While cruising the waters of the St. Lucie River not long ago, a small, tattered skiff skipped along at a distance. My guide friend muttered under his breath, “Commercials.”
Netters have apparently been popping up with great frequency in recent times in this region, and if current FWC draft proposals for spotted seatrout go through, anglers may be seeing much more commercial activity in the future throughout the entire state.
Here are some of the details of what FWC is proposing, which will be voted on during the final Commission Meeting Nov. 16-17 in Key Largo.
Wanting to learn more, I spoke with FWC biological scientist Carly Canion. First on my mind: Why the proposed changes in the commercial trout fishery?
It has to do with a recent stock assessment that showed seatrout populations had well exceeded acceptable levels, Canion told me.
“When we get a good stock assessment like this, we start looking at how we can loosen any regulations that will help businesses and fishermen,” she said. “The commissioners’ general attitude is that they want to give back.”
The heavy concessions to the commercial sector are being proposed because, according to Canion, in 2009, the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey determined that 98 percent of all seatrout harvest was attributed to recreational fishing. Commercial fishing, she said, accounted for only 2 percent of the harvest.
That was news to me! I would have never guessed that in a million years! And, apparently, it’s news to other recreational anglers, who are becoming increasingly wary of a new influx of commercial activity throughout the state.
“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” said Capt. Marcia Foosaner, a Stuart resident and 63-year Florida native. “Why slack off on the rules when the stocks are doing so well?”
The proposed year-round trout selling season, in particular, troubles Foosaner, claiming it could “promote illegal fishing.”
Canion contends that back-door sales could be a concern, but she said that a similar system to that which governs Florida’s off-season stone crab and lobster markets may be implemented for seatrout. “Every month, they’d have to list their frozen inventory and what they’ve used, what they’ve kept and where it went,” she said.
The commission is also debating the possibility of a 30-day selling period (as opposed to a full year), which would commence immediately after the fishing season closed.
But this is little comfort to recreational anglers, who are anxious that these new, extended seasons would spill over into the winter months throughout most of the state — when trout are at their most vulnerable.
“It’s true that trout congregate heavily in the winter months,” Canion admitted, “but it basically comes down to the fact that the harvest of the commercial fishery is so small compared to what’s harvested at recreation, even if we doubled the amount of fish taken commercially, it doesn’t make much of an impact on the fishery.”
What FWC scientists can’t predict, however, is “people’s behavior,” Canion said.
“We can’t predict if people go crazy and start taking incredible amounts of trout,” she said. “Of course, we do stock assessments every 3 years — I know people don't like hearing that, but if things go bad, we can always change it back in 3 years. It’s not the most convenient thing, but we have that built into our management strategy.”
That is a serious issue: Three years is a heckuva long time, and much damage can be wrought on the fishery. And although fishermen need a special product’s license and a restricted species license to commercially fish for trout, Canion says there is no ceiling on the potential number of commercial vessels. What’s more, an additional proposal is on the table (a “vessel bag limit”) that would allow two commercial fishermen to fish from the same boat, which would double each boat’s potential daily catch to 150 fish.
“That’s what really worries me,” Foosaner said, echoing the thoughts of many. “There’s already more commercial guys out there. I see them every day. What does a product license cost, $50? With more and more people out of work these days, this could get out of control. I want to see these people work, but at the same time, I don’t want to see them brutalizing the environment and the fisheries.”
How will it all shake out? Anglers will find out on Nov. 16, when commissioners hold the last set of public comments and then make their final decisions. Any rules changes would go into effect January 1, 2012, so if you’re concerned, you’d better try to attend and make your voice heard.
Senior Editor, Sport Fishing magazine
* The final Commission Meetings will be open to the public and held 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 16-17 at the Key Largo Grande Resort & Beach Club, Key Largo, Florida. To learn more about the meeting, click here
* To learn more about the specific proposals being addressed, click here