Opinion: Florida Wildlife Commission Needs to Protect Permit

November 28, 2009 By: Marshall Cutchin

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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 [email protected]
– 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.