News You Should Know About
Carol and I attended the first annual Redfish Summit hosted by the Florida Wildlife and Fish Commission (FWC) down in Ocala yesterday. It was a very informative event and well organized Summit. The FWC, along with their sponsors (Coastal Conservation Association, American Sport Fish Association, Sea & Shoreline Aquatic Restoration, and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation) did an outstanding job in welcoming attendees, their presentations, and facilitation of information and discussions. It was truly an eye-opening event in more ways than one! I was surprised to receive a nice “bucket” of material – goodies to take home and handouts to read later. The entire Summit was well organized, well run and the agenda ran smoothly. Even a slight hiccup from trying to share a room with another breakout group was quickly remedied with a 3-minute move to a quieter area of our group-NE Florida.
There had to have been well over 100 people attending from all over the state of Florida. Of that large group, there were only 10-12 people representing the NE Florida Region. Of those 10-12 people, I think Carol and I were the only ones from the Jacksonville, Amelia Island area(I could be wrong on this-I didn’t pole the others, but from their comments, they seemed south of us). If you are an angler in Fernandina Beach or the Jacksonville area, you really need to be aware of the following comments. If you are a Guide or Charter boat captain, You REALLY need to be aware of them.
There were a number of presenters who went over data that they have accumulated over the years, discussing Redfish biology, sustainability, stock assessments and Redfish management, past, present and the future. . (Click on the image at right to enlarge) Amazing, eye-opening stuff. For me, I have already begun to sense the dire issues down in southwest Florida with issues with Red Tide, evidently a naturally occurring event but compounded by human/manufacturing waste runoff, and all over south Florida with algae blooms and fish die-offs and fishing pressure. Before the trip, I had had a conversation with my Ft. Myers cousin where he described miles and miles of dead lobsters during his last visit to the Florida Keys
But here in NE Florida, specifically at Amelia Island, we’ve had a relatively great fishery. But are the issues heading our way? According to the sentiment of the other 8 NE Florida attendees who reside just south of us in St. Johns County and Flagler County, yes, our fishery is declining. I was somewhat surprised that they were struggling to find Redfish. I know I track each trip that I do and most of them I rate as “average”. Once in a rare while, we will have a bad trip, and a few times in the month we will have an outstanding trip, but I haven’t noticed a downward trend in our catch rates.
After the main presentations and after lunch we broke out into smaller groups and of course, we were in the NE Region. I have no idea what the much larger, south Florida and west Florida regions talked about. BUT, I was actively engaged in our NE Florida break-out session. After all discussion, we 11 attendees were asked to take some Red Dots and rate what of the issues, comments, suggestions were most important to us. We could put one dot on each item, or 3 dots or all 10 dots on each item if that was really important to us. I took some pictures of the comment/issue boards and you can see for yourself what issues garnered the most “dots”. The top issues NE Florida attendees “voted” on were Declining Numbers, Increasing Fishing Pressure, and Water Quality. Again, most of these NE Florida attendees were south of us. I spoke personally to a few of them and they attested to the difficulty of finding Redfish to catch. I haven’t experienced that here at Amelia Island, BUT I can surely see the increased pressure. I told Carol one day recently that “if I fish 6 trips a week, 4 of them have either just moved here or they’re looking to buy”. The boat ramps have gotten so crazy on weekends that I quit booking trips on Saturday and Sunday (I probably will pick up weekends this Fall and Winter). Sooner or later the fishing pressure will surely begin to affect our fish stock. I really hope we never see the poor water quality and fish die-offs that our southern neighbors are experiencing. Again, you can “click” on the image to enlarge it.
A New Limit?
Now for the really good stuff! As you see on the image on the left (click on to enlarge), the overwhelming sentiment of the 11-12 people representing the NE Florida group “voted” to change the limits on Redfish to (1) per angler. Don’t like that? You should have been there. FYI, I actually voted for that, too. If I have 4 people on my boat, I really don’t like killing 8 Slot Redfish, but that’s just my opinion. I take a fish home once in a while and don’t begrudge others, but taking home fish to feed the neighborhood with a fish fry is a time gone by. Maybe I’m just getting old. But there were some suggestions proposed that I thought were “off the wall”, fringe, restrictive regulations, see the below, right image. This is where those of you that have interested in our fishery need to step up and participate. As you can see most did not garner any real support: Closed Season, Reduce Vessel Limit to 1 (can you imagine the march on Tallahassee?) Artificial Lures Only, Catch and Release Only(a 2nd march on Tallahassee?). But I don’t laugh as much about that when I know there is a Catch and Release order right now for Redfish down in the South West area of Florida. Still, I’ve had a long sinking suspicion that there is a growing demographic of folks that are “anti-angler” who would rather we don’t fish at all. I’ve seen internet videos of altercations between anglers and anti fishers and I’ve experienced first hand
conversations with those that I sense would rather we not be taking fish from the sea. You need to be aware of this. Read that again. You need to be aware of it.
