After listening to 19 different speakers regarding the tarpon fishery around Boca Grande in Tampa Thursday, Sept. 7, the Florida Wildlife Commission adjourned to consider what steps must be taken to protect and enhance its existence.
Capt. Tim McLaughlin, chairman of Save the Tarpon of Boca Grande Pass, said the possibility of designating the tarpon as a sportfish could result in a major philosophical change by FWC management.
"It's the different between figuring out harvest levels versus maximum abundance," McLaughlin said. "That's a major change for the FWC."
The only immediate effect of sportfish status designation would eliminate use of the tarpon tag, said McLaughlin. Tarpon are already prohibited from sale and subject to catch by hook and line only.
"The bigger issue with the sportfish classification is in philosophy of management," McLaughlin said.
FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright said he wants to manage tarpon as a sportfish completely distinguished from a fish with a commercial component or a food fish.
"The more we have of tarpon the better the environment and economy is," Wright said.
The FWC itself, however, did not discuss the topic Thursday as it listened to the parade of speakers. A draft rule regarding sportfish designation for tarpon is scheduled to be on the agenda for FWC discussion at its Dec. 5-6 meeting in Apalachicola, according to FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley.
"Some were for and others against issuing game status to tarpon," Nalley said. "Most people who talked focused on tarpon and how tarpon might be managed, what the public wants to see. It seemed the general consensus was that most people were for the idea of making tarpon a protected game fish."
Nalley said the FWC must define the tarpon's protections as a sportfish and look at other fish that also might fit the category.
Joe Mercurio of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series was one of the speakers. The PTTS is under fire for its use of jig fishing gear, which critics claim snags the tarpon, and the motorized pursuit of the silver king in their spawning grounds outside Boca Grande Pass and during tourneys within it.
McLaughlin said the debate over the PTTS versus traditional tarpon anglers was not the issue in Tampa.
"It was a very preliminary discussion so I don't think it was really our place to try to accomplish anything," he said. "We didn't want to hijack that platform to further our philosophy. We did make a statement we absolutely support the sportfish status."