Concern for a species that might surprise many anglers occupied part of the agenda at a meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission board in Key Largo on Thursday, Nov. 21.
Sport-fishing interests, predominantly in the Florida Keys, have been expressing alarm over what they say is a substantial increase in the commercial harvest of barracuda and a lack of commercial-harvest or gear restrictions.
In fact, the state currently has no commercial-fishing regulations specific to barracuda, only recreational limits (of up to 100 pounds of ‘cuda or two fish per angler per day). On the other hand, a commercial fisherman with a basic license can harvest barracuda in unlimited quantities, according to FWC rules.
The lack of rules for barracuda in the face of increasing restrictions on other fish have led to an explosion in the commercial harvest of barracuda in Florida Keys waters. A presentation by biologists at the board meeting showed cuda harvest mushrooming from 10,000 pounds per year to more than 50,000 pounds in 2013, per data from commercial fishermen’s sales receipts.
“For all intent and purpose, this is an unregulated fish,” said Capt. Will Benson, who spoke Thursday on behalf of the Lower Keys Guides Association. “That is unacceptable…. We would like to see rules similar to that of redfish and snook.”
However, several commercial fishermen at the FWC meeting spoke against more regulations, arguing that recreational take still accounts for an overwhelming majority of barracuda harvested.
One commercial fisherman, Christopher Mallory, who targets barracuda exclusively, argued that the amount of regulations on other fish has pushed him and others to target ‘cuda. Mallory said he receives $1.50 a pound for the fish, compared to a $1.30 a pound for red snapper. However, “there is no commercial impact on this species,” he insisted.
Several groups, including the Lower Keys Guides Association, Keys Keeper, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, are calling for more protections for barracuda that would allow no commercial harvest and only a minimal recreational allowance (mostly for use as occasional shark or crab-trap bait).
The FWC board agreed to hold public workshops addressing concerns about overfishing of great barracuda, but ruled out conducting an expensive stock assessment and other research at this time, arguing the species’ populations are still healthy. “I don’t think it’s worthy of extensive research,” FWC Commissioner Ron Bergeron said. “I think its worthy of a workshop.”
The FWC did not give an exact dates or a timetable for the future workshops.