Outdoors | Keeping illegal fish not worth risk of prosecution

July 29, 2012 

With tight regulations being imposed on anglers, there will always be those who keep fish illegally.

It may be to show off, for food, or because of ignorance, but violations occur often, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission will prosecute those who break the law.

I'm specifically referring to red snapper and snook, which have each been placed under strict closed seasons the past few years.

Red snapper have a closed season except for a short period from June until mid-July. Two fish of more than 16 inches are allowed per person during the open season.

Keeping snook has been prohibited since 2010 on the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida. That will remain in place until at least Aug. 31, 2013.

Despite that, there are always the stories, hearsay and pictures of anglers who illegally keep those species.

Fishermen love to brag and show off their catches. With forums, those who know the law would rarely post such pictures of lifeless, out-of-season catches. But every now and again, a post will show up of someone who just didn't know the law or what they caught. If you don't know what it is, let it go.

The most ludicrous story is of Apalachicola anglers who mistakenly kept a goliath grouper in 2009, thinking it was a warsaw grouper. Their picture was even picked up by a local newspaper, which also thought the fish was a warsaw only to be corrected by the community. The anglers were prosecuted by authorities.

With social networking sites like Facebook, anglers feel a bit more protected to brag about their catches. I've flipped through fellow anglers' galleries to see dates and pictures that show fish kept outside of the allowed season, limits far surpassed or severely undersized fish being kept.

I'm not one to judge. I know the cost of running offshore makes it extremely difficult to release out-of-season red snapper or gag grouper, but I also realize the penalties can be severe for those who break the law.

Out-of-season and bag- and size-limit fishing violations are a second-degree misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and $500 fine per violation.

Major violations are first-degree misdemeanors, which carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail and $1,000 fine per violation, plus a civil penalty. For example, a major violation could be the use of a gill net, flagrant limit violations (three fish over a bag limit), taking from crab traps that aren't your own, or illegal sale of fish.

Another illegal method of take is the "fillet and release," where fish are filleted offshore and the meat is brought in.

"Fish species can be identified by their fillets. If there are suspected violations, the FWC's forensics lab can conduct DNA tests to confirm the species. Violations involving not landing fish in a whole condition are a second-degree misdemeanor," an FWC official told me.

As much as anglers may disagree with such laws, they are in place to protect the long-term health of fish species. Taking the chance to keep a fish illegally can be costly.

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