Capt. Cappy Joiner, president of the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, is issuing a trumpet call to save the declining tarpon fishery surrounding Gasparilla Island from further damage.
Joiner estimates thousands of silver kings have been driven off the course they usually enjoy around Gasparilla Island.
"The bad part about the ocean is you can't see the damage," Joiner said. "But you keep fooling with something long enough and you are going to run them off."
To illustrate the tarpon's plight, the Boca guides have produced "Let's Save the Boca Grande Tarpon Habitat," a 16-minute free movie to be shown at 2 p.m. March 21 in the Boca Grande Community Center Auditorium.
Joiner said he wants input from the public on ways to protect the majestic silver kings from being driven from their natural habitat of at least two centuries.
"We know what's going on out there," Joiner said. "The boat traffic, and the type of boat traffic, is creating a problem. What's going on right now in Boca Grande Pass is not kosher for juveniles or adults."
FWC Boca Grande Pass restrictions
Boca Grande Pass consists of all waters located within the westernmost edge of the Phosphate Dock on the southeast bay side of Gasparilla Island then due east on a straight line to the westernmost edge of the Intracoastal Waterway then south to the No. 75 Intracoastal Waterway on the northeast bay side of Cayo Costa.
There it proceeds around the northern tip of Cayo Costa along the shore to the QR test buoy on the northwest Gulf coast side of Cayo Costa then west on a straight line to the No. 12 red buoy marking the entrance to Boca Grande Pass; then proceed northeast on a straight line to the easternmost edge of the concrete pier ruins at the lighthouse beach on the southwest Gulf side of Gasparilla Island and around the southern tip of Gasparilla Island to the Phosphate Dock, the point of beginning.
In Boca Grande Pass, during April, May, and June a maximum of three fishing lines may be deployed from a vessel at any time and no person shall use, fish with, or place in the water any breakaway gear.
Specific Authority Art. IV, Sec. 9, Fla. Const. Law Implemented Art. IV, Sec. 9, Fla. Const. HistoryNew 7-1-04.
In addition, tarpon depredation from breakaway jig fishing has been a hot issue. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission now bans using such gear in the Boca Grande Pass through April, May and June but it is allowed all other times.
"There are currently no plans to add to the ban," said Amanda Nalley of the FWC,
First-year Chairwoman Kathy Barco of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is working with Mote Marine Laboratory on a tarpon genetic recapture project around Gasparilla Island, was not available for comment.
Aaron Podey, FWC biological administrator, said the fishing gear debate likely won't be taken on by Florida's fishery management arm.
"There's a long history of the issue of that gear, and conflict between the people who use natural bait and the jiggers," Podey said. "Of course we want as many of those catch-and-released fish to survive as possible. But it's not on our work plan to look into banning breakaway jig fishing."
Kent Smith of the FWC said keeping habitats in good shape is paramount.
"But I don't know enough about the island to know if its tarpon habitat is deteriorating.," Smith said.
The FWC is a key partner in helping preserve tarpon habitat. There is historic urgency in Charlotte Harbor, where the first tarpon ever caught on hook and line was documented by worldwide newspaper coverage in 1885.
In Florida, approximately 50 percent of mangroves have already been lost and habitat continues to be lost at a rate of 2 percent per year, according to Mote Marine Marine Laboratory biologist Aaron Adams. Since available habitat is a critical factor in determining population size, the loss of these breeding grounds harms all fisheries they support, he said.
"Perhaps more problematic is the alteration of freshwater flows into mangrove wetlands," Adams said. "Alteration of freshwater flow into estuarine habitats has significant negative impacts of fish and invertebrates. "
Adams said much of the habitat degradation can still be corrected, and planning can prevent further habitat loss. He refused comment on the breakaway jig fishing issue.
The Wildflower Preserve near Gasparilla Island contains the remnants of an 80-acre golf course purchased by the Lemon Bay Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Englewood under President Jim Cooper, also executive director for the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority.
The LBC plans restoration of the full 80 acres, which would nurture juvenile tarpon among other fish. These habitats are under continuing threat, Adams said.
Juvenile tarpon depend upon shallow, backwater habitats for at least the first year of their lives, and the Wildflower Preserve provides mangrove or other vegetation that provides protection from bird predators; provides shallow water with some deeper pools for fish to congregate when water levels decrease; tidal exchange through narrow, shallow passages that constrict the size of predatory fish; freshwater inflow; and calm backwaters.
The BGFGA movie is a call to reduce the stresses inherent in tarpon tourneys and boating pressures at a time when the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce is trying to resurrect The World's Richest Tarpon Tournament brand. The WRTT has attracted name-brand sponsors during the 30th anniversary of the first World's Richest tarpon tournaments on Boca Grande, which returns after a five-year hiatus.
Lew Hastings, Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the guides and the Chamber all want the same thing: preservation of tarpon habitat.
The live cast versus jig debate is not part of this particular tarpon equation, at least according to the official Chamber stance.
'It's important for the Chamber to create our tourney and stay above the fray," said Hastings. "We're not in the tarpon tourney business. We're in the economic development business."