At its May meeting, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) made some significant harvest changes to the state’s popular red drum (redfish) fishery. (“Harvest” simply means what recreational anglers can keep and take home for dinner.) The FWC tripled the management zones for redfish around the coastal regions of the state, increasing it from three to nine management regions. Each FWC zone may impose specific size, limit and harvest quotas on Florida redfish anglers and guides.
With the new management regions come very specific regulations directing the harvest of the species by anglers and guides statewide, beginning Sept. 1, 2022.
Southwest Florida Redfish Updates
One of the important new changes will be opening the harvest of one redfish per person, per day in the southwest corner of the state, with a vessel limit of two redfish. Additionally, fishing guides and their crew cannot participate in a boat limit of redfish when working for hire.
The slot limit on harvestable redfish remains the same, as it has for many years, at 18 to 27 inches.
For four years Southwest Florida has been closed to redfish harvest due to a devastating red tide in 2018 that nearly wiped-out redfish, snook, trout and other species in the area. Red tide comes from deadly algae blooms that deprive oxygen from water and suffocates fish — by the uncountable millions.
Over the past four years state biologists have been monitoring redfish stocks in the southwest corner of the state. They believe now is the time to open it up again to anglers. FWC biologist Jeffrey Renchen says redfish stock levels in the region have rebounded to numbers prior to the red tide die off.
Opinions Mixed on Redfish Reopening
Many anglers in the region are delighted they once again can keep a few redfish for their dinner tables. But saltwater anglers are a fickle and vocal lot, especially guides in the area. Few mince words when it comes to fishery stocks and regulations governing their harvest.
“Yes, it has gotten better for redfish in Southwest Florida,” says Sarasota Capt. Geoff Page, a well-known and successful inshore angler. “But the numbers are nowhere near what they were before 2017 and the red tide of 2018.
“I believe the number of boats on the water in the Southwest Region are too many to allow redfish harvesting just yet. On the good side, there’s been no red tide recently, the water is clearing, and grass beds are coming back, so I’m seeing more redfish.”
Fishing Pressure is High in Florida
It’s no secret that Florida’s population is booming, especially in recent years due to the Covid pandemic. That influx of folks may have contributed to more people on the water, including angling for redfish.
“The numbers of guides in Florida alone have increased dramatically, not to mention the number of people that have moved to Florida in the last couple of years and that are still moving here,” says Capt. Earle Waters, of Homosassa, who chiefly works the waters north of the Southwest redfish zone.
“That can only hurt when FWC increases the catch to two reds (per boat, per day). That make take some pressure off our redfish to the north of the Southwest zone, because many of the guides down there had been leaving that region and fishing north. I don’t know if there can be a balance in pressure and harvest on redfish with the current Sept. 1 redfish guidelines.”
Relaxing the redfish limit is endorsed by many anglers, however, including St. Petersburg Capt. Ray Markham, who believes a two-redfish vessel limit is okay. He’s in favor of reopening the redfish harvest south of Tampa Bay, and has generally seen good numbers of redfish in his region.
But other long-tenure guides are opposed to the re-opening, including venerable Tampa guide Capt. Dave Markett, who spends plenty of time fishing Boca Grande and the Southwest region.
“It’s a huge blunder on FWC’s part,” he says bluntly. “Because of the new regulations, recovery for redfish will be very slow.”
Until Sept. 1, the catch-and-release-only regulation is in effect for redfish in Southwest Florida.