BY MARCY SHORTUSE - The Port Boca Grande Beach was covered with people on Sunday, June 17. They carried signs that said, “No weigh, no kill” and “Save the tarpon.”
They were there to demonstrate their strong belief that the Pass should become a “catch-and-release” fishery, and that certain fishing practices used by some anglers are detrimental to the fish.
Mostly comprised of local residents, the group of more than 200 to 300 took to the beach for more than three hours during the Professtional Tarpon Tournament Series championship, and while there was little verbal abuse between the two groups there was a palpable tension in the air.
There was also quiet talk between parents and their children, grandparents and young ones, explaining why they were there and what they were taking a stand for.
The word spreading through social media outlets like Facebook in the last few weeks has already cost the PTTS several sponsors.
And what are PTTS and WPTTS (Women’s Professional Tarpon Tournament Series) anglers doing that started the controversy in the first place?
One local woman, Julie Jean Robertson, has been in the Pass her whole life, and she isn’t afraid to tell anyone about her stance on the issue. She was raised on the boat helping her father, who is Capt. Jimmy Robertson.
“I remember having 4 a.m. charters, and everything would be nice and peaceful until 6:30 a.m., when a Nascar race showed up in the pass. The captains, if that’s what they call themselves, were short drifting, fighting snagged fish for hours and getting traditional boats to move because they have no control over a fish they fought for over an hour.
“They would yell at us saying, ‘Hey Buddy, I’m trying to make a livin’ here! Can’t you move?’ What, we’re not? I believe the jig is the root of the problem but it is not the only thing. The lack of sportsmanship of these people is even worse than the jig.”
Capt. Nelson Italiano III was there at the protest, acting not only as a coordinator of the protest but as an avid Boca Grande angler. He started a Facebook group called “Let’s Save the Tarpon,” and has been working closely with a coalition that has created a web site, savethetarpon.com, spearheaded by locals such as Capt. Tom McLaughlin.
Nelson’s father, Nat, has fished the Pass for more than 30 years and said that he definitely can see a depletion in the amount of fish in the water.
“When I was a young tarpon guide in the 1980’s and 90’s it was estimated that there were 10,000 tarpon in the Pass at any one time at the height of the season,” Nat wrote in one Facebook entry. “This lasted for almost two months every season. It’s a safe bet that there are no more than 5,000 at most and most of the time less than that. After a weekend full of their tournaments, the tarpon fishing takes several days to recover.”
Both father and son think that at least partial blame falls on fishing practices such as those employed by PTTS anglers. The Italianos and many others think that the way the pods are chased around the Pass and dragged through the water to the shore where the scale is, as well as use of certain lures, could bring an end to the tarpon’s prolific time in Boca Grande waters.
“Every time a tarpon rolls on the surface, all 50 to 100 jig boats run over and onto the school of fish, slam their engines in reverse, boil up the water and bomb the tarpon with a heavy-weighted jig,” Nat said. “The tarpon are so scared by all the commotion and noise that they move to another spot in the Pass. This practice goes on and on till the tarpon leave the Pass. You can literally watch the boats move farther and farther offshore as they harass the tarpon out of the pass. Sure some of the tarpon return to the pass later but many move on."
Capt. Dave Markett was out in the Pass on Sunday, too. He, however, was out there to fish the PTTS tournament. He has been fishing local tournaments for more than 20 years, and has been active in PTTS tournaments for years. Boca Grande is a place he calls a second home, as his family has had roots here for more than 100 years.
“My family has roots in Boca Grande that date back to the early 1900s,” he said. “The Marketts were a pioneer Arcadia family and my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were with the railroad. I have guided clients for tarpon in Boca Grande Pass and the surrounding sounds, beaches and Charlotte Harbor for a long time.”
He thinks that the tarpon jig directly impacted the status quo.
“Like so many things in today’s society, it signifies a change and most of us fight change – myself included,” he said. “I send clients to traditional-method guides often. Many folks don’t want the tight boating or the relentless sun of daytime and often they want their fishing to be more social than active. I understand those desires.
“No single fishing method is the most effective at all times of the day and traditional methods produce great results when tides and times come together for them - same as they do with our methods. Modern tarpon jigs, hooks and riggings are a far cry from the original style introduced some 20 to 25 years ago. The illustrations currently in circulation by those who are opposed are nothing like what is currently being used. And the techniques described by our detractors absolutely guarantee failure of effort. Maybe it used to be easy, but that was a long, long time ago with different gear.”
For many years the island’s local captains used the weigh scale methods that the PTTS is using now. They gaffed the fish and would toss them up on the beach in a long line.
But they stopped using those methods in the 1990s, after realizing what was happening to the fishery. Island tournaments now use a strict catch-and-release policy, and winners are determined by how many fish are caught.
This year the PTTS changed their methods for weighing and displaying their fish. Instead of holding the tarpon up at the scale, they are using a clear sling you can see through. They changed their line size from 40 to 50-pound test, which they said decreases the amount of time fighting the fish, and they have what they call “professional release” teams reviving the tarpon.
They are still dragging the tarpon from where they were actually caught to the scale, sometimes up to 800 yards or more through the water.
Markett said that, based on what he has read, there isn’t much difference between the mortality rate of tarpon caught with either method. He also believes that his fellow PTTS anglers take great care to keep their tarpon alive.
“Every tarpon must be alive when presented for weighing in order to be accepted and it must swim away after release,” he said. “Every team presenting a fish to be weighed is closely monitored to assure slowly bringing it in and not keeping the head out of the water.”
Markett said the majority of tarpon caught are DNA sampled and instantly released for points required to qualify for the team of the year and championship.
He also said that no fish were DNA sampled at the championship tournament on Sunday. The points normally accumulated during regular tournaments don’t apply in the championship.
The FWC has remained quiet on their position regarding tarpon conservation and the fishing methods employed by the PTTS anglers. They do maintain a presence at all the PTTS tournaments.
Recently an FWC spokersperson, Amanda Nalley, said that the FWC “does not condemn the event (PTTS tournaments), but does not back or support them in any way.”
She went on to state that the FWC is against “gaffing, dragging towing, removing a tarpon from the water or excessively handling the fish.” And so the debate continues.
E-mail (required, but will not display)
Notify me of follow-up comments
Click for a larger view