And then there were comments related to Guides and Charter Boat Captains. Readers need to know that there are over 60 guides and Charter boat captains working out of Amelia Island. A third of those are strictly “offshore”. Many do the jetties and rivers only. Many like myself, stay inshore/backwater. Some try to stay on the flats and a good number do tours and sightseeing trips. There’s a good number that are “full time” with fishing as their main income, then there are others that have other jobs and use charter fishing as a way to fill in. There are Guides that have retired from previous careers and now use fishing as supplement income- and because they love to fish! Each year there are a few new Guides added to the list, and then there are a handful that don’t make it businesswise or retire or move. That said, with over 60 it’s a competitive small business we are running and with over 60 of us, that’s a substantial economic impact. As I commented at the Summit, the market will determine whether these Guides make it as a business here at Amelia Island. The State doesn’t need to limit it. If the Guide can’t run a small business, doesn’t brand or market his service correctly, or doesn’t produce a good product, he/she will eventually be out of business. BUT, as with the growing “anti-angler” sentiment, there is (and probably always have been) an anti-Guide sentiment. This was very evident at the Summit.
As a side, it’s amazing to me sometimes how the everyday angler will blame we Guides for their issues. I see it at the boat ramp daily. I’ll be tied up at the dock, with plenty of space for another boat to come in, and they will get angry because I’m in THEIR spot. I’ve figured out that THEIR spot is the only place that they feel comfortable bringing their boat to. If they need to dock in any other location, they’re not experienced enough to maneuver their boat to that location so they get angry at we Guides rather than learning to operate their boat.
I see on my boat every day that experienced anglers tend to catch more fish. Even with that, there’s always a chance of having a bad day. And there’s always a chance that an inexperienced angler will have a good day and catch the fish of a lifetime. Either way, I try to do the best job I can to ensure that all guests have a good time. THAT SAID, just because some anglers aren’t catching Redfish doesn’t mean they aren’t there! Don’t blame it on the Guides if you’re not catching fish, especially here in our area. The way I understood one of the presenter’s data, the stocks in NE Florida are looking really good. My last few trips we have had handfuls of small “rat reds” caught, once in a while a Slot or two, and each week a few oversized Redfish. All in all, a good average bit of fishing. I guestimate that half of my customers release all their fish. Many of my guests will keep a few to take home and throw others back that they could have legally kept. And then I will have a few that want to catch and keep and take as many as they can. Like I told the scientist at the Summit, “I rely on you folks to set the rules as to what is sustainable and healthy for the fish population”, so if the rule is 2 Reds per person, 18-27″, then that’s what I’m going to go by and allow on my boat.
In the above image, you can see some of the suggestions that were brought up. I was the first to speak and gave my opinion on the first three. I didn’t have an issue with 1) Reducing Bag Limit for Anglers On For Hire Trips. As I already mentioned, keeping and killing 8 Redfish on 4 person trip is overkill in my opinion. It’s rare that happens on my boat, but it has happened. Our Florida fishery is under severe pressure and sustaining our Redfish stock and keeping our fishery healthy is important. We Guides have to balance providing a good product to our customers, keeping in mind that we can’t place the stock in dire straits. The days of “filling the cooler” are slipping by (there were days when the old-timers put EVERY fish in the cooler and kept all the huge Bull Redfish they could keep. Truth be told, most of the Guides I know would rather throw most fish back.
2) Limited-Entry License. This is where I opined that the market would limit the number of Guides and Captains. There will always be Captains that get in on a shoe-string, and some will make it-it’s their dream, but many will fall by the wayside. That particular item evolved into Item#4 – Increase requirements for Captains/Guide license. I mentioned to the group that our Amelia Island Guides Association requires all of its Guide Members to provide proof of Liability Insurance, their US Coast Guard License, and their FWC License. I joked with Carol on the way home that it might be kinda nice for the State to take over the responsibility of gathering that information-as the Secretary/Treasurer of the AIGA it’s like pulling teeth to get all the paperwork in! My biggest concern, spoken at the breakout session, was that established Guides and Captains would use the State to limit their competition with more and expensive regulations. I’ve seen it done, here at Amelia Island (see the $1500 fee that the City of Fernandina charges Guides to launch at the Marina). I understand the need for Liability Insurance and can’t imagine a Guide business not having it. Again, if they don’t, and something happens, they’ll be out of business soon. In my opinion, this idea came from some Guide(s) that wanted to limit competition. Are they wanting to limit licenses? I can still remember here in Fernandina growing up there was one man that held all the Liquor Licenses and thus owned all the bars. What a limit on competition that was! Can you imagine the backroom dealings as to who gets a Captain’s License?
3) No Bag Limit For Captain and Crew. As I mentioned at the Summit, I already do this. I don’t count in the “take” on my boat. It’s only been the last few years but I quit counting myself so I wouldn’t have a problem with this becoming an established law.
Solving Issues was another topic. This image is hard to see as it was stuck on the window. But as you can see down at the bottom, #6 is Improved Access to Law Enforcement and was popular, and voted on suggestion. That was basically a suggestion of a better “hotline” or Text Line to alert FWC officers of illegal harvesting. This was not necessarily to be used to bust an uneducated (that was a topic) angler who happens to have a 17.5″ Redfish, but those that have 13 undersized, Slot, and Oversized fish in their bucket. You can read the other suggestions that came up but didn’t garner much support.
Items that did have a lot of support (I suggested #9) was to have an FWC “Ambassador” program where anglers could get certified by the FWC on some of these conservation, management, stock assessment issues – basically talking points, then be available to speak at fishing clubs, association, etc. in order to educate the public on where we are with the stocks, go over the rules and regulations, etc.
Note that item #10 had some support. This idea would create some Public Service Assistants, kina like a Public Service Officer in a police department. These PSA’s wouldn’t have arrest or citing capability, but they would be the eyes and ears (and possibility as Ambassador?) for the FWC at boat ramps, etc.