Opinion: Florida Wildlife Commission Needs to Protect Permit

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A new set of recommendations from Florida Wildlife Commission staff suggests — unbelievably — going backwards on protections for permit, allowing spearing of the fish for the first time and ignoring the rising voice of anglers who want to see the fish achieve gamefish status.
Jon Ain, who besides running the March Merkin Invitational Permit Tournament in Key West is an outspoken advocate of permit protection, suggests that it’s finally time for the FWC to stop the commercial harvest of permit in their breeding zones.
“One of the highlights of any flats fisherman’s experiences is to catch and release a Permit on the flats. These wary fish are considered one of the most difficult to catch in shallow water, particularly on a fly. Key West and the Florida Keys have been the ‘big leagues’ of Permit fishing for the last 40 years, when Del Brown, Steve Huff and others discovered that this once uncatchable fish could, with luck and skill, be caught with some regularity. A look at the IGFA book of world records shows almost all were caught within 20 miles of Key West. As stocks of bonefish and tarpon have declined in the Keys, primarily do to water quality issues or kill fisheries in other countries, Permit has become a very large part of the draw of the Florida Keys for anglers from across the US and around the world.”

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“However, the fishing regulations in Florida have not kept up with these changes. Last winter at the annual DFW Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) meeting in Key West, significant problems with the Permit fishery were raised by myself and Captain John O’Hearn, head of the Lower Keys Guides Association and many others. There is a loophole in the law that allows spearing of Permit in Federal waters; where when they are spawning on wrecks and lacking their usual wariness, become easy targets. Permit in general are being fished hard on the wrecks during the spawning season and while the limit for recreational anglers is one a day over 20 inches and up to six a day between 11 and 20″, many large fish are lost to marauding sharks and Goliath Groupers that prey on the hooked fish. Lastly, small Permit, under 20” are being caught by commercial Pompano fishermen in their nets and being legally sold for food. A single set can kill as many as 200 Permit according to data presented by FWCDFW.
When these issues were presented to the board and Chairman Barreto, he expressed surprise that Permit were not listed as a gamefish in Florida which would make them not eligible for commercial catch or spearing. He turned to the staff at the meeting and said ‘We need to fix this.’ Well, fix it they did not.
The result of this was a staff review with a series of public meetings around the state. The public meetings resulted in draft and a final series of staff recommendations by FWC staff, which were made public received on November 24, 2009yesterday. Unbelievably, they have recommended that things remain status quo except to go backwards and legalize the spearing of Permit on the offshore wrecks that are used as spawning grounds by Permit. It is certain that with the new Grouper closure there will be increased pressure by food fishermen to target the Permit on wrecks, which begs for more protection of Permit. (In fact, at the Fort Myers public meeting, numerous guides indicated that Permit were the only fish left for them to catch on the wrecks, since the Grouper and Snapper populations are so low. So now the Permit population will be at similar risk for overfishing.) and they need some protection Every one of those 30 lb. spawning fish popped easily with a spear gun on the wrecks is worth tens of thousands of dollars to the Keys economy, in hotels, restaurants, guides fees, rental cars, etc. al. Unfortunately, this is not a new tack by FWCDFW as they have allowed the decimation of Mutton Snapper, which also spawn in similar aggregationess and still have offered them no protection.
FWCDFW staff state that making Permit a gamefish should not be recommended because there is no ‘consensus’ among stakeholders. Well, there is certainly consensus among recreational fishermen to do it and there will never be consensus with commercial interests even though the value of commercial catch is dwarfed by the value of the recreational catch and release fishery. Moreover, recreational anglers outnumber commercial pompano fishermen by a huge margin. The recreational fishery in Florida is worth more than $8 billion per year, yet regulations are woefully inadequate to protect this important economy.
FWCDFW staff alleges that they could not close the fishery during critical spawning months as they do not know where they are or where they spawn. This is almost laughable, as any light tackle captain in Key West can answer that question. In addition, FWC staff published a paper in 2002 that defines both the season and locations for Permit spawning, which means that current FWC staff are ignoring their own data.
Belize, in Central America, despite a preponderance of subsistence fishing and diets lacking in protein, has had the foresight to make Permit a “catch and release” only gamefish, along with Tarpon and Bonefish, as they understand and appreciate the value of the sport fishery to their tourist economy. The role of the FWC is to take a leadership position in setting regulations before disaster strikes rather than a reactive attempt after fish stocks plunge. Does FWC really serve any purpose if they can not perform their function?
Finally, FWC staff cries lack of money to do research yet ignores the information available in recommending no action other than making spearing of Permit legal. I fear that their lack of foresight will force our children and grandchildren to get a passport and a plane ticket to Belize to enjoy what was a once a treasure of the Florida Keys.
I urge any and all fishermen who love the flats or who ever hope to fish them to email the Florida Wildlife Commission at marine@myfwc.com.”
– Dr. Jon Ain is a resident of Sugarloaf Key, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and a founder and director of the March Merkin Invitational Permit Tournament.

