Proposed Largemouth Bass Regulation Change
Statewide 5- fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length
Largemouth bass are Florida’s most sought-after freshwater sportfish. About seventy percent of Florida’s 1.4 million freshwater anglers target largemouth bass, generating well over a half billion dollars in retail sales. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) recently adopted the Black Bass Management Plan (BBMP) to guide future management and conservation of black bass populations. The goal is the optimal sustainable use of Florida’s bass fisheries with emphasis on high quality and trophy bass in order to ensure Florida is the Black Bass Fishing Capital of the World.
Florida’s current statewide largemouth bass regulations were developed twenty years ago with separate regulations for north, central and south Florida. Since then, 25 different size and bag limits have been instituted on various lakes throughout the state. FWC biologists believe that Florida’s bass populations are healthy. Harvest rates of bass is very low, primarily due to the popularity of catch-and-release fishing. However, harvest of larger bass, especially those over eight pounds, may be higher. FWC biologists were tasked with exploring development of the least restrictive regulations feasible that will protect and enhance trophy bass fisheries, maintain healthy bass populations statewide, and provide diverse angling opportunities, including controlled harvest, that promote high angler satisfaction.
It is proposed that a statewide 5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length, be implemented for largemouth bass. With the proposed regulation, there would no longer be zones within the state with different largemouth bass regulations. Additionally, many of the resource specific special regulations for largemouth bass would be removed and these resources would be managed under the new statewide regulation.
Bass Regulation Review Process
The current largemouth bass regulations were established in 1992 as part of a generic regulation to provide “optimum sustained use” of Florida’s black bass fishery. The Commission’s goal at that time was to maintain the fishery at a healthy population level, while allowing controlled harvest. A separate regulation, was added in 1996 for south Florida to encourage harvest of smaller fish.
The BBMP, adopted in 2011, called for a review of the current bass regulations to determine if any changes are needed as the regulations have not been reviewed in over 20 years. A Bass Regulations Review Committee, consisting of FWC fisheries researchers and managers, was formed in order to review current bass regulations. The committee first established a goal and determined a desired future condition as stated below:
Optimal sustainable use of Florida’s bass fisheries with an emphasis on conservation of high quality and trophy bass.
Desired Future Condition:
Use the least restrictive regulations possible to protect trophy bass and maintain a statewide bass fishery with a healthy population that provides diverse angling opportunities, including controlled harvest and high angler satisfaction.
After establishing a goal and desired future condition, the committee began the process of reviewing the biological data, and partnered with human dimensions experts from the University of Florida to develop a stakeholder engagement plan.
FWC biologists reviewed comprehensive data for largemouth bass including regional and lake specific data from annual electrofishing surveys, Long Term Monitoring data, a summary of FWC’s bass tagging studies, and a summary of angler creel survey data. A largemouth bass population model was developed to explore predicted effects of different regulations on catch of all bass and trophy-size bass.
Lake specific data in all regions indicated that the number of fish being spawned and growing to a catchable size (recruitment) is adequate in almost all Florida systems. With good recruitment, the majority of Florida bass fisheries have high numbers of bass less than 16 inches. With the majority of the bass in the population below 16 inches in total length there is no need to protect them from harvest, especially considering the current low harvest rates of bass in Florida. In addition to there being much fewer bass greater than 16 inches in total length in most systems, a much higher percentage of the bass over 16 inches are females compared to those below 16 inches in total length. This is significant because only female bass have the potential to grow to trophy size. Since the bass populations are structured in this manner, there is value in protecting the larger (>16 inches) bass in the population not only because there are fewer of them, but also because a higher percentage of those bass have the potential to grow to trophy size.
The length frequency graphs below of Lake Tarpon data indicate the largemouth bass that would be legal to harvest under the current 14 inch minimum length limit and under the proposed new statewide largemouth bass regulation. This is representative of a typical Florida lake.
Since 2009, FWC has conducted lake specific, regional, and statewide reward based tagging studies and creel surveys (angler interviews) to determine exploitation rates (the percentage of a population that is harvested by anglers in a year). Tagging studies have shown angler harvest of largemouth bass is generally low (<10% of the adult population annually). In contrast, a third or more of the adult population dies from natural causes (disease, predation, environmental factors, etc.) each year.
Creel survey data indicate that harvest rates are low and voluntary angler release rates are high. Given these data, harvest rates of largemouth bass are currently not a concern.
Regulation modeling was utilized to evaluate potential changes in total numbers of fish caught and harvested as well as the numbers of fish of various sizes caught under various harvest regulations. The model predicted that any regulations examined would allow for similar or greater levels of fish caught (all sizes), fish harvested, and larger (>14 inches) fish caught than the current minimum size limits in place in most of Florida.
