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Now, here is something to give you pause if you have a tarpon trip to Florida on your calendar this year. Seems the state is expanding its definition of possession of a fish to include lifting it out of the water for the purpose of taking a photograph. Worse, that possession definition may be broadened to a lot of other species in the state such as snook and sea trout.
Im indebted to South Florida writer Bob Stearns for word of this troubling development. Stearns has written a column for American Angler Magazine on the subject. It will be appearing soon in a column called The Rant.
The move to tighten the definition of fish possession in the state of Florida began with the jewfish, or goliath grouper, which is a completely protected species. Making it illegal to remove one of these fish from the water even to un-hook it, much less photograph it, was controversial. Doing this for an important sportfish like tarpon is mind-boggling. The move has tarpon tournament organizers scrambling to rewrite their rules, and guides who know about the move are worried about a possible pall of doubt descending over traditional guided sportfishing.
There is a loophole that will allow guided sportfishing for tarpon to continue. Seems a guide is able to buy a $50 tarpon tag, which he can affix to any tarpon that a client wants to remove from the water for the purpose of picture-taking. (Note: Current talk is, he will have to place the tag in the fishs mouth, in the water, before raising him.) Problem is, the angler will assuredly have to reimburse the guide for any tag that is used. And what happens if a client catches a second or third tarpon that he also wants to photograph? All of this is no joking matter, as illegally possessing a tarpon in the State of Florida is a 2nd degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in the slammer.
An interesting thing to consider here is the likely effect of forcing anglers to place a tag in a tarpons mouth. Almost certainly it is going to inspire some anglers to bring their fish back to the dock stone-dead. After all, they paid for the tag, right? Indeed this conservation move may set back the catch-and-release ethic that has developed around tarpon. It may well cause a lot more mortality than it prevents.
From a broader point of view, the real drawback of this move is the impact it could have on some fisher- mens eagerness to go fishing. If the new definition of possession extends to snook, for example, it is going to be illegal to remove one of these fish from the water during the closed season, even for un-hooking it. There are many places where you fish for snook where bull sharks make it dangerous to reach down in the water to unhook a fish. Sometimes, you simply cant remove a fly or lure without fully grasping a fish and lifting it from the water. Are rangers and wardens going to be watching with binoculars for criminal behavior?
At this writing, pro-fishing activists are still pushing for a more moderate and sensible definition of possession, and it is hard to believe they wont win at least some ground back. Sportfishing is just too important economically in Florida for extremists in law enforcement to have their way here. At least one hopes that is the case. Stay tuned.