Here are three laws frequently broken by saltwater anglers—so often, in fact, that it doesn’t take much research to find proof online. These crimes are shared through social media posts, videos, and witnesses.
Perhaps like the old west, the open ocean feels like a “no witness, no crime” area; with the opportunity to bend the law since there is no one else in sight. But, for American anglers who venture into the Gulf of Mexico, there are many laws you may or may not know exist. Lacking knowledge of these laws won’t get you off the hook if you’re caught.
To start, where do these laws come from? Every state along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida, has its own set of state rules governing fish sizes, seasons, and regulations. “State waters” extend from the shore to 3 or 9-miles out, depending on your state. Beyond that is the Federal and International fishery lines, where different laws may apply.
The Gulf Federal Fishery laws are governed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Non-fishery federal laws are governed by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association law enforcement and United States Coast Guard.
