Fishermen: Keys have no uniformity on fishing rules

Few waters contain a more baffling hodgepodge of fishing rules than the Florida Keys, the people who write the rules acknowledge.

“The problem down here is that it’s so easy to mix up where you are,” said Martha Bademan, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

State and federal officials came to the Keys this week to seek advice on how to simplify the fish-catching situation.

Turnout for three workshops Tuesday through Thursday in Key Largo, Key Colony Beach and Key West was modest but suggestions were valuable, agency staff said.

“We got a lot of good ideas on where the problems lie and some good suggestions to get us started down the path,” said John Hunt, director of the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute office in Marathon.

“We learned that the management complexity here in South Florida and the Keys does create substantial issues for our fishing stakeholders to conduct their recreational activity or commercial business,” Hunt said.

Recreational and commercial fishing in South Florida waters falls under the jurisdiction of three government agencies: The federal South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and the state FWC.

Then toss in rules for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, national wildlife areas and species-specific closed areas.

“It’s confusing to know where you can fish, and where you can land,” Bademan said at Tuesday’s Key Largo meeting, which attracted about a dozen people.

She was referring to yellowtail snapper, but similar concerns were raised for grouper and other species. “The folks here are more affected by this regulatory complexity than other areas,” Hunt said.

A common suggestion from the Keys meetings was to create a new federal fishery council that focuses on South Florida. Currently there are eight regional councils covering all United States coastlines, including U.S. territories in the Caribbean.

“You could not easily go out and create another council,” said Jessica McCawley, the FWC’s director of marine fisheries. “It literally would take an act of Congress.”

Prospects for that seem unlikely, panel members agreed.

Key Largo resident Tom Tharp pointed to the four-month winter closed season on grouper in the Gulf and Keys as evidence the rules don’t make sense.

“You put this thing on us that has hurt us considerably. They’re our bread and butter,” Tharp said of red and black grouper. “It gripes me that I can go to North Florida and buy a grouper in March but I can’t catch one in the Keys until May.”

Miami charter captain Ray Rosher said, “I can’t tell you how many people don’t know the rules.”

The ongoing workshops are designed to collect comments for a new joint committee of the FWC and the South Atlantic and Gulf councils that will try to develop a single set of rules for South Florida.

“Instead of having all these different regulations, come up with the best regulations for that species in South Florida,” said South Atlantic Council board member Ben Hartig.

John Sanchez, former executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, represented the Gulf Council as a board member. “Things do happen but it takes time,” Sanchez said.

The committee will take recommendations back to their respective agencies and seek agreement.

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