Although minimum-size regulations provide good, sustainable fishing, they are incompatible with high-quality management objectives by focusing harvest on faster-growing females, while protecting slower-growing males. Regulations that limit harvest of bass over a certain size provide protection for the larger fish while allowing anglers to harvest a reasonable number of smaller, more abundant bass.
Human Dimensions Review
Human dimensions data also played a significant role in the decision making process. A stakeholder engagement plan for bass regulations review was developed with human dimension experts from the University of Florida. The objectives of engaging stakeholders early in the review process were to 1) inform our stakeholders of FWC’s approach to bass regulation review and the potential for regulation amendment, 2) learn stakeholder characteristics, interests, and attitudes on bass management, 3) promote shared understanding and decision making, and 4) gain long-term engagement of stakeholders.
Several methods were used to inform stakeholders and gather data. Prior to survey development, printed material was distributed to inform stakeholders of the review process and provide advance notice of the upcoming surveys.. Electronic and mail-in surveys were conducted, and FWC hosted ten open house events around the state in March and April 2013.
The online survey addressed several aspects of bass fishing, including angler characteristics, motivations, and satisfaction; the importance of different management practices; fishing regulations; and stocking practices. It was sent to 170,161 freshwater and freshwater/saltwater combined fishing license holders via email. We received 4,272 responses.
The mail-in survey focused primarily on harvest regulations and included some questions from the electronic survey. FWC staff distributed 9,460 surveys through various methods including retail locations, bass clubs, creel surveys, boat ramps, fishing shows, bass tournaments, open house events, office pickups, and “gas pump” encounters with stakeholders. We received 1,336 completed surveys.
Ten open house events were hosted across the state in March and April of 2013 to encourage one-on-one type interaction with stakeholders Retail locations and boat ramp parks were chosen as open house sites in order to encourage participation by hosting the events at locations anglers were comfortable and accustomed to going. The events were designed to create a casual experience with no presentation, allowing for flexible times at which stakeholders could attend.
The information collected from the surveys and open house events indicated that angler attitudes and preferences did not vary much across the state, most anglers are satisfied with the current bass fishery, and anglers generally do not have strong opinions about most regulations. A clear preference was indicated for maintaining the current five fish daily bag limit for largemouth bass and anglers indicated a preference for catching larger fish and/or at least having a chance to catch a “trophy” bass. The majority of bass anglers prefer to release the fish they catch, but there are some who want to be able to harvest bass.
Process for Developing the Proposed Change
Once the FWC Regulation Review Committee collected and reviewed all of the biological and human dimensions data, they worked through a process to arrive at the recommended change. This process involved identifying biological, social, and economic considerations based on the data collected, checking to ensure the stated Goal and Desired Future Condition formed earlier in the process aligned with what was learned from the data, listing possible regulations to achieve the Desired Future Condition, and finally discussing the options and developing a recommendation to be sent to the FWC Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management’s Division Leadership Team for approval.
Proposed Rule Changes:
- Statewide 5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length for largemouth bass.
- Remove most special regulations (Appendix A).
- Other black bass species to be considered separately.
This recommendation was made for several reasons. The proposed change would simplify regulations across Florida by eliminating zones of different regulations and many lake specific regulations around the state. Even though largemouth bass regulations throughout the state would be more simple and easier to understand, they would still provide more protection for larger fish and provide a wide range of opportunities including responsible harvest. For anglers wishing to harvest and eat largemouth bass, this regulation would allow for better adherence with fish consumption advisories. Additionally, the regulation fits with FWC’s three step philosophy to manage for trophy bass; 1) It is O.K. to keep smaller bass (<16 inches), 2) if an angler wants to keep largemouth bass over 16 inches they can only keep one per day and the angler is allowed to choose the size, and 3) FWC does not require the release of trophy bass (>8lbs) by regulation, but it is highly encouraged and anglers can receive gift cards and other prizes for photo documenting the catch, releasing the fish, and submitting the photos to TrophyCatch. See TrophyCatchFlorida.com for more details about TrophyCatch. Answers to frequently asked questions regarding the proposed regulation change can be found in Appendix B.
Below are some comparisons between current minimum length regulations and the proposed new regulation
CURRENT MINIMUM LENGTH REGULATIONS
- Divided among three regions
- Restricts harvest of abundant fish
- Protects males and slow growing females
- Allowed harvest targets fast growing females
- Sends the wrong message to anglers
- Don’t harvest little fish; they will all become big fish
- Harvest many large fish
- Modeling predicts fewer fish harvested (all sizes) and less catch of quality and trophy fish compared to other regulations evaluated.
