Feds debate requiring bigger landed hogfish- 18" vs. current 12"

Feds debate requiring bigger landed hogfish
BY TIMOTHY O'HARA Citizen Staff
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Federal fishery managers are considering increasing the minimum size for harvesting hogfish, which would "virtually eliminate all hogfish fishing in the Florida Keys," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which will take public input in Key Largo Monday, is debating whether to require that landed hogfish be 18 inches long, instead of the current 12.

Hogfish typically are not that large in the Keys, as they are in other areas in the council's jurisdiction, such as North Carolina, said Don DeMaria, a Lower Keys spear fisherman and member of the council's Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel that recommended the change.

Hogfish is mainly targeted by spear fishermen, as they are easy to spear but nearly impossible to catch with hook and line.

Key West-based commercial spear fisherman Lee Starling agreed that fishery managers should increase the size, but said 18 inches might be excessive.

"Eighteen inches is too large," said Starling, who called 12 inches a "small fish" in the Keys. "At 14, it would give the fish more opportunities to reproduce. I just think 14 is more reasonable."

Starling said many unscrupulous and novice spear fishermen already are harvesting undersized hogfish because they are easy to shoot.

Jim Atack, a North Carolina fisherman and advisory panel member, recommended the minimum size be increased to 20 inches, but other members argued against it and compromised at 18, Don DeMaria said.

University of Florida marine biology professor and researcher Jerry Ault called 18 inches "a step in the right direction," but said 20 to 22 inches would be more ideal to protect the species in the long run.

"It's precautionary, but wise," Ault said. "These types of steps are necessary to maintain sustainability of the fishery. When you implement size changes, it takes time before you see the results."

Ault has conducted fish surveys in the Keys and Dry Tortugas that show hogfish is being heavily exploited.

A change would not require a formal amendment to enact, council spokeswoman Kim Iverson said.

2 other proposals

The council on Monday also will take input on two other proposals that would:

• Expand North Carolina's ban on powerheads -- underwater firearms used when in direct contact with a target -- to the council's entire jurisdiction, from North Carolina to the Keys.

The specialized spearfishing gear is used to kill larger fish. Some unscrupulous fishermen have been known to kill sand tiger sharks with powerheads off northern Florida and the Carolinas, DeMaria said.

"It is the handful of yahoos who are wrecking it for everyone and bring down heavy legislation on everyone," DeMaria said.

• Ban fishing at Snapper Ledge in Key Largo. Upper Keys divers have been lobbying for the change since a nurse shark was found gutted there, for no apparent reason. Divers are concerned about people wiping out the large concentrations of fish there.

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