The FWC takes a lot of hits from local fishermen and Big Bend coastal businesses for their perceived restrictive fishing rules that don't always seem to pass the "local" common sense test.
An FWC decision made last February during a meeting at the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Academy got it right!
The commissioners’ decision to have a spring Gag Grouper season in four Big Bend counties received rave reviews from kids and business owners alike. Now everyone hopes they will add an early fall season in Big Bend state waters.
Ronald Fred Crum, owner of Crum’s Mini Mall in Panacea, has been coordinating "Kids Fishing Tournaments" for years, and he explained it this way, “The commission helped to ensure another generation of gag grouper fishers. If young fishermen can experience the exhilaration and thrill of catching a shallow water gag grouper when they are 10 to 15 years old, they are 'hooked' for life. They will eventually buy fishing licenses and become the next generation of off shore fishers."
I agree with Crum's assessment. I volunteer at the Beau Turner Youth Conservation Center and introduce a lot of youngsters to shallow water gag grouper fishing. It’s been my experience that you can’t take kids at this young age 40-50 miles offshore on an eight-to-0 hour grouper fishing trip, because they don't “hold up” and a bad experience can “ruin them for life.”
These youngsters have a two-to-three hour attention span when it comes to gag grouper fishing. You need calm seas and lots of snacks, and you have to get them out there quickly, make sure they can still see land, and put them on a shallow water gag grouper to seal the deal. Once they feel the brute power of that grouper as it digs for the bottom, these kids become our next generation of offshore fishermen and women. We can't give kids this experience in the Big Bend state waters because all of our gag grouper leave by Thanksgiving and they come back just before Easter. By July 4, they are gone again until late September. The ideal "kids" gag season here is March-June, and September-November.
FWC uses "Regional Management" practices for redfish, trout and even deer to ensure optimal recreational opportunities for shareholders. There is no reason why the commission shouldn't apply this same local management style to our grouper and snapper. After all, Florida state waters vary tremendously in habitat, depth and fishing pressure from one end to the other, just like they vary from the East coast to the Gulf Coast.
Last year, NOAA Fisheries had asked FWC - in the name of “consistency” - to open the recreational season for gag grouper in all state waters, from July 1, 2012 through Oct. 31, 2012. The problem was that there are no legal grouper in state waters of the Florida Big Bend counties of Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor during the hot summer months of July, August, and September and the cold winter months of December-February. The economies of these four counties are heavily dependent on tourism and fishing during the spring and fall months, and NOAA’s proposed dates would further depress a struggling economy.
During oral presentations to the commission, many knowledgeable locals stated that "There are no legal grouper in the shallow Big Bend state waters during the hot summer months when NOAA wants you to open the gag grouper season." During my presentation, I told the commissioners that "If you approve the proposed federal gag grouper season as requested by NOAA Fisheries, it would be akin to opening duck hunting season in the Big Bend from July through October when all of our ducks are in Canada! You can’t introduce kids to duck hunting if there are no ducks for them to shoot at.”
During that FWC meeting, local fishermen, coastal business owners, and a county commissioner testified that eliminating the historic spring gag grouper season would devastate the coastal economy. Traditionally, small boaters from Georgia, Alabama, and North Florida who pursue gags in shallow Big Bend waters during the spring and fall months help keep marinas, bait shops, guides, restaurants, motels, campgrounds, and other coastal enterprises afloat.
I am pleased to say that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hit a grand slam with our kids and our Big Bend businesses last winter when they stood up to NOAA Fisheries and a host of special interests to make a decision based on sound biological principles as well as doing what was the right thing for the folks, for the Big Bend coastal economy, and for the gag grouper.
In its final decision, FWC made an exemption in the gag grouper season for the Big Bend counties of Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor. They did, however, reduce the season in these counties from four months to three months with April, May and June, 2012 being open season for gag grouper in state waters. Federal waters statewide opened on July 1, 2012 and state waters of these four Big Bend counties were closed to gag grouper fishing on June 30, 2012.
The FWC decision last year was a win-win for everybody, and with gag grouper populations rebounding, everyone in the Big Bend is hoping that FWC will make a similar decision at its upcoming Dec. 5 and 6 meeting in Apalachicola when the commissioners set the gag grouper seasons for 2013. This time, coastal business owners, fishers and especially the kids hope that they will be fair and add the fall months, September-November, when our gags (“ducks”) come back to the Big Bend shallow state waters.
If you agree, please send a note to the commissioners at Commissioners@MyFWC.com and respectfully ask them to do it for the kids and for the economy!
Alan Lamarche is a retired assistant chief of law enforcement for the former Florida Game & Fish Commission.