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Flat Out Fishing – All Good Things

This will be my final Flat
Out Fishing
column. I will miss bringing you what I hope has been valuable
information. But I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write a monthly
column dedicated to an in-shore fishery that is in serious trouble. The rapid
growth of St. Thomas and
St. John has had a major impact on our
coastal waters. Run-off water containing mud, gas/diesel, petroleum
by-products, and organic pollutants is rapidly destroying our turtle grass,
mangrove, and reef habitats. Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix for
this problem. It is going to take a concerted effort on the part of the VI
government and every resident to do their part.

This
isn’t a situation that is unique to the US Virgin Islands. This exact
same scenario is happening across the entire Caribbean.
Most of the islands south of St.
Thomas are particularly susceptible since they are
primarily volcanic and have limited shallow water habitat. If you are lucky
enough to live on an island where this problem hasn’t reached a critical
level, you had better act quickly see what can be done to prevent further
damage.

I would
like to leave you with my observations on the state of the
St. Thomas in-shore fish stocks based on the
last 3 years of careful record keeping for every single fish caught and
released. This data reflects over 300 days spent on the water and over 2,400
man hours of catch and release fishing.

Bonefish

While not noted as a bonefish destination, we do have
surprisingly good numbers of bonefish. Most of these fish, however, are located
in water from 8 feet to 20 feet deep, making it very difficult to locate them.
My figures indicate that the number of bonefish that have been feeding in areas
shallow enough to represent an angling opportunity has been decreasing steadily
since 1999. In 2005, I saw an 85% reduction in the number of shallow bonefish
compared to 2004, and a 95% decrease since 2003. While I don’t have any
specific answers to this precipitous decline, my guess is that it is directly related
to boat traffic and water quality. If these fish can find everything they need
in deeper water, there is no reason for them to make a daily shallow water
migration, especially if conditions are less than favorable.

Snook

As you’ve read here before, our Snook populations are
in serious decline. What is most important to note is that the number of large
females has been steadily declining for the past 3 years. Unfortunately, most
of this decline can be attributed to our local “catch and kill mentality”.
I personally have never kept a snook; it’s a
shame to waste such a valuable resource by catching that fish once. This is a
personal choice, and one that I hope others will adopt. Snook are resilient and
if we ask the VI DPNR to adopt a slot limit where fish between 16” and
36” must be returned to the water immediately we could re-build our snook fishery in a few years. This exact slot limit has
done amazing things to re-build Florida’s
snook population that at one time was worse than it
currently is on St. Thomas.
Then everyone could enjoy a snook for the table
without endangering our resident populations.

Tarpon

These fish are tougher than nails and can live in water that
would kill just about any other fish. As a result, the numbers of tarpon have
remained fairly stable during my record-keeping period. The statistic that
becomes immediately apparent is the huge decline in the number of tarpon over
45” in length. I believe that some of these fish have been the victim of
irresponsible spear fisherman who shoot them just for
the fun of it. I know from personal experience that this has been the case in
St. Thomas harbor where
the number of large tarpon has declined by over 75% in the last 3 years. The
new ‘no take’ law that prohibits the spearing of tarpon and bonefish
may help, but only if the people on the trigger end of the spear gun can
refrain from pulling that trigger.

The
tarpon is one of the greatest game fish ever to swim our oceans and they
deserve to be treated like the valuable resource they are.

Barracuda

It seems like the lowly ‘cuda
is at the bottom of everyone’s list of fish to love. What everyone fails
to see is the tremendous value they represent as a sport fish. They fight hard,
jump, and are generally very cooperative biters. These are all qualities that
should endear them to every fisherman, regardless of where they live. I have
noticed a dramatic decline in the total numbers of shallow water ‘ cudas during the last 2 years. In addition, the fish that I
have been catching are the 25” hammer handle fish, not those big
45” brawlers that beat you up on a light spinning rod. Part of this
decline can be traced directly to water quality. When the water quality drops,
the bait leaves and the ‘cudas follow right
behind them. The second factor contributing to the decline of
our large ‘cudas is the indiscriminate catch
and kill of every ‘cuda caught. I know
that some of you strive to release every ‘cuda
you catch, but this needs to become the prevailing attitude not the exception.
It’s crazy to kill a fish that inherently has so much value as a
renewable resource for our tourism industry. The practice of
killing ‘cudas in some of our local
“fishing” tournaments must come to an end. This wholesale slaughter of a large number of ‘cudas so they can be cut up for fish bait is a practice
that everyone should violently object to.

I wish everyone the best of luck. I hope every fish you
catch is huge, and that all of your tarpon stay hooked.

Tight Lines

Eric Anderson

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