the tarpon in the water," said Lower Keys flats guide Capt. Will Benson, who spoke at Wednesday's meeting.
The FWC board agreed to keep the tarpon tag price at $50 each, but limited them to one tag per person, per year. The board also modified the tag program, including reporting requirements and shifting the start and end date for when tags are valid.
The board also agreed to discontinue the bonefish tournament exemption permit that allowed tournament anglers to temporarily possess bonefish for transport to a tournament scale.
"These new rules put Florida on the cutting edge when it comes to conservation initiatives," Benson said.
Tarpon and bonefish are revered species of fish in Florida that generate millions of dollars a year in the Florida Keys alone, as anglers from all over the world converge here to fish for them. The new rules give the species a new elevated gamefish status.
Also on Wednesday, the FWC board approved changes that waive the recreational license requirement for divers harvesting lionfish, provided they're being harvested with a pole spear, Hawaiian sling or hand-held net. The board also approved excluding lionfish from the commercial and recreational bag limits, allowing people to take as many of the invasive fish as they can.
Prior to the change, recreational anglers could not catch more than 100 pounds of lionfish without a commercial license.
Lionfish are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific region. The Florida Keys have felt the impact 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, including lionfish fishing derbies, lionfish cookbooks and outreach programs to remind divers there is no bag or size limit and lionfish are never out of season.
Commercial fishermen in the Keys also have begun to market lionfish to local restaurants.
Currently, the most effective method of removing lionfish from Florida waters is by spearing or using a hand-held net, FWC officials said.