Anglers Eye Legislation To Protect Redfish
If a group of saltwater anglers and guides has its way, the red drum — Georgia’s state saltwater fish — will soon have the distinction of being the state’s first saltwater game fish. Mike Duckworth of Brunswick, along with well-known light-tackle guides, Capt. Greg Hildreth of Brunswick and Capt. Scott Wagner of Savannah, are spearheading a petition drive and awareness campaign to garner support from other anglers and guides, and ultimately Georgia’s lawmakers.
“It seems too strange to us and many other avid coastal anglers that none of our saltwater fish are defined as game fish in Georgia law. A person fishing for redbreast in the Satilla River can’t sell their catch even if they have a commercial license. The same thing can’t be said if they catch saltwater fish from that river,” Duckworth explained. “We feel it’s time this inequity is addressed by our legislature, and the redfish is a good place to start.”
Georgia law defines most of the state’s freshwater fish popular with recreational anglers as game fish. With a few exceptions, it’s illegal to take game fish with anything other than pole and line. Also, with few exceptions, it’s illegal to sell species designated as game fish. Although many of the state’s saltwater fish are managed with size and creel limits, none have been added to the game-fish list.
Back in the 1980s, South Carolina and Florida designated the red drum as a game fish in an effort to afford the species extra protection from overfishing. Both states also have more restrictive harvest regulations for the species. South Carolina anglers can take three fish per day, and Sunshine State anglers are limited to only one fish per day.
By contrast, Georgia has the most liberal red-drum creel limit — five fish per person per day — along the Atlantic coast, although the slot-length limit is a very restrictive 14 to 23 inches. The state has no commercial quota, and anyone with the inexpensive, required commercial licenses can sell red drum caught within the recreational size and creel limits.
“Recreational fishing regulations are based on the premise that people fish for sport and not to make money. For the past few years, we’ve been hearing more concerns about the sale of redfish by so-called ‘sport fishermen.’ We’ve had credible reports of individuals making multiple trips in a day,” said Spud Woodward, head of marine fisheries management for DNR’s Coastal Resources Division. “However, it’s hard to document this behavior since catching folks in the act of making multiple trips is very difficult, especially for our understaffed law-enforcement section.”
In addition to outlawing the sale of native redfish, game-fish designation could also make it illegal to take the species with any method other than conventional hook-and-line gear. Although redfish cannot be gigged, they can be taken with seine, trawl, cast net and even bow and arrow.
“When redfish go up on the flooded marsh during the warm months or school on the shallow mudflats during the winter, they are vulnerable to bowfishing or even cast nets. Most of the fish that go to shallows are larger than the 23-inch maximum-length limit, meaning they would have to be released. You don’t have to be a fish biologist to know that catch and release and bow fishing are not compatible,” explained Capt. Greg Hildreth.
Duckworth’s campaign is not the first time Georgia anglers have sought game-fish status for saltwater species. The Coastal Conservation Association — Georgia has made game-fish status for redfish and others one of its top legislative priorities. Thus far, the organization has failed to gain traction with elected officials. Duckworth hopes the petition will help lawmakers see the issue in a different light.
Under the Gold Dome, the Department of Natural Resources has remained neutral on game-fish status for redfish since it lacks definitive proof that sales are a threat to the species. However, Woodward admits that the agency’s records probably don’t tell the whole story.
“Although Georgia law requires all commercial fishermen to report their harvest, we believe most sales of redfish go unreported,” he said. “The people who sell redfish, speckled trout and inshore fish from the back of their pick-up trucks are not full-time commercial fishermen. Many probably don’t even have a commercial license. They’re looking to either offset their fishing costs or supplement their income by selling fish. The last thing they’re going to do is tell the government about their illegal activities and untaxed income.”
Duckworth and his associates admit that game-fish designation isn’t a magic bullet to correct the behavior of rogues and outlaws. The best solution for that is the intolerance of other anglers and a fully staffed and fully funded law-enforcement section. However, game-fish status can be another tool in the conservation box.
“I spend more than 90 days on the water every year, while Greg and Scott spend hundreds of days chasing redfish,” Duckworth said. “We know a healthy redfish population can be a great economic asset to the coast and the state. If we recognize redfish as a game fish, we’re sending a clear message it’s a resource worth protecting.”
At press time, more than 500 people have signed the petition. Duckworth’s goal is 1,000 signatures before the legislature goes into session in early January. For more information on the petition drive, go to <www.georgiaredfish.org>.
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