FWC Press Release:

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) waded through numerous high-profile issues during its meeting in Apalachicola Wednesday and Thursday.

The meeting opened with a presentation of the 2009 Louise Ireland Humphrey Achievement Award to former FWC Law Enforcement Director Julie Jones. In September, Jones was appointed executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Commissioners recognized national-award-winning artist Elam Stoltzfus of Blountstown. The FSU graduate has already won 35 prestigious awards in his brief career as a film producer. He heads up the media company Live Oak Production Group.

In a vote of interest to sportsmen, commissioners gave a thumbs-up to revamping deer hunting zones and dates to align them with the rut – the period of peak deer activity associated with the breeding season.

Commissioners also gave final approval to new rules to clarify regulation of nuisance wildlife and nonnative wildlife. In addition, they approved new hunting and fishing regulations for public lands and created a special two-day, youth spring turkey season for supervised kids, under age 16. The rule package included substantial increases in a variety of hunting opportunities on public land.

In other action during Wednesday’s session, commissioners directed staff to proceed with developing new rules to tighten regulation of reptiles of concern. Proposals include extending amnesty to pet owners who turn over reptiles of concern to licensed individuals and incorporate changes to the required permanent identification of the animals. Chairman Rodney Barreto urged staff to develop the strictest rules possible.

In addition, commissioners directed FWC staff to continue work on a series of rule proposals on captive wildlife regarding Critical Incident/Disaster plans, hobbyists and labeling on wildlife shipments. A draft rule also was approved, updating the process by which counties notify the FWC regarding local zoning and building codes for proposed facilities housing Class I or Class II wildlife.

Commissioners received an update on the fox or coyote enclosure permit process on Wednesday. The report included the results of recent FWC investigations into the operation of enclosures where hunters pursue foxes or coyotes with dogs. Commissioners decided to temporarily prohibit the chasing of foxes and coyotes in enclosures while staff drafts rules guiding such enclosures in Florida.

On Thursday, the meeting began with the Commissioners recognizing retired general counsel Jim Antista. Antista began working as general counsel with the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission (GFC) in 1990. He represented the GFC and FWC in a variety of complex legal cases, including such things as litigation involving high-water lines and boundaries between state-owned submerged lands and private lands; drafted legislation to modernize penalties for violating fish and wildlife rules; principally drafted the implementing bill creating the FWC; and more.

Thursday’s agenda included a staff report regarding several technical problems in the FWC’s licensing system. Commissioners directed staff to change the current first-come, first-served selection of participants for quota hunts in favor of a less technology-dependent random selection method for the first phase of the permit-issuance process.

Another staff report focused on an initiative to establish youth conservation centers around the state to offer children opportunities to connect with wildlife and nature through many types of outdoor recreational activities.

Also on Thursday, the Commission approved rules to prohibit all harvest of lemon sharks from Florida waters and extend the expiration date of the moratorium on new spiny lobster commercial dive permits from July 1, 2010 until July 1, 2015. These rules take effect on March 23.

In addition, commissioners proposed a draft rule that would include all species of bonefish found in Florida in the FWC’s bonefish management rules, extend Florida bonefish regulations into adjacent federal waters, and require that bonefish be landed in a whole condition.

Another proposed draft rule would allow all ballyhoo endorsement holders to sell their endorsement to other commercial fishers from July 1 – March 31 each year, limit any one entity from holding more than two ballyhoo endorsements at any one time, prohibit leasing of the endorsement, and allow only one endorsement per saltwater products license and one saltwater products license to be associated with a single endorsement.

The FWC also approved a draft rule to allow oyster harvesters to stow hand tongs on their unmoored vessels from sunset to sunrise so that they can transit to oyster bars before dawn and begin harvesting oysters at sunrise.

Final public hearings will be held in April on the FWC’s proposed draft rules for bonefish, ballyhoo and oysters.

The FWC also proposed a draft rule for weakfish, also known as gray seatrout or yellow-mouth trout, that would apply Florida’s weakfish management rules only in state waters of the St. Marys River in Nassau County, provide that all weakfish-like fish (including weakfish, sand seatrout and their hybrids) would be considered weakfish in this management area, and reduce the daily recreational bag limit for weakfish from four fish to one fish and establish a commercial weakfish harvest limit of 100 pounds per vessel per day or trip (whichever is longer) in the weakfish management area. A final public hearing on the proposed weakfish rule amendments will take place in June.

In other marine fisheries action, the Commission discussed Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean red snapper and other federal fishery management issues.

The next FWC regular meeting will be in the Tallahassee area April 28-29