by Bob Wattendorf, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's (FWC) mission is “Managing fish and wildlife resources for their long-term well-being and the benefit of people.” Tom Champeau, Director of the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, and his staff continue to make excellent progress to achieve this mission by finding innovative ways to combine science-informed management with public input to enhance your fisheries. Keeping faith with the angling public that helped create the Black Bass Management Plan (BBMP) in 2011 remains a huge priority for the Division (for details visit: MyFWC.com/Fishing and click Black Bass Management Plan). This article summarizes some key developments last year and plans for 2014–15.
Black Bass Regulations — Public Input
Among the issues that were most important to anglers during creation of the Black Bass Management Plan was the need to re-examine the current bass regulations. Opinions were split with some anglers feeling more customized regulations were important to optimize bass fishing in key systems, while others felt strongly that rules should be simplified. As a result, the FWC undertook a reevaluation of bass regulations from both biological and social perspectives.
The goal that was established is to provide “Optimal sustainable use of Florida’s bass fisheries with an emphasis on production of high quality and trophy bass.” More specifically, it was determined that in the future, the FWC should use the least restrictive regulations possible to protect trophy bass and maintain a statewide bass fishery with a healthy population that provides diverse angling opportunities, including controlled harvest and high angler satisfaction.
The process began with an intense review of scientific literature dealing with successes and failures of various regulatory schemes. Liberal bag limits with no size restrictions, minimum or maximum size limits, restrictive harvest limits, custom-fit slot limits, or total catch-and-release were each investigated. Analyses showed that in many circumstances, regulations played a less significant role than habitat or weather conditions. Tagging studies and other fish population assessments revealed that anglers generally catch from 25 to 50 percent of harvestable-sized bass but actually keep less than 10 percent, which is sustainable. However, in specific situations where habitat limitations combined with high fishing pressure, regulations were very important to pro-viding optimal sustained use.
To obtain the opinions of as many anglers as possible representing diverse backgrounds and fishing preferences, the FWC worked with University of Florida human dimensions experts to enhance the public input process. A series of open house meetings were held in 2013 in conjunction with an angler survey. More than 4,000 anglers responded to an on-line survey and an additional 1,300 completed a mail-in survey.
Key findings included scoring various statements from one to five, with five being “Strongly Agree”. Some highlights were that anglers are just as happy if they release bass (4.32); the more bass they catch the happier (4.24); and fishing where there is a chance to catch a trophy is important (3.86).
Consequently, the challenge for biologists and the Commissioners is to balance science with public opinions to provide optimal sustained use. ‘Optimal’ is determined by what anglers want in order to increase their enjoyment and participation in recreational fishing, while ‘sustained’ depends on science to ensure that providing a satisfying experience for anglers today does not compromise having quality fisheries for the future. Finally, ‘use’ can be either legal harvest or catch and release.
FWC is continuing to synthesize this data and wants to maintain a two-way dialogue with anglers, so that when the next major round of changes, if any, are implemented they ensure quality fishing, prospering businesses, and happy anglers. See bit.ly/BassRegs for updates.
Stocking bass can effectively create new fisheries and re-establish a fishery after a major fish kill. FWC hatchery staff developed a new production technique to spawn bass out of season and raise them on artificial feed, so larger advanced fingerlings (4-inch) are ready to stock when more abundant prey are available in the spring. FWC biologists are evaluating survival of advanced-fingerling bass and experimenting with ways to train bass raised in hatcheries to more quickly adapt to life in the wild.
In 2012–13, 3.5 million fish were stocked by the two state freshwater fish hatcheries in Florida, while we anticipate stocking 4.3 million fish in 2013–14. Of those, 1.2 million are largemouth bass, the other species include crappie, bluegill, redear sunfish, channel cat-fish, striped bass and sunshine bass.
As an alternative to further regulating anglers and making it illegal to harvest trophy-sized bass, TrophyCatch rewards anglers for voluntarily releasing bass heavier than eight pounds. By requiring documentation to verify the bass weight, FWC biologists can also use data collected by anglers who catch, document and release these bass, as a form of citizen-science. This information is important to determine what conservation management programs such as habitat restoration, vegetation management, fish stocking, or regulatory controls are most successful in improving anglers' opportunities to catch trophy bass.
TrophyCatch (TrophyCatchFlorida.com) launched in October 2012 and is already pro-viding information to document that Florida is the “Bass Fishing Capital of the World,” while promoting catch-and-release of trophy bass. During its inaugural year, some of TrophyCatch’s accomplishments included:
■ Almost 4,000 registrants
■ Over $16,000 in prizes awarded for individual catches
■ Over 150 verified largemouth bass submissions and winners
■ Phoenix bass boat powered by Mercury (an additional $40,000 value) awarded to random-drawing winner Frank Ay
■ $10,000 from Experience Kissimmee awarded to Peter Perez for the largest bass caught in Osceola County
■ TrophyCatch Champion’s Ring (an additional $3,000 value) awarded to Bob Williams for the largest certified TrophyCatch bass, 13 lbs. 14 oz.
■ Over $70,000 in total prizes awarded
For TrophyCatch’s second season, FWC increased prizes and simplified submission requirements. The largest change in submitting a bass is that only one photo, of the entire fish on a scale with the weight clearly legible, is required. However, photos of the length, girth, angler holding fish, and release are also encouraged. For details, and to register or submit fish, visit TrophyCatchFlorida.com.
Anglers who register for free are instantly eligible for a drawing, in October, for a Phoenix Bass Boat, powered by Mercury and equipped with a Power-Pole anchoring system. For every bass heavier than eight pounds they submit, which is approved for TrophyCatch, they get 10 additional chances at the grand prize, and earn a reward from FWC’s corporate partners that starts with $100 in gift cards (donated by Bass Pro Shops, Rapala and/or Dick’s Sporting Goods), apparel from Bass King Clothing, a customized certificate and club decal. The biggest bass of the year earns the American Outdoors Fund championship ring, and if it happens to be from one of the major public lakes in Osceola County, Experience Kissimmee kicks in a $10,000 prize. So be sure to check out the rules, and take a camera and scale with you when you go bass fishing to document your trophy catch.
Fellsmere Water Management Area
The Fellsmere project is about to become the next Farm-13/Stickmarsh when it is flooded in 2015. This 10,000-acre parcel of land in Indian River County was purchased by the St. Johns River Water Management District and is being converted into a reservoir. The FWC worked carefully with the district to sculpt the contours of the lake, plant native vegetation and stock sportfish while enhancing public access. To learn more, see the Fellsmere video at YouTube.com/TrophyCatchFlorida (or go directly to bit.ly/FellsmereYouTube).
The FWC will continue to update you as we strive to implement the BBMP and use TrophyCatch and other research methods to evaluate our success. Please check our web-site, MyFWC.com/Fishing, sign up for news-letters, and follow us on FaceBook. Trophy- Catch is especially active and provides great insights into when and where the best fishing is (FaceBook.com/TrophyCatchFlorida and YouTube.com/TrophyCatchFlorida).