- Tournament Exemption Permit needed to weigh in more than one fish per person over 22 inches.
- Regulations simplified (no zones)
- Less restrictive = more opportunities
- Increased opportunities for harvest
- Allowed harvest targets more males and slower growing females
- Better conforms to consumption recommendations (smaller fish have lower mercury levels)
- Promotes the value of trophy bass
- Tournament Exemption Permit needed to weigh in more than one fish per person over 16 inches.
Appendix A. Proposed options for resources that currently have special regulations or might have a new special regulation.
Change to New Statewide Regulation
New Special Regulation
Lake Jackson (Leon County)
Joe Budd FMA
Perdido River (AL regs)
Lake Jackson (Walton Co.; AL Regs)
Lochloosa and Orange Lake
St. Augustine Rd
Ronnie Vanzant Park
St. Mary’s River
Shadow Bay Park
Hal Scott Lake
Jackson (Osceola Co.)
Saddle Creek FMA
Walsingham Park Lake
Hardee County Park (2,3,4)
Gadsden Park Pond
Web Marl Pits 1, 2, 3
Hardee County Park
Derby Lake (Tenoroc)
Freedom Lake Park
Dover District Park Lake
Steven J. Wortham Park Lake
Al Lopez Park Lake
Walsingham Park Lake
Bobby Hicks Park Pond
Largo Nature Preserve
Tenoroc (all other)
Plantation Heritage FMA
Appendix B. Frequently asked questions concerning the regulation change:
1) What does a “5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length” mean?
An angler may keep up to five (5) largemouth bass per day, but only one (1) of those may be 16 inches or longer. With no minimum size limit, the bass that are kept may be as small as the angler wishes.
2) Why change the regulation from the minimum size limit regulation currently in Florida?
The largemouth bass minimum length regulations currently in place (a 14-inch [peninsular Florida] or 12-inch [the Panhandle] with 5-fish bag, of which only one bass may be 22 inches or longer, was established in 1992 as part of a generic regulation to provide “optimum sustained use” of Florida’s black bass fishery. The Commission’s goal was to maintain the fishery at a healthy population level, while allowing controlled harvest. Although the minimum-size regulation for black bass provides good, sustainable fishing, it is incompatible with high-quality management objectives by focusing harvest on faster-growing females, while protecting slower-growing males. The “5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length” regulation provides protection for the larger fish most anglers prefer to catch, but not necessarily keep, while allowing anglers to harvest a reasonable number of smaller, more abundant bass.
3) What will the regulation accomplish?
The regulation will allow harvest of smaller, more abundant, primarily male largemouth bass, while reducing harvest of older female bass and thereby protecting quality and trophy bass for anglers. The regulation meets the desires of recreational bass anglers: more available harvest of more abundant, smaller bass which most anglers say they would prefer to eat, and more restrictive take of quality bass (between 2 and 8 pounds) and “catch of a lifetime” trophy bass.
4) What is the biological basis of this regulation?
Largemouth bass in Florida, especially in peninsular Florida, exhibit rapid growth, often reaching 14” in less than 3 years. However, because growth of male bass peaks at about 16 inches, the majority of bass harvested under the minimum-size-limit regulations (14-inch minimum in peninsular Florida; 12-inch minimum in the panhandle) are females. Under the “5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length” regulation will shift harvest to more abundant smaller bass composed of males of all ages and younger females (primarily less than 4 years old). Even if anglers limit themselves to harvesting only those bass between 12" and 16", more bass will be available for harvest than are available under either of the minimum size limits. Faster-growing females will be better protected as they grow to trophy size, providing better opportunities for catching quality bass.
5) I fish a lake that has a special regulation that is different than the two “statewide” minimum size limits (catch-and-release, 16” minimum size limit, 18” minimum size limit, 15”-24” protective slot limit, 5-fish bag with only one bass 14” or longer, etc.) . How will this regulation change affect my lake?
Most water bodies regulated under the current “statewide” and special regulations will be managed using the proposed “5-fish daily bag limit, only one of which may be 16 inches or greater in total length” rule. With stakeholder input, FWC will manage a few selected water bodies that need special attention using special regulations, including the 12-inch or 14-inch minimum size limit. See Appendix B.
6) How will the regulation affect tournament anglers?
Traditional “catch-and-release” largemouth bass tournaments where anglers bring 5 to 7 bass to the weigh-in will be required to obtain regulation exemption permits to weigh-in bass within the protected size limit. Tournament anglers will be allowed to weigh-in five bass per angler per day.
7) When will the regulation take effect?
This depends on the results of on-going public input, but we hope to have a recommendation that can be implemented by July 1, 2016.