FWC likely to put limits on harvest of barricuda

Barracuda in South Florida waters could get more protection under proposed rules reaching state fishery managers Thursday.

Some Florida Keys fishing guides and dive operators contend increased harvest pressure on the toothy predators have noticeably reduced barracuda numbers.

"Barracuda are being caught big-time, and that's a fact," longtime Upper Keys dive operator Spencer Slate said Friday. "They're definitely being overfished."

The Lower Keys Guides Association has been a strong advocate for protecting barracuda, a fish popular among flats anglers when winter temperatures send many species to deeper water.

"With no current stock assessments and no regulations [for barracuda] in state or federal waters, this is a recipe for over-fishing and species collapse," the guides association wrote to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Divers and snorkelers also enjoy sharing the water with the torpedo-shaped fish.

On Thursday in Sarasota, the FWC board will receive a staff proposal to adopt rules regulating barracuda harvest in South Florida, from Martin County south through the Keys, and Collier County on the west coast.

The proposed rules include:

  • A daily recreational bag limit of two barracuda per person.

  • A commercial trip limit of 20 fish per person, per day.

  • A size slot limit of 15 inches to 36 inches to protect small fish and larger breeding stock.

More than 50 people turned out at a Key Colony Beach workshop this spring, with most supporting more regulation. "In general, there was broad support throughout South Florida for barracuda management," FWC staff wrote.

Currently, barracuda fall under a general rule that allows recreational fishers to take up to 100 pounds of barracuda per day. There are no limits for commercial fishermen.

The Lower Keys Guides Association supports most of the proposed rules, but wants "the commercial daily limit be 20 fish per day per vessel; not 20 per person."

No one knows how many barracuda swim off the Florida Keys and South Florida. No stock assessment has ever been done on the species.

Recreational catches account for about 90 percent of Florida's annual barracuda harvest, according to the FWC.

The commercial barracuda harvest has remained generally static statewide, trip reports say. But the Florida Keys commercial harvest has soared in the last three years.

Florida Keys landings accounted for 67 percent of the total the state's total commercial barracuda harvest in 2013, and 47 percent in 2014, the FWC says.

There is some demand for barracuda meat but it is limited because of the threat of ciguatera poisoning. Many barracuda landed commercially reportedly are sold to makers of fish chum.

"I've seen boats come in with dozens of barracuda," Slate said. "It's sad to see that kind of killing, and what for?"