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Local fishermen meet to discuss possibilities for fish hatcheries in Southwest Florida

By Staff | May 7, 2019

A group for concerned fisherman and residents in Southwest Florida met for the first time on April 25 to advocate for fish hatcheries in Southwest Florida.

George Halper and Bob Weller started the Facebook group, “Restock Florida Fisheries Now,” and have nearly 3,000 members on board since its creation in late March.

An inaugural meeting was held at Big Boys Bait & Tackle in Cape Coral to hear the thoughts, concerns and ideas of the community on how this initiative can turn into more sustainable fishing waters for years to come.

Halper and Weller said it’s all for the future youth.

“The kids are missing out on what we had, which was memories and family endeavors. If the fish aren’t there, the kids aren’t going to want to fish,” Halper said.

“If you spend your time in the outdoors, you don’t go wrong,” Weller said his father told him when he was young.

Halper and Weller are both lifelong fisherman who have seen the impact that Florida’s marine life has taken year after year, and want to be part of a solution.

They point to state models such as Texas, which has fresh and saltwater fisheries that release millions of fish into waters each year. One hatchery in Corpus Christi alone stocks up to 30 million redfish, trout and flounder, annually.

Florida does have two saltwater hatcheries, one in Tampa run by Mote Marine and the Crystal River Mariculture Center in Citrus County.

“(The hatcheries) stock, throughout the state of Florida, between 140,000-250,000 redfish annually,” said Halper.

Since 1991, the Crystal River Mariculture Center has cultivated and released more than 4.1 million fish and crustaceans into Gulf waters, accruing to its website.

Currently, Project Tampa Bay – a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission project – has set out goals, according to FWC, to increase the number of redfish caught by anglers in Tampa Bay by 25 percent and to determine the optimal size of fish as well as where and when to release that fish to have the greatest impact for the money.

Halper and Weller cannot see how Florida is not at the forefront of fish hatcheries in the country.

“40 million (fish), Texas. Quarter-million (fish), Florida. 380 miles of coastline, Texas. 1,430 miles of coastline, Florida,” said Halper.

According to the FWC website, Florida’s two freshwater hatcheries stocked over 4 million fish during fiscal year 2017-2018.

Those two sites are the Florida Bass Observation Center in Sumter County and the Blackwater Hatchery in Santa Rosa County.

Halper and Weller are not saying to place as many fish in our waters as possible, but that there is an issue and that they’d welcome the input of scientists and researchers alike.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” Halper said. “Just cause we’re saying you can stock 40 million fish, doesn’t mean you stock 40 million fish. You stock what the fishery can handle at the time. That’s where the experts come in.”

With every idea comes the hurdle of having to come up with funding dollars.

Halper and Weller see an issue when it comes to fishing licensing in Florida.

Currently, it costs $17 for a Florida resident annual fishing license, and $47 for out of state (65+ free).

“One of the lowest places in the country,” said Halper.

The fine for being caught without a fishing license in Florida is $50 – plus the cost of a license. The fine for being caught with an oversized redfish is $85.

“You have to increase the fines. In California, Texas, Alaska, Montana, the fine for not having a fishing license is $500,” said Halper, who also would like to see an increase on fishing license pricing in Florida.

The group also mentioned the BP money the state has, as an over $18 million hatchery in Pensacola was scrapped in 2018.

Another aspect of the meeting highlighted the dollars the state is losing by not having bountiful fisheries for a region that touts itself as the fishing capital of the world.

“Florida is losing billions of dollars,” said Halper. “By the way, the state of Florida is a $9 billion recreational impact in just saltwater fishing. Not counting freshwater.”

“This whole area revolves around fishing – indirectly,” said Weller. “If there’s no fishing, there’s no buying boats, no gas, no bait, no rods and reels, no food, no guides.”

The group plans to hold meetings every other week and will have guest speakers who are experts in the field to express to the public how they feel about the topic.

Ideally, the group would like to see a local hatchery, no matter the size, that can stock Pine Island Sound, Matlacha and Charlotte Harbor.

“Small fish hatcheries can work,” said Halper.

“You’ve got to get everyone together. It benefits everybody. It benefits tourism. If the fishing collapses, everything does,” said Weller.