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  • Phil Brna

    If Belize can do it certainly the enlightened folks in Florida can figure it out and make permit a catch and release game fish. Even the poorest, least educated guides in Belize have figured out that a permit is worth thousands of US dollars more to a fly fisherman than as food. Come on Florida, GET WIT THE PROGRAM!

  • Jim Mercer

    This is really incredible!
    I can’t believe the arrogance of the fishery managers, I should say manglers, in ignoring Chairman Barreto’s advice.
    I think that all efforts should be focused on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
    I would suggest an emial campaign would be very effective in letting the Commission how permit fisherman both in Florida and those fromm out of state feel about this important game fish.

  • Bill Hempel

    It is truly hard to believe that the commission would allow this true gamefish to be speared at offshore sites. It just adds to the fact the the Goliath Grouper, a protected species that has already outgrown its status, already feed on them when they are most vunerable. Who’s pockets are being politically lined?

  • Mark Hlis

    Never ceases to amaze me how ignorant people of power can be. They have no clue; moving backwards here. Makes me sick.

  • Ricardo Hirsch

    First can you please send me my password & ID. I know I had signed up previously. Or should I just re-sign up?
    Comment:
    I had read Jon’s fine articlepreviously at a Bonefish Tarpon Trust gathering. Conrats to Mid Current for publishing it. The article is a needed peice. I am concerned that FWC will again cave into a commercial fishermen’s position at the clear expense of the fish. This conflict is way more than a “user group” fight over who gets to catch permit. This conflict is over saving the species. Or, does FWC not care about species survival…permit, swordfish, black grouper, red snapper, etc etc etc??
    Thank you

