The Great Barracuda
On an early season tarpon trip this year, my angler and I made a long run to a spot where I hoped a good push of fish would happen. It all seemed right in my head. There had been a decent push of fish earlier in the week. The tides were favorable for a morning bite. The place I was headed hadn’t seen much pressure from other boats, as far as I knew.
We began our search. We searched and searched some more. After a long push with minimal sightings of tarpon, the sun was much higher. The long flat began to reveal other life forms milling around. A huge school of pilchards was being beat up by a wolf pack of barracudas. We quickly switched over to spinning rods with spoons and plugs and start bombing casts as far as we could. After over an hour we had worn ourselves out on catch after catch of nice- sized cudas. One or two were hefty specimens. We over course released them all.
The great barracuda, the misunderstood stepchild of all the fish pursued on the flats. But those who have targeted large barracuda in shallow water understand the challenge and thrill of catching these chrome plated rockets. Barracudas are often the “bail-out” species when the big three are hard to find. But as the water cools down and large barracudas push onto the flats to warm up, they are top on the list. The action can be addictive.
Catch and release is the common practice while fishing on the flats for barracuda. Offshore more and more are being released as well. Barracuda food value is decent, but the risk of ciguatera poisoning keeps many from targeting them for dinner. Despite all of this, there has been a noticeable drop in barracuda populations in places where there used to be consistently large numbers - mainly offshore wrecks and reefs.
A commercial demand has arisen for this unregulated species. Thousands of pounds are being harvested in spring and summer by commercial fisherman. They are being sold for less than $1 per pound. To make it worth it, these fisherman need to harvest large amounts of fish each trip. As of now there is only a recreational bag limit of 2 fish or 100 lbs, which ever is greater. This default bag limit applies to other species such as grunts, pinfish, gafftop catfish, whiting, bonito and more.
The Lower Keys Guide Association continues to be active in the effort to preserve this valuable species. The following comes from a recent LKGA email concerning the progress the FWC is making to keep the barracuda population sustainable.
“These proposed changes will come back before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) at its September meeting in Weston for final approval. If approved at that time, changes will apply in state and federal waters off Collier, Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties only, where the majority of barracuda population concerns have been voiced. They will include:
creating a recreational and commercial slot limit of 15 to 36 inches,
creating a recreational daily bag limit of two fish per person, and
creating a commercial vessel limit of 20 fish per vessel in addition to an individual commercial trip limit.
In recent years, stakeholders in southeast Florida and the Florida Keys who fish and dive have voiced concerns about seeing declines in barracuda numbers. FWC staff gathered additional public input at a series of workshops earlier this year.
The available barracuda data is limited and it would be difficult to gather enough additional data to evaluate the status of the population due to their complex life history and behaviors. Therefore, a full stock assessment has not been conducted on this species and the population size is not known. However, there has been a declining trend in the number of barracuda observed during underwater surveys conducted in the Keys during recent years, as well as a declining trend in the average size of those barracuda, which is consistent with concerns expressed by stakeholders.
A slot limit would contribute to barracuda conservation by eliminating harvest pressure on the youngest, more vulnerable fish, while also conserving the largest fish, which are the ones responsible for the vast majority of reproduction.
Bag and trip limits would reduce overall harvest and leave more fish in the water to replenish the population and to be enjoyed by recreational divers and sport fishermen.
FWC staff will continue to monitor barracuda landings and catch-rate trends through data collected during Fish and Wildlife Research Institute underwater surveys and by asking anglers to report their catches using data-reporting programs like the Snook & Gamefish Foundation’s iAngler app.”
Go to the Lower Keys Guide Association’s website to keep updated on the progress of this and other issues concerning fishing and the environment in the Keys.
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