Social and Biological Evaluation of a Statewide Largemouth Bass Harvest Regulation Change

man on boat with fishIn 2015, a committee of freshwater fisheries managers and researchers conducted a comprehensive review of biological and social data to make management decisions that best meet stakeholder desires and the biological health of Florida’s bass fisheries. FWC biologists synthesized data for largemouth bass, including regional and lake-specific data from fishery dependent and independent long-term monitoring programs, a summary of FWC’s bass tagging studies, and a comprehensive stakeholder outreach campaign. A largemouth bass population model was developed to explore predicted effects of different regulations on catch and harvest of all bass and trophy-size bass (>8 lbs).

After reviewing the social and biological information on bass fishing in Florida, the committee proposed a new statewide Largemouth Bass regulation that became the new statewide law in July of 2016. The statewide bag and length limits for black bass are: five black bass (including largemouth, Suwannee, spotted, Choctaw, and shoal bass, individually or in total), only one of which may be 16 inches or longer in total length. There is no statewide minimum length limit for largemouth bass. The new rule simplified bass fishing regulations by eliminating the three bass regulation zones in Florida and greatly reduced the special regulations for specific waterbodies. The primary biological goal of the rule change aims to shift harvest from larger female bass (larger than 16 inches) that may have higher trophy potential, to smaller bass (10-16 inches) that are commonly more abundant in the population.

This is the most significant rule change for largemouth bass in more than 20 years, and fishery managers recognize a comprehensive evaluation is needed to identify impacts from the change. To evaluate the impacts of the largemouth bass regulation change, FWC researchers are examining the biological impacts on the fishery and gathering feedback from freshwater anglers.  Although harvest rates are typically low in bass fisheries in Florida, this evaluation may inform where over-harvest occurs and allow resource managers to adopt policies for those waterbodies.

men on boat electrofishing

Electrofishing

FWC freshwater fisheries research and staff from the Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management are collecting biological and social data from approximately 50 waterbodies across Florida over the next 10 years to execute one of the most comprehensive evaluations of harvest regulations ever conducted. A fisheries dependent and independent monitoring program funded through Sportfish Restoration will provide 10 years of pre-regulation change information, and highlights the purpose and utility of standardized long-term monitoring programs. The team will use electrofishing, creel surveys, and tagging to assess the effect of the new bass regulation on bass population abundance, size structure, and angler catch. Scientists will also take a modified age sample (age at length) from a subset of lakes each year to assess changes in growth to 16-inch bass.

Biological data is crucial in evaluating natural resource management actions such as harvest regulations; however, managers must also consider social implications, such as angler satisfaction, as a significant factor. Human dimensions data can provide social context by assessing angler perceptions of the regulation. Researchers are addressing questions such as, Are anglers satisfied with bass fishing in Florida? Does the new regulation provide diverse angling opportunities while also protecting trophy bass? By engaging stakeholders, the data from this project will help fisheries managers better understand angler perspectives over time.

FWC researchers are conducting surveys (online and mail return), interviews, and focus groups to gather input on angler perceptions of the regulations over the next 10 years. The social inquiry will explore changes in fishing participation, satisfaction with the regulation, opinions about harvest, opinions about impacts to tournaments, and opinions about the regulation’s effect on the protection of trophy bass. This mixed-mode approach of stakeholder engagement should ensure that we gather feedback from all of our stakeholders, who represent diverse interests. FWC researchers will use the results from the surveys, focus groups, and interviews to refine the process of engaging stakeholders in regulation development or changes. The research methods can serve as a template for combining human dimensions data and traditional biological assessments for future natural resource management. The results from this evaluation can provide managers with optimal data for management of largemouth bass in Florida.