  • NSEARCH

    I have lived in Florida for over 20 years. During those years I have been an active recreational fisherman and diver in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.
    I have been following the current proceedings with respect to the permit fishery and I am aware that the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) guys wish to make bonefish, tarpon, and permit a federally regulated species. There is no data to support their claims and the species are not threatened.
    Just so you are aware, this entire proposed ban on all recreational harvest of a perfectly healthy stock of good eating fish (permit) is coming from the fly fishing friends at BTT.
    The best available science says the stock is stable. West Coast guides all say it is better than that. The Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), the Fishing Rights Alliance (FRA), and the Florida Guides Association (FGA) have spoke out against banning recreational harvest of permit in a recent FWC video conference. The leading researchers were there and stated that there is no evidence of a problem with the permit stocks. Ever since the net ban I personally have seen more and more permit on our offshore wrecks and inside Tampa Bay. The stock is healthy and current regulations are working as they were intended.
    So why are we talking about it? Because of Bonefish and Tarpon Trusts efforts, influence, and form letters(that have been posted on this website).
    The only legitimate issue is the unexploited loophole that exists in the rules for federal waters and nearly every one agrees that needs to be fixed, which the FWC staff who have worked so hard on this issue have done so in the recommendations they will present to the FWC Commission on Dec. 10th. Make no mistake about it however, BTT is trying to quietly slide a total recreational ban on harvest on their favorite flats fish, onto the ENTIRE fishing population of Florida. That is not acceptable!! There is only one problem within the permit fishery and that’s the lack of rules in federal waters and that has been addressed in the recommendations that the FWC Staff will present to the FWC Commission on Dec. 10th. The rest is pure CONJECTURE that exists only to try to make all Floridians follow the Keys guys personal preference that no one eat permit. “STAKEHOLDER REQUEST” is what they call it. Since when do stakeholders request a complete harvest ban on completely healthy stocks? I don’t know. With my knowledge from attending other public workshops provided by the NMFS and GMFMC this “STAKEHOLDER REQUEST” is not the proper way of banning any harvest of a fishery, especially with ZERO scientific evidence that the stock is indeed threatened. The entire state of Florida had commercial landings of permit in 2008 of less than 18,000 pounds. Hardly a problem worth closing all fishing over.
    I understand that here may have little personal experience with spearfishing, so please allow me to provide some background on this method of harvest. Spearfishing allows the participant to visit and gain an appreciation for the environment in which he is harvesting. It allows for the selective harvest of game with virtually no bycatch of unwanted or undersized fish. Although I find spearfishing more enjoyable than hook and line fishing, I find it to be a less productive means of harvesting fish. Many hook and line fishermen think that spearfishermen can simply swim over to any desirable fish and assassinate it. That is simply not true; game fish (and particularly larger specimens) are very wary of divers – particularly SCUBA divers with the noisy bubbles that they emit. If this were not the case, a greater percentage of the commercial harvest would be taken by commercial spearfishermen as compared to commercial rod and reel fishermen. Please bear in mind that although the majority of spearfishermen have significant hook and line experience, relatively few hook and line fishermen have any spearfishing experience.
    The spearfisherman is also limited by his body and physics on how long the can stay at depth to harvest fish. The diver faces decompression limits that require him to spend more than half the day on the surface allowing his body to off gas the excess nitrogen in his blood. On a very full day of diving, I may dive no more than 3 tanks with effective hunting times of 45 minutes per dive (depending upon depth of course). Accordingly, from sunrise to sunset I will have spent less than two and a half hours harvesting fish. The rod and reel fisherman, in contrast, can spend the entire day engaged in his pursuit. Speared fish make up only in tiny portion of all fish harvested recreationally and commercially.
    Spearfishermen provide effective and timely environmental feedback that rod and reel fishermen cannot. I can’t count the number of times that divers bring man made or other environmental damage to reefs to the attention of the authorities before greater damage can be done.
    Because of its less efficient nature, on an economic level, spearfishermen contribute more to the economy per pound of harvested fish than rod and reel fishermen. SCUBA diving is not an inexpensive sport. It is a highly technical one than requires dive computers, regulators, mixed breathing gases, high volume tanks and other sophisticated and expensive equipment.
    Spearfishing charters can accommodate a limited number of divers due to the space limitations that are caused by the volume of gear that each diver is required to bring with them. Unlike a hook and line party boat, a spearfishing charter boat can carry a very limited number of divers due to both space limitations and the captain’s ability to safely monitor a limited number of divers in the water. Nevertheless, the boat’s expenses in fuel, maintenance and crew are the same as a boat of the same size that accommodates a greater number of hook and line fishermen. Accordingly, each spearfisherman must pay more to participate in his sport than he would if he were rod and reel fishing. This also increases Florida tax revenues.
    I am not at all suggesting that we should limit rod and reel fishing. However, I fail to find the logic in limiting spearfishing while not also limiting a means of harvest that is less discriminate, more productive, kills unwanted and undersize fish (bycatch), provides less environmental feedback and provides less of a stimulation to the economy per pound of harvested resource. I would think, rather, that any proposed regulations would seek to encourage more fishermen to harvest their fish with a spear instead of a rod and reel. It is my understanding that, as a matter of law, regulations must have a rational relationship to a stated governmental purpose. I cannot discern that relationship here.
    The fact that all the science indicates that the population is fine and that the offshore stocks will now be protected by a 2 fish per boat limit is seen by a majority of anglers, guides, and researchers statewide as adequate to provide sustainability and healthy stocks while still allowing Florida’s anglers (including spearfishermen) to take a few for dinner year-round. Again, I applaud the FWC and the staff involved in recommendations for seeing thru the selfish motivations and false information of some of the Keys fly-fishing purists and supporting the majority of Florida’s anglers with reasonable and sustainable recommendations.
    The FWC Staff working on this topic have worked very hard compiling all the data, working/listening with the stakeholders, and developing balanced solutions. Given all the above information, I encourage everyone to support the FWC Commission’s acceptance of all the proposed recommendations provided by the FWC staff on December 10 in Clewiston, Fl. regarding the permit fishery.
    Another note, spearfishing for permit has been occuring for MANY years in federal waters. It has only recently become under the spotlight thanks to the numerous spearfishing internet forums with people posting pictures with their catch (much like you guys do here). All this time we have been harvesting our fish under the state regulations while in federal waters and the fishery is still thriving and growing. So the only thing “new” about the recommendation for allowing the use of spearing gear to harvest permit is that if accepted, there will be language in the rules stating that it’s legal.

