Proposed Revisions to Florida Marine Fisheries Regulations

I arrived in Florida late Friday night for a speaking engagement on an Indonesian fishery on which much of my work has been focused for the past year. With the talk now behind me, I am ensconced on a Gulf Coast barrier island with a few days of getting line on water ahead of me. As such, I was interested to learn that, on Wednesday of last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) looked at a draft proposal to alter the marine fisheries regulations in the State in order to make them “easier to read, understand and enforce.” The proposed changes are outlined in the Division 68B Rule Cleanup Draft Rules Presentation and would impact Division 68B of the Florida Administrative Code (FAC).

According to an FWC press release, the proposal is the result, at least in part, of the public asking for clarity by streamlining marine fisheries rules. As any of us anglers who travel frequently to states other than our own know, understanding a new state’s fishing regulations can sometimes be a time-consuming task largely because of the way the information is presented. In addition, the proposal will help fisheries managers to enforce existing regulations.

As the press release explains, “Current regulations contain inconsistencies from one species chapter to the next. For example, definitions and the location of specific rules vary from chapter-to-chapter. It is because of issues like these that the public asked the FWC to streamline current marine fisheries rules.”

The proposal outlines two main areas of revision. The first area is standardization throughout the 20 species chapters (68B-15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 26, 28, 33, 36, 37, 41, 47, 48, 49, 51, 52, and 53). Further, the regulations for sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus), swordfish (Xiphias gladius) and wahoo (Acanthocybium solanderi) would be moved to new rule chapters of their own. The second area of revision, which would create a new “general” chapter, will, potentially, be the most helpful to both anglers and fisheries managers. The Draft Rule Language General Chapter (Chapter 68B-2) contains definitions and regulations that are applied to all marine fisheries.

While all proposed regulations for the new “general” chapter discussed at Wednesday’s meeting are based on existing species rules, the application of the rules when it comes to enforcement may change if the proposal becomes law. “For example,” the press release explains, “a rule in place for red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), reef fish and king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla), specifying vessel operators are responsible for any fishery violations that occur aboard a vessel, will be moved to the ‘General’ chapter and applied to all saltwater fishing. This change will improve enforceability even if no one on the vessel is willing to claim responsibility.”

Likewise, various changes in definitions would change the enforcement of existing regulations. “For example, the proposal would expand the definition of ‘Florida waters’ to include any potential fishing site and the adjacent parking area.” Another definition revision would expand the definition of “harvest” to include “the unnecessary harming or destruction of marine organisms.”

As those who have followed my reporting on fisheries rules packages and proposed changes in Hawaii and other places will know, I believe giving fisheries managers more power to manage the fishery and enforce existing regulations is essential. Too often fisheries managers have expressed to me in interviews how they are frustrated by the fact they cannot enforce existing regulations. While funding plays a major part in their inability to enforce some existing regulations, loopholes and lack of clarity in the regulations also contribute to the challenges in managing the fishery consistent with existing rules.

Of course there is a balance neccesary here so rules or interpretations of rules do not infringe on either recreational or commercial anglers rights to operate in the fishery. Determining how these rights are balanced with conservation and restoration initiatives is often challenging and contentious, and it is one reason why science-based management of fisheries is so critical. Fisheries managers should be able to respond to the concerns of anglers with data clearly showing why specific regulations are necessary or beneficial to stock.

The public is encouraged to weigh in on the FWC draft proposal to alter the marine fisheries regulations by attending one of two public webinars April 22 or 24 from 6 to 8 p.m. More information is available on the FWC website. The proposal is scheduled to go before the Commission for final approval at its June meeting.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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