Big-Three Momentum

It's official. The country of Belize has formally designated its stocks of tarpon, bonefish and permit under a strict "catch-and-release-only" status. Now the question begs: Could Florida be next? Taking a page from the playbook of Belize's grassroots fly-fishing community - which late last year gained protected status for its country's most important game fish after years spent petitioning the government - Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), a Pineland, Florida-based research and conservation organization, issued a similar proposal in early January to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Their message: Enact similar status for the Sunshine State's "Big Three." Citing Florida's estimated $6 billion recreational-fishing economy and the lofty value of a bonefish (pegged at about $75,000 over the lifespan of a single fish), BTT proposed that commercial harvest be strictly prohibited for the three species. They also suggested the implementation of a recreational "trophy/kill" tag similar to that currently used for tarpon, but with a broader scope that would encompass and protect all three species. "Our view is that the long-term economic value of these fisheries is dependent on the fish populations," said Aaron Adams, BTT's director of operations and research. "We look at this as preventative medicine, which is more cost-effective and better for the patient than emergency-room care." It's also something of a radical proposal, at least from the way FWC has historically managed its fisheries. The commission typically manages species as a single biological unit rather than lumping multiple species together under a joint plan. But even if the proposal were to be considered, it likely won't be any time soon. Lee Schlesinger, an FWC spokesman, told FFSW that the commission already has set its agenda for 2009. "It may be what they're suggesting is a great idea, and maybe someday we'll take it up," Schlesinger said. "But right now, it's just not on our current work plan." However, Schlesinger did reveal some potentially good news. Permit - the one species of the three that comes under significant domestic commercial harvest (primarily when they gather on reefs to spawn) - will likely be on the agenda for preliminary management hearings this spring or summer. "Nothing's been formally proposed," Schlesinger said, "but we've received letters and calls from people asking to make permit a game fish and restrict commercial harvest, and there's some talk of establishing some sort of spawning season." But with regard to bonefish and tarpon, Schlesinger said that the species simply are "not on our radar screens at this time." Schlesinger said he wasn't aware of any problems in either fishery from a biological sense, nor had he seen any new data or information that indicated either fishery was in trouble. "But," he added, "the concept of lumping three popular sport fish together and doing some special management is certainly not impossible. Sometimes that's how things start - from reputable folks who are observing things and have a legitimate interest in a fishery. We're all ears. Just because we're not actively working on it now doesn’t mean there won’t be something that takes place down the road." -Mike Mazur