  • Ricardo Hirsch

    I have found this list of FWC Commissioners on the public FWC web site http://myfwc.com
    Rodney L. Barreto, Miami, Chairman (5th Term)
    Kathy Barco, Jacksonville, Vice Chairperson
    Ron Bergeron, Fort Lauderdale, Commissioner
    Richard A. “Dick” Corbett,Tampa,Commissioner
    Dwight Stephenson, Delray Beach,Commissioner
    Kenneth Wright, Winter Park, Commissioner
    Brian S. Yablonski, Tallahassee,Commissioner
    The site gives interesting biographies of each, and is a good summary of their various accomplishments
    that have resulted in their being appointed by the Governer to 5 year terms. I wish that the site gave their direct email addresses. I have always wanted to send the entire FWC Board emails and comments about fisheries issues & opinions, but have not been able yet to find their addresses. This proposed permit spear fishing disaster et al would be such an issue, about which I would have liked to have blasted out 7 emails

  • The first troubling thing about the comments that are in opposition to Jon Ain’s letter is that the writers appear to think that FWC has sufficient data to manage the permit fishery. They do not, pure and simple. There is no science that states that permit populations are fine. By their own admission, their recreational fisheries harvest data are suspect at best. Moreover, FWC has never done a valid stock assessment of permit. The 1995 ‘assessment’ was not valid, and was based on data wholly inadequate for that purpose. In one breath FWC staff state that they see no indication of trouble with the permit fishery, and in the next breath state that they have no data on the fishery (see Florida Sportsman article): this is not responsible fisheries management. FWC staff also state that they have no data on recruitment of juveniles, another troubling gap in the data. With this overwhelming lack of data, one wonders how FWC can set bag limits of any sort and know that such limits are appropriate. It is incumbent upon FWC to obtain the data necessary for a valid stock assessment.
    The second most troubling aspect of these opposition posts is the disregard for the fact that many of the permit being harvested on artificial reefs in summer months are there to spawn. It is an entirely different matter to harvest fish from spawning aggregations vs during non-spawning times of year. Spawning season closures exist for many species in many states. Even in Florida, other species have closures during spawning seasons (e.g., snook, spotted seatrout). For the record, FWC staff state in their draft recommendations that the reason for no spawning closure is lack of information on season and locations.
    Third, anecdotal evidence can be a valuable addition to quantitative information on fisheries. It is by no means a valid substitute. For example, the anecdotal evidence of more permit as presented in these commentaries is offset by opposite observations of long-time guides in the Keys (with more than 20 years experience). This conflict of anecdotal data would be unimportant if FWC had valid stock assessment data.
    Finally, it is troubling that people have so quickly taken this to name calling, personal accusations, etc. That serves no purpose and tends to undermine what validity their points might have.
    Aaron Adams