On a per­fect March morn­ing, Capt. T. J. Shea’s South­port 33 was en route to­ward his first set of num­bers well off­shore of Clear­wa­ter, Florida, as ea­ger an­glers bus­ied them­selves in the cock­pit. Then, Shea’s boat was boarded by U.S. Coast Guard of­fi­cers.

No wor­ries, thought Shea: He al­ways had req­ui­site safety gear on board and more. But they wanted only to see all of the boat’s tur­tle-by­catch­mit­i­ga­tion gear.

Shea was dumb­founded.

He knew noth­ing about this spe­cial­ized gear re­quired of all char­ter boats that fish reef ar­eas in Gulf of Mex­ico and South At­lantic fed­eral wa­ters.

But then, he says, “Why would I? In 20 years as a full-time char­ter skip­per in the Gulf, we have never hooked a sin­gle tur­tle.”

Be that as it may, the coastie wasn’t in a warn­ing mood. He handed Shea a ci­ta­tion, say­ing it would set him back $522.

In ad­di­tion, he or­dered the char­ter to re­turn to the dock, so Shea was also out the char­ter fee and all the fuel he’d burned.

Shea went out that af­ter­noon to buy the re­quired gear. “Oh, they got you too?” asked the clerk at the tackle out­let, not­ing that sev­eral other skip­pers had come in to shell out a cou­ple hun­dred bucks for an ar­ray of ob­jects they would most likely never use, which they, too, would have to find room to store on their boats.

Af­ter Shea de­scribed this in­ci­dent, I did some check­ing with a half dozen or so very ac­tive, well­known vet­eran char­ter skip­pers, most hav­ing run trips for 20 to 40 or more years. Half said they’d hooked a few sea tur­tles in all those years; the oth­ers, like Shea, had never hooked even one tur­tle.

So these cap­tains have, on av­er­age, hooked roughly one tur­tle per decade.

Those who had hooked a sea tur­tle told me to a man that they had no trou­ble re­leas­ing it quickly, with no harm done — and with­out a load of spe­cial­ized gear.

Did the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion talk to any of them when for­mu­lat­ing tur­tle-re­lease-gear rules? That got me a laugh, and — again, to a man — none had even heard of such rules.

But in fact, per fed­eral law in 2011, here’s just some of the gear that any char­ter boat that ever fishes for reef fish in the Gulf or South At­lantic must carry. In ad­di­tion to a very large dip net:

A tire (yes, an au­to­mo­bile tire — “free of ex­posed steel belts” — on which to cush­ion a sea tur­tle)

Mouth gags (at least two types, in­clud­ing a block of hard­wood, sanded smooth, with rounded cor­ners; a set of three ca­nine mouth gags; or a set of sturdy dog-chew bones of spe­cific length)

Bolt cut­ters (with 10- to 13-inch han­dles) Line cut­ters (on an ex­tended han­dle that is at least 6 feet long, with blades able to cut 400-pound mono)

A long-han­dled (6-foot min­i­mum) de­hooker of 316L stain­less-steel rod

A long-han­dled de­vice “to pull a ‘V’ in the fish­ing line,” per re­lease pro­to­cols

I asked NOAA, by the way, why it doesn’t ap­ply the same rule to all boats fish­ing reef wa­ters — i.e., pri­vate boaters as well — and if that might yet hap­pen, but couldn’t get much of an an­swer.

Crit­i­ciz­ing fed­eral fish­ery man­agers these days al­most seems like pil­ing on, but to ask char­ter boats (in­clud­ing small cen­ter con­soles, where space is lim­ited) to buy and find a place for so much gear that few will ever need or use seems way over the top.

Such reg­u­la­tions, well in­ten­tioned but so out of touch with re­al­ity, can serve only to gen­er­ate more ridicule from the con­stituen­cies that NOAA and the fish­ery-man­age­ment coun­cils serve, fur­ther alien­at­ing fish­er­men.


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