Teach them to fish ethically and they'll have fun (and food) for a lifetime

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By Jenna McKenna

Although it seems like Cedar Key's middle name is Fishing," (and first and last names, as well), there's a first time on the water for everyone. With a huge increase in the popularity of recreational fishing and water-based activities, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an interest in making sure that people who fish Florida waters have a good time, but do it safely, and with the least possible impact on the state's fisheries.

That's where Missy Jackson comes in.

Jackson is the new Environmental Specialist for Education and Outreach at the Blue Lab, also known as the Marine Lab, or by its full title, the Senator George G. Kirkpatrick Marine Laboratory.

Although everyone sees the Marine Lab as they drive into Cedar Key, particularly if they're stopping to fish at the Number Four Bridge fishing pier, most people don't know that the Marine Lab is open to the public, and part of Jackson's job is to help them learn all they need to know about best practices in saltwater recreational fishing.

"My role here is to educate people about conservation of marine fisheries," she says.

That means teaching people to use the right kinds of hooks (circle, unbarbed, non-stainless), how to release fish with the least harm to you or them (use a de-hooker, handle as little as possible, cut the line on gut-hooked fish), and how to keep blown-up reef fish from becoming bait (use a venting tool to air them out so they can sink back home quickly).

People have been pulling fish out of the water for thousands of years, so what's to learn?

Plenty - such as how to tell one fish from another, a vital skill for anglers anxious to escape hundreds of dollars in fines.

The state of Florida sets bag limits and size limits on many fish, and the limits can be confusing. Some fish are limited as to both minimum size and maximum size, and depending on body configuration, may have to be measured with the tail pinched to accurately record the total length.

"Sometimes people think they can get away with keeping oversize fish," Jackson says, as a prelude to a story about some guys who didn't get away with it. There are plenty of nifty tricks, and they have all been tried.

The best way to spread conservation knowledge is to start with kids. The Marine Lab used to have a summer youth fishing program, which Jackson is reviving.

"We teach the kids about conservation and how to appreciate what's in our environment," Jackson says.

"Even among kids that are from around this area, many of them have never been out on saltwater. They've never seen islands without houses on them. We want to teach them about ethical fishing and help them understand the effects of pollution and trash, and excessive fishing pressure."

Since the most important part of recreational fishing - after fun and safety - is conservation, FWC recommends releasing all catches, even those that are legal, unless anglers are planning to eat the catch immediately. But it's not enough to just release the fish - it has to be released with gentle, minimal handling so that it will survive and be able to reproduce.

Jackson explains that even released fish can die from the stress of being caught and handled.

"We try to educate anglers that its best to handle the fish as little as possible," she said. "That's why the de-hooking tools are so good - you don't interfere with the fish's protective slime layer."

Not every fish needs to be boated or measured, either, she notes.

"You can just bring them alongside, admire them and release them right away."

Even though plenty of people know how to fish, there's a lot of work to be done to teach recreational anglers how to protect the fish they love to catch. Jackson is working on a project called Team OCEAN that will need volunteers to go down to the docks and boat ramps to help disseminate conservation information.

"We want to target these anglers and let them know the ways they can help more fish survive after they're released."

Finally, Jackson recognizes that for some recreational anglers, the whole point of fishing is eating.

"Our focus is on catch and release, but we want people to have an appreciation that if they don't want to release legal fish, they should consider not keeping everything they catch," she said.

"People don't have to keep the limit. Why not just keep what you can eat tonight? That way, the rest of your catch won't spoil or go to waste."

"Keep what you can eat, and leave some fish for tomorrow."