New trout proposal nets controversy

You’d think a plan to allow recreational anglers to harvest trout year-round would be a slam dunk among recreational anglers — many have complained for years about the winter closures.

But state fishery managers have found it to be anything but controversy free as details of proposed trout regulations have become better known.

The bone of contention is not the opening of months now closed to recreational anglers, but opening more harvest opportunities to commercial fishermen, a plan that many recreational anglers say would set back the strong gains in trout populations accomplished by more than a decade of tight harvest regulations.

The proposal, to be reviewed at a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting Nov. 16-17 in Key Largo, would add two months to the current three-month commercial harvest seasons.

The new commercial dates would be June-October in the northeast and southwest, May-September in the southeast, and September to January in the northwest.

The rule also would allow two or more commercial fishermen, currently allowed 75 fish daily, to combine in a single boat and bring in 150 trout daily. The rule also would allow a by-catch allowance of 75 trout — a trip limit — for commercial fishermen using beach or haul seines for other species. Currently, trout can be harvested by only hook and line or cast net.

Commercial fishermen take less than 3 percent of the total catch, according to FWC biologists, and on the face of it, giving them more fish from an abundant resource seems to make sense. But many recreational anglers disagree.

“If they open beach and haul seines for trout, that will be the end of our trout fishing on this coast,” says captain Scott Moore, a 35-year-veteran of the fishing scene. “They’ll kill the fish on the first cool weather.”

The FWC has been highly responsive to the needs of Florida’s coastal fisheries and fishermen in the past decade, but one aspect of the current proposal to relax regulations on spotted sea trout creates a hole through which net fishermen could drive a fleet of refrigerator trucks on their way to the fish markets. It’s an allowance for netters to keep trout caught as “by-catch” in beach and haul seines used for other species. Trout caught with these nets now must be discarded.

Since trout are delicate fish and often die as a result of being netted, the rule on the face seems to be a judicious use of a resource otherwise wasted.

But it fails to consider human nature and the natural tendency to take advantage of the rules under which all businesses operate.

Catching a few trout on occasion by accident in seines set to capture mullet is one thing. But allowing expert commercial fishermen with years of experience on the water to legally use seines to catch trout in cooler months when the fish often gather by the hundreds in potholes the size of the average suburban garage is an invitation for abuse.

It won’t be accidental by-catch, but targeted harvest of commercial quantities of mature fish. Smart fishermen, given an opportunity to make money without risking a citation, will “by-catch” every trout they can find, and many not currently targeting trout might well start doing so. The take is likely to quickly add up to far more than 3 percent of the catch.

To say nothing of the fact that commercial fishermen, already allowed to take more than 18 times the daily recreational bag in most of the state, also can harvest trout 4 inches longer than those allowed to recreational fishermen. Is a trophy trout less dead if it winds up in a fish market? Commercial anglers can harvest 75 a day more than 20 inches long, while recreational anglers can take one per day.

Add to it the fact there is often not enough on-the-water law enforcement these days along Florida’s coasts and it’s clear this rule is a giant step back toward the days before the net ban.

To be sure, when the mullet are in their winter migration, the commercial fishermen concentrate on them. A good man with a net can make well over $1,000 per day. But when the mullet runs slow, these traveling fishermen, some of whom start in the Panhandle and work the entire west coast down to Marco Island as the mullet runs work south, will turn to trout and any other legal fish.

If approved, the new regulations would take effect Jan. 1, 2012. For details on the plan or to send comments to the FWC, visit www.myfwc.com.

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