The local charter fishing industry is experiencing a recessionary setback this year due to new regulations which close the recreational season for gag grouper in all Gulf waters offshore from Feb. 1 to March 31 and limits the catch of other Gulf reef fish.
Florida fishery biologists have revealed through scientific investigation that gag grouper spawn during this time which prohibits boat captains and crew from profiting from this popular species, according to Lee Schlesinger, spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"Spring is the key spawning time for these fish," said Schlesinger. "This allows these animals to go through their recycle process. Our goal is to get a better fishery."
This compounds the fact that the existing recreational harvest season for red and black grouper in the Gulf federal waters (beyond nine nautical miles) is closed from Feb. 15 to March 15.
"This is a complicated issue that has taken years of research," said Schlesinger. "We're trying to rebuild the grouper stock. Next year, the recreational closure for all shallow water grouper is expected to be Feb. 1 through March 31."
But, unfortunately, these regulations come at the height of tourist season.
"As a recreational guide, it kind of hurts us," said Captain Pete Migliazzo of Salt Water Angler Adventures. "This is our busiest time of year and our season is closed. If we could limit it down to one or two per boat, it might be better. I'm willing to work with that.
"Right now, (the grouper rules) are kind of depleting the snapper population. We have a limited amount of spots that hold snapper and grouper. You go there three or four times a month, that population goes down.
Even though the new law on gag grouper applies to state waters but allows charter fisheries to keep their catch in federal waters, this doesn't lessen the blow for those trying to make a living during these hard times.
"On full-day charter fishing, people expect to catch fish," said Migliazzo, who does offshore fishing out of Fish Tale Marina. "When they can't keep one, it's disappointing to our clients."
After March 31, the daily received bag limit includes two gag grouper per fisherman per day and five per fisherman per day on the total aggregate grouper scale. This includes the red and black species as well as gag grouper, according to Officer Joanne Adams, a FWC public information officer.
And, there is a zero limit for a captain and first mate on for-hire days.
"This is one of the least objective regulations," said Schlesinger. "We don't allow captain and crew to participate in the bag limit when they are out working. If not for this clause, there would possibly be a longer closure for grouper."
Currently, new fishing gear is also required to protect the fish from possible death, injury or bacterial infection, according to Adams.
For environmental reasons, one needs to comply with three gear rules for reef fishing in the Gulf of Mexico . If you're going out, you need circle hooks, a venting tool and a de-hooking device, according to Adams.
"If there is a possibility of catching the reef fish in inshore waters, then a de-hooking device and a venting tool are still required," she said.
The venting tool is a puncturing device to deflate the swim bladders of reef fish. The tool, which releases the air from the fish, must be a sharpened, hollow instrument like a hypodermic syringe without the plunger or a 16-gauge needle attached to a wooden dowel. It is ill-advised to push the stomach back into the mouth if it is protruding.
The circle hook is an oval-shape hook designed to snag the fish in the lip or mouth instead of the throat or stomach like the traditional "J" hook did.
The de-hooking device removes the hook embedded in the reef fish with minimal damage. This blunt, round-edged tool allows the individual to pop the hook out without touching or handling the fish.
Magliazzo thinks this is "a great rule."
"I have no problem with (the new gear rules)," he said. "I'm all for it."
But there is a cost issue with the change in gear.
"I know it affects our cost because we used a type of hook for so long and now we have to re-rig everything," said Diana Agin, manager of Captain Tony's Fishing Adventure. "We also had to reorder new gear. But I don't think the pricing is any different."
Reef fish include grouper, snapper, amberjack, trigger fish, porgies, sea bass, hogfish and tilefish.
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You can purchase a saltwater fishing license at all county tax collectors' offices, license agents, by calling toll-free 1-888-347-4356 or online at www.myfwc.com.
A state resident license is given to a person who claims Florida as their primary residence; who resides in the state for six continuous months prior to applying; or any member of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed in this state.
A license is not needed if under 16 years old; fishing from land or a structure fixed to land like a pier; fishing from an on-hire licensed vessel; holding a valid saltwater products license; a Florida resident age 65 or older; a U.S. Armed Forces Florida resident on leave for 30 day or less; a client for developmental services by the Department of Children and Family Services; a nonresident fishing recreationally from a pier with a valid pier saltwater fishing license; a Florida resident fishing for mullet in freshwater with a valid Florida freshwater license; a Florida resident fishing for saltwater fish in freshwater from land or structure fixed to land; or a Florida resident possessing a Florida Resident Disabled Person Hunting and Fishing Certificate.