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Date of Issue: December 08, 2005

Sandscript

Rules change, Midnight Pass debate remains the same

There’s something fishy going on off the shores of Anna Maria Island. Or crabby. Or of a passing nature, depending on your view.

Whatever your thoughts, let’s hope that something captures your interest.

On the capture front …

Biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plan to nab and tag manatees off Apollo Beach this week. The effort is designed to check on sea cow health as well as allow the monitoring of the big marine mammal’s movements during the winter.

"The captures are part of a study aiming to increase understanding of the factors affecting manatee use of industrial warm-water sources and to examine their feeding behavior in winter," according to FWC officials. "This research will contribute to developing management strategies for maintaining a reliable network of warm-water sites for manatees."

As you probably know manatees, as mammals, are susceptible to cold water. As water temps drop below 70 degrees, the critters historically headed to creeks and springs to spend the winter - sorta like marine snowbirds.

However, with the creation of power plant discharge systems that pump zillions of gallons of warm water into the bays and Gulf of Mexico, manatees found that power plants were a good place to spent the cold months. Apollo Beach, in southern Hillsborough County, is a favorite haunt.

And scientists hope to learn more about manatee movements and eating styles to help preserve and protect the gentle creature.

Apollo Beach, by the way, has a pretty neat manatee viewing site if you’re up for a drive. Just follow the signs to the power plant.

… and it was THIS big

In a kinda silly but probably important action, FWC officials have come up with a standardization of how to measure fish.

It’s apparently been something of a problem for both anglers and marine law enforcement folks - just how big is that fish? Legal size or too small-big? Now everybody is supposed to work off the same page in the rule book.

"The new rules specify that the ‘total length’ of saltwater fish, such as red drum, spotted sea trout and snook, should be measured by determining the straight line distance from the most forward point of the head with the mouth closed to the farthest tip of the tail with the tail compressed or squeezed together, while the fish is lying on its side," according to the new FWC rule.

"However, there is no change to the way the ‘fork length’ of saltwater fish, such as Spanish mackerel, pompano, and cobia, should be measured," the new rule continues. "Fork length measurements are considered to be easily understood by fishermen and do not need further clarification."

And now you know.

Red grouper counts drop next month

FWC officials have also dropped the daily bag limit for red grouper caught in the Gulf in state waters from two fish per day per angler to one. The new rule goes into effect Jan. 1.

The rule change is to help assure that the red grouper fishery doesn’t become overfished. The drop in quantity is expected to result in a 30-percent annual reduction in catch in the Gulf annually, FWC officials predict.

State waters run out to nine miles in the Gulf, where they mysteriously transform into federal jurisdictional status. The feds will also follow the rule reduction Jan. 1, although there is currently a ban on all red grouper harvest in federal waters.

Oh, and the "recreational five-fish daily aggregate grouper bag limit and the 20-inch total length minimum size limit for red grouper remain unchanged in both state and federal waters," the FWC reminds us.

Blue crab rules change, too

There were also some blue crab rule changes approved by the FWC. According to the regulatory group:

"Last April, the FWC approved a rule designed to control growth and overcapitalization of the commercial blue crab fishery by managing the number of fishermen and traps. The rule established a blue crab limited entry endorsement program that limits the total number of commercial blue crab fishermen and allows each qualified fisherman to use up to an equal number of traps.

"The program also requires all blue crab traps to be tagged and allows the transfer of endorsements to other persons under specified conditions.

"The rules approved last week allow qualified fishermen affected by the 1995 net limitation amendment, and stone crab and shrimp fishermen who harvest blue crabs as bycatch in their fishing gear, to obtain a non-transferable blue crab limited entry endorsement. This lets displaced net fishermen use up to 100 traps to harvest hard shell blue crabs, and gives shrimpers and stone crabbers a daily bycatch allowance of 200 pounds of blue crabs.

"An incidental take endorsement to allow harvest of a limited amount of blue crabs from shrimp and stone crab fishing gear also was approved, although the 2006 Florida Legislature must approve a proposed $25 fee for this endorsement.

"The new rules also allow blue crab harvesters to obtain permission from the FWC Division of Law Enforcement to let another person transport, deploy or retrieve his or her traps on a short-term basis under certain conditions for reasons of hardship. These rules will take effect next month."

Midnight Pass update

The tale of the meandering inlet - actually, it meandered so far that it closed - is again in the news.

Midnight Pass once was a fast-moving stream of water that separated Siesta Key from Casey Key in Sarasota County. It threatened a pair of homes as it worked its way closer and closer to their foundations and, in a stroke of silly logic, governmental officials allowed the homeowners to close the inlet on the condition that they would relocate it farther to the south, away from their million-dollar houses.

The relocation didn’t work, the pass stuck in the "closed" mode, and that’s the way things have stayed  for more than 20 years.

People living along the bay on the interior of where the pass once flowed have complained incessantly that water quality has declined due to the pass’s closure. No flushing of water, don’t you know, means all that yuck from the creeks and other tributaries really has no place to go and just sits there and ferments.

Others claim that the seagrass beds and mangroves that sprouted where the pass once was located have more than offset any water quality issues. The debate has been lively and long-lived.

Not too long ago, Sarasota County officials bowed to the water-quality advocates and decided to re-open Midnight Pass, or Midnight Beach, and started the arduous federal, state and regional permitting process.

Last week, the various regulatory groups offered a resounding "No Way!" to the initial flurry of permit applications.

Federal "nos" came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Commission. Phrases like "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts to an aquatic resource" were used.

Oops.

County officials were quick to point out that the rejection was based on very preliminary data presented to the feds and that once the powers that be see the real plans that all will be blessed.

Right.

The story of Midnight Pass has been one I’ve been following for 22 years. It seems somehow ironic that the letters of rejection from the feds come pretty close to the anniversary of the pass closure, which was Dec. 5, 1983.

There hasn’t been an issue that has split a community more than that silly pass. "Lively debate" is far too mild a phrase to describe the matter.

So what does Midnight Pass have to do with Anna Maria Island? Other than the glee that is provided by watching our neighbors to the south attempt to eat their young, again and again, over the matter, perhaps it has something to do with the real concern that is offered regarding environmental issues.

Midnight Pass has spurred a generation of people to become knowledgeable about matters that they otherwise would never have given a whit of care about. How often does water quality, clam mortality, seagrass acreage mitigation or stormwater runoff quantity and quality come up in your casual conversations? Believe me, in Sarasota, it’s been a long-standing dinner party topic.

And that’s a good thing. The more discussion, the better-informed you can be, and for that, at least, we owe Midnight Pass a vote of thanks.

Sandscript factoid

The Midnight Pass permit application requests dredging of 360,000 cubic yards of sand from the former inlet and adjacent sandbars and channels to again link the Gulf of Mexico with the Intracoastal Waterway in Little Sarasota Bay. The current near-Islandlong Anna Maria Island beach renourishment project is moving about 400,000 cubic yards of sand ashore.

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