Say Cheese

Anglers beware. Under a recent rules clarification by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission, if you posed for a quick snapshot to remember a big tarpon, you could be considered a criminal and be subject to fines and even jail time. Why is that? Because the state of Florida considers lifting a tarpon out of the water for a photo - then painstakingly reviving it and releasing it - tantamount to piercing its ventral surface and primitive lung with an 8-inch straight gaff. Obviously, those two events aren't equal; a fish that swims off - injured or not - has a better chance of survival than one lying on the dock gathering flies. Florida began requiring the purchase of a $50 tarpon tag on January 1, 1990. That tag was required to harvest and possess a silver king in state waters. This recent reinterpretation of the 1990 rule, however, makes it illegal to remove a tarpon from the water for a quick snapshot unless you have the tag. Florida fisheries regulators believe that since you might injure a fish while lifting it from the water, and since it might die after you release it, you have therefore harvested it. And they're serious about it. If you choose to share your photos with friends on an Internet forum or chat room, and Florida FWC officers find the photo and can identify you, they're going to attempt to contact you in order "educate" you. So state wildlife officers are going be on the clock, surfing the World Wide Web, looking for people holding fish for a photo and then tracking them down to make sure they (or their guides) are a) handling fish properly and b) have a valid tarpon tag. That's right. Uniformed, gun-carrying FWC officers will be battling eyestrain while surfing forums on flat-panel monitors instead of battling sunstroke while seeking out real game violators. "We're hoping to use this as an educational tool rather than a hammer," says FWC Lt. Col. Don Holloway. "The officers have a lot of latitude as to what constitutes a violation or not." I kind of get this image of NBC's Dateline: To Catch a Predator. Regardless of whether you agree with the newly adopted stance, we should all agree that there couldn't possibly be a better way for Florida's FWC officers to spend their time. Unless they were chasing down illegal gill-netters on the west coast. Or arresting the rogue bait-slingers on the east coast who still use federally-protected baby sea turtles to poach oversize redfish and snook. Or cracking down on south Florida's cottage industry of charter boats illegally selling sailfish. You get the idea. There's plenty of spare time on the front lines for them to spend surfing the Internet. What better way for a state that has done such a great job of managing its marine resources over the last 50 years to direct its efforts? So I guess the bottom line is, if you come to Florida and want to take a picture with a big 'poon, splurge for the $50 and obey the law. Or at least learn to use Photoshop before you post your pic on the Internet. Capt. Ted Lund