The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) establishes and enforces size and catch limits for a variety of fish species inhabiting the waters off Port Canaveral and within the Indian River Lagoon ecosystem. Some species have strict bag limits and can only be legally caught during certain times of the year.
Many other species though are plentiful enough that the FWC only places a general bag limit on them. While many of these species include “bait fish” like mullet, other popular sport fish like the great barracuda, kingfish and blackfin tuna are considered “unregulated” in the sense they can be caught all times of year and their bag limit for recreational anglers is the same as it is for commercial fishermen.
However, there are a few species whose numbers are at a point where the FWC doesn’t allow any harvest whatsoever. While it is entirely possible for you to hook one of these while out on a Port Canaveral fishing charter, you and the captain will need to carefully turn these fish loose so they can remain in the wild.
Continue reading for 8 of the most common prohibited fish species in and around Port Canaveral.
1. Goliath GrouperFormerly known as the “Jewfish,” the goliath grouper’s numbers declined significantly in the 1970s and ‘80s. Harvesting of this magnificent fish was banned starting in 1990. Although its numbers have rebounded and the goliath grouper has reestablished a lot of its former range, officials are split on when and how restrictions should be relaxed.
As the name implies, the goliath grouper is the largest of the grouper species and grow to as large as 800 pounds and 8 feet in length – average goliaths are much smaller though. They spend their early days (first 5-6 years) around mangroves but move offshore into shallow reefs as they age. Their lifespan is rather long - one known goliath registered 37 years.
If you happen to catch a goliath grouper, you need to release it as soon as possible. If it’s a larger fish, keep it in the water when dehooking it since movement onto the boat will likely cause internal damage to the fish. Your Port Canaveral fishing charter will help ensure the fish is properly released. Photos are allowed provided they do not interfere with timely release of the fish.
Photo courtesy of NOAA and the Florida Museum of Natural History
2. Hammerhead SharkLike the goliath grouper, the hammerhead shark doesn’t reproduce as fast as other fish. The hammerhead shark doesn’t begin reproducing until age 10 with a gestation period of 1 year, 3 months. Although hammerheads have been closely regulated since the early ‘90s, they were not given full protection by the FWC until late 2011.
Harvesting hammerheads is only prohibited in state waters (…3 miles offshore) since the near shore areas are their prime reproduction areas. The hammerhead can grow to around 7-8 feet and live 20 years on average. They generally live in the open waters and shallow reefs off Florida, but really prefer coral reefs.
Full prohibitions are in place for a wide variety of shark species in Florida, including the lemon shark, mako shark, tiger shark and more.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch and the Florida Museum of Natural History
3. Longbill SpearfishThe longbill spearfish is the classic Florida fish, but rare. While they range along the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to South America, the longbill spear doesn’t typically live past 4 or 5 years. They prefer the deep waters a few miles off Port Canaveral and feed at or near the surface on squids and small fish. The longbill spearfish averages between 20 and 40 pounds but can grow to as large as 75 pounds.
Catching a longbill spearfish is rare and usually only happens by accident. Anglers are typically looking for marlin, tuna and sailfish in longbill habitat.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission
4. SturgeonThe Atlantic sturgeon is one of only a few fish that travels between fresh and saltwater. It is also one of seven sturgeon species found in North America. While they spend the majority of their time in the saltwater, they do migrate into the freshwaters of the Indian River Lagoon and points north to breed. In fact, the Atlantic sturgeon will return to the river where it was born to breed. These fish are known for their incredible acrobatics, with most having the strength to leap over 9 feet above the water’s surface.
Atlantic sturgeons are rather large and can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh in at over 800 pounds.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission outlawed the harvesting of Atlantic sturgeon through 2038.
Photo courtesy of the Robert Michelson and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
5. Smalltooth SawfishOne of five sawfish species worldwide, the smalltooth sawfish is extremely endangered. Their long, flat rostrum (saw) with teeth is what gives them their unique look. They belong to a group of fishes that include sharks and rays. At one time, sawfish were plentiful along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. One fisherman in the Indian River Lagoon around Port Canaveral claimed to have caught 300 sawfish in one season back in the late 1800s. Many thought the sawfish was pretty much extinct until researchers began documenting a fair number of specimens in south Florida in the late 1990s. Harvesting sawfish in Florida has been prohibited since 1992.
The smalltooth sawfish can grow quite large – up to 18 feet long and 700 pounds! On average, they have 22 to 29 teeth on each side of the “saw.”
6. Spiny Dog FishA type of shark, the spiny dogfish will sometimes migrate as far south as Florida, but only in the winter months. In the spring and summer, they are typically found in the near- and offshore waters of New England and Canada, but will begin migrating south in the fall. Although populations have recovered in other states, harvesting spiny dogfish is still prohibited in Florida waters.
The spiny dogfish averages anywhere from 28 to 39 inches long and 7 to 9 pounds. Their average lifespan is 25 to 30 years. The dogfish got its name from fishermen observing them chase prey like a pack of dogs.
Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
7. Manta RayWith a wingspan of up to 29.5 feet and average weight of 22 pounds, it’s easy to see why the manta ray is considered the largest sting ray in the world. They can weigh up to 4000 pounds, so it’s not surprising their only real predators are large sharks. Manta rays generally live near reefs and islands just offshore. They swim by flapping their large fins like a bird and generally stay close to the water’s surface.
Manta rays have also been known to jump out of the water and making a big splash as they land.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Museum of Natural History
8. Puffer fishThe puffer fish is a small, slow swimming species with the ability to intake huge amounts of water or air and inflate to several times their normal size, which deters predators. Besides this interesting defense mechanism, puffer fish are known for the extremely dangerous poison they contain (tetrodotoxin). This substance is up to 1,200 times more toxic than cyanide, is foul tasting to any predators and fatal to humans. Theoretically, one puffer fish contains enough poison to kill 30 adults. Barbs similar to a porcupine also helps some puffer fish species deter predators.
Puffer fish are rather small and only grow up to 3 feet. Harvesting this species is prohibited in waters around Port Canaveral and surrounding areas along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Inevitably, anglers will hook one of these species while fishing the inshore and offshore waters near Port Canaveral. While this is unavoidable, you may not legally keep any of these species and must release them back into the water. Failure to do so could result in heavy fines and possible jail time.
Anglers most often hook one of these or other prohibited species while fishing for more common fish like snapper, redfish or speckled trout.
An experienced fishing charter in Port Canaveral will know which fish you are allowed to harvest. If you happen to snag one of these prohibited species, they will be able to help you unhook and release it. To learn more or schedule your fishing adventure either within the Indian River Lagoon or offshore, contact Capt. Joseph Smith of Fin Factor Charters in Port Canaveral today.