Don’t like the decision? Be part of the process
By Ed Killer
You should have been there.
No, really, YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE.
I’m writing specifically to saltwater anglers who complain on social media about fishing regulations. I want to remind you all of one point — our process of government is still a democracy. Griping in a Facebook comment thread does not make state fishing policy.
At least not yet. Not until we elect Mark Zuckerberg Governor of Florida.
(Let that sink in for a minute.)
Seriously, a lot in the way of fishing regulations happened this week in a hotel conference room in Fort Lauderdale. The seven member Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were very busy trying to manage the delicate balance between conservation, angler access and when or if it is ever allowable to kill a long-protected species.
These governor-appointees did not take their roles lightly. They are volunteers and most of them invested three full days to study and understand, listen and decide what is right for the future of Florida’s rich and incomparable fisheries.
These commissioners are not wildlife management majors from college. They are lawyers, real estate developers, accountants and business owners. They earned their appointments by supporting a governor’s campaign, often. But they are also often fair.
Florida is without a doubt the fishing capital of the world. But we are also the diving capital of the world, the beach-going capital of the world and the fastest growing state in the world. That puts a lot of pressure on how we manage our wildlife, fish, birds, natural resources and waterways. What I’ve observed in my 24 years as an outdoors journalist is that often these responsibilities come into direct conflict. For example, a state cannot manage its rainfall with a philosophy of flood control. That conflict has led to our leaders fouling what we wish were clean waterways, especially during the approach or in the aftermath of a hurricane or tropical storm.
This FWC meeting was rare. Usually, there may only be one hot-button issue discussed every three or four meetings. This week, there were two — one on each day.
Wednesday morning, the commission addressed shark-related issues. Billed to be a broad discussion on several shark-related issues, the morning quickly became devoted to a singular issue — shore-based shark fishing from Florida beaches. A total of 21 speakers gave public comment with 19 pointing a laser focus against the practice of fishing for large sharks from beaches. One speaker, Kellie Ralston with the American Sportfishing Association, said her organization wants to ensure shark fishermen still have access to fishing areas, but supports some regulation. And Steve English of Port Salerno, a commercial fishermen who also serves on the king mackerel advisory panel for the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, commended the commission for conserving sharks so well, they have become a serious problem for mackerel fishermen in state waters.
Who stole the show? Jessica Veatch of Port St. Lucie’s precious daughter Violet, age 4. Wearing a pink t-shirt which read “Mermaid in Training,” Violet smiled precociously as her mother gave a tearful account of the trauma she lived through last August. Her then 3-year-old daughter was bitten by a shark at Bathtub Beach in Martin County during guarded hours. Veatch said there were teenagers spearfishing with Hawaiian slings on the outside of the worm-rock reef, and bringing the snapper back to the beach that day. During a break, commissioners greeted Violet and saw the scar of the large shark jaw shaped bite mark on her right leg. Melbourne Beach mayor Jim Simmons also gave thoughtful, clear testimony why fishing for sharks from beaches has become a problem for coastal residents and visitors. Veatch said fishing of any kind near swimming areas is a problem. Anglers are going to hear this argument more and more in the future.
Who didn’t speak? Anyone who catches sharks from beaches, and wants to be able to enjoy the present level of access and light regulation they currently enjoy.
Thursday, the commission turned its attention to the 2016 stock assessment for Goliath grouper. As mandated by state law, once a fishery’s stock assessment is completed, FWC staff must evaluate through public workshops and outreach whether there is a demand to change the status of a fishery to allow or restrict harvest.
Who was there? A stream of 56 registered speakers of which all but two — the American Sportfishing Association and the Coastal Conservation of Florida — spoke out against a proposed limited harvest which would involve the take of about 100 Goliath groupers.
Who wasn’t there? All of the anglers I have spoken to personally, face to face, by phone, on social media through texts, etc. who have told me how much they would love to see some kind of season opened to take Goliath grouper. Anglers at spots like Sebastian Inlet Jetty, Turning Basin and Bull Shark Barge have told me stories of losing snook, snapper and cobia to monster Goliaths.
The result of the emotional meeting was the FWC elected to do more homework on the Goliath grouper matter. Commission chairman Bo Rivard and vice chair Robert Spottswood both were not completely convinced by the overwhelmingly one-sided public testimony that harvest of Florida’s largest grouper should remain prohibited. Staff will return by end of year with another proposal to help satisfy some of the excellent points brought up by the conservation and diver/ecotourism communities. The commission also sent staff to work on developing draft regulations to control some of the unethical behavior displayed by shark fishermen on beaches and boats as viewed on YouTube and Instagram.
If you’re angry about the direction this commission is headed in with respect to shark fishing, Goliath grouper management or even the reduction of sheepshead bag limits from 15 to eight, don’t “at” me. This is our process. It may be flawed. It may not be perfect. You may have a 1,000-word rant on someone else’s Facebook post about how unfair you think it all is. But this is how we make laws regarding fishing, hunting, diving and wildlife resource management.
Most of you probably don’t realize this, but when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission votes on an issue, and the chairman bangs his gavel, Florida gets a new law. There is no judicial review. And unless the matter is fee-related, there is no legislative review. The governor isn’t even involved, other than appointing the commissioners.
There was a very obvious trend I saw this week. I’ve seen it for years. Fishing — even recreational hook and line, family level fishing — is becoming evil. No one cares how much tax revenue it generates or how much of the tourism industry is driven by fishing. Whether someone fishes for sport, for their livelihood or to put food on their table, there is a wave coming. And that wave wants to end fishing.
We’ve already seen it at the federal level. It’s coming to the state level. Consider 1,200 people move to Florida each day. How many do you think are anglers and hunters? Not many.
If you want to save the type of fishing you enjoy, the FWC commissioners need to SEE you and HEAR you. You need to come to the meetings. You need to drive many hours. You need to stay the night. You need to make well-organized, polite, clear comments. You need to bring your friends, too.
It’s how we make laws. The people who are making those sacrifices are being heard.
Loudly and clearly.