During the spring and early summer, permit in the Florida Keys leave the flats and migrate offshore to spawn in deeper water at reefs and wrecks. Tracking data from Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s tagging program show that the most important spawning site for permit that live on Lower Keys flats is Western Dry Rocks (WDR), a 1.3 square mile shoal approximately 10 miles southwest of Key West. Permit, as well as snapper and grouper, spawn there by the thousands, and the resulting larvae are carried back to the Keys by irregular currents called the Pourtales Gyre. The spawning that takes place at WDR sustains the Keys’ world-famous permit fishery, which supports the livelihoods of more than 80 guides and is an essential component of the region’s larger flats fishery, with an annual economic impact exceeding $465 million.
“BTT tracked the spawning migrations of more than 150 permit over the last five years, and identified several spawning sites,” said Dr. Ross Boucek, BTT’s Florida Keys Initiative Manager. “Western Dry Rocks stands out because 71 percent of the permit that we tagged on the flats in the Lower Keys went to there to spawn. And of the 13 fish we tagged at WDR, 10 returned to the flats in the Lower Keys.”
Although permit are protected from harvest throughout the Keys during their spawning season (April through July), the high percentage of hooked permit lost to sharks at WDR makes catch-and-release fishing unsustainable and detrimental to health of the Keys’ iconic permit fishery. Two studies funded by BTT found that 35 to 39 percent of permit hooked at Western Dry Rocks during the spawn were eaten by sharks before being landed. The sobering findings align with firsthand reports from anglers and guides.
“Fishing spawning aggregations, like Western Dry Rocks, takes away the trophy fish from our fishery,” said Dr. Boucek. “If left alone at their aggregations, those trophy permit will return to their home areas and be available to target year-round throughout the Lower Keys.”
The high mortality rate of spawning permit at WDR prompted BTT to form a coalition with the Lower Keys Guides Association (LKGA) and the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), and launch the “Let Them Get Lucky” campaign advocating for a no-fishing closure at WDR during permit spawning season, which overlaps with the mutton snapper spawn. In February 2020, BTT, LKGA, and leading guides, both flats and offshore, traveled from the Keys to speak at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) meeting in Tallahassee in favor of the closure, galvanizing public support.
Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Fly Fishers International, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, and Wild Oceans soon joined the coalition and rallied their members. The yearlong “Let Them Get Lucky” campaign generated more than 500 comments to FWC in support of a four-month no-fishing closure at WDR. At its meeting on February 28, 2021, FWC commissioners voted to adopt the regulation prohibiting fishing at WDR from April 1 through July 31, beginning this year. Guides, anglers, and conservation groups celebrated the vote, one of the most significant conservation victories for sport fish in recent years.
“The increased protection for spawning permit in the Florida Keys is a testament to the progress that can be made when scientists, anglers, guides, and management agencies work together for the long-term health and sustainability of our fisheries,” Jim McDuffie, BTT President and CEO. “The closure benefits permit and other species and will ultimately provide anglers and guides with more fishing opportunities throughout the Lower Keys.”
This is the latest conservation outcome in the decade-long Project Permit, sponsored by Costa. To learn more about Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, visit BTT.org.