$25K sought for flats fishing study

A nonprofit fishing conservation group is asking Monroe County to chip in $25,000 toward a study that would determine how much revenue flats fishing generates in the Florida Keys.

Flats fishing is huge money in Florida, especially in the Keys, flats guides say. The Keys have been home to many world records when it comes to landing bonefish, permit and tarpon — the three kings of backcountry fishing.

People travel to the Keys from around the world for the chance to land a monster tarpon, permit or stealthy bonefish. Those anglers boost the local economy, as each spends several hundred dollars on a fishing guide, hotel room, restaurants and other tourist-related activities, flats guides say.

Bonefish Tarpon Trust wants to know exactly how much tourists spend when they come to fish the flats, Director of Operations Aaron Adams said.

“I’m convinced it will be shockingly revealing as to its importance,” said County Mayor George Neugent, who has sponsored the resolution, asking the county to pitch in the money. “This study would be and will be extremely valuable as supporting information Restore Act funds.”

The county is currently lobbying to receive millions in Restore Act funds, which come from fines levied on BP and Transocean for their roles in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The County Commission will vote on allocating the $25,000 to the study when it meets Feb. 20 in Key Largo.

It comes at a time when the fish are facing deteriorating water quality and other threats, Neugent said.

“Their habitat continues to be chipped away,” he said. “Some of those habitats are facing total collapse …. They (Bonefish Tarpon Trust) want to scientifically document how important flats fishing is to our economy.”

The study, which will cost $110,000 in total, will identify the number of flats anglers who fished the Keys in the 2011-12 fishing year, a summary states. It will also identify the number of days each angler fished and what species of fish was targeted. It will estimate the annual angler expenditure in the Keys and how much the angler added in wages, jobs and tax revenues.

“We want to give the big picture on the economic impact on the entire Keys economy,” Adams said.

The group hopes to have the study completed by the end of the year, Adams added.

The study could also be valuable information in determining the economic impact if tarpon and other gamefish’s habitat is altered in the waters around Key West shipping channel if it is dredged and widened to accommodate bigger cruise ships.

Local guides have cautioned against the proposed dredging, as the last Key West harbor dredging chased away hundreds of tarpon that never returned, they say. And the silting of waters from the dredging channel would also chase away other fish from the flats off Kingfish Shoals, off Key West.

The commission will meet Feb. 20 at the Murray Government Center in Key Largo, Mile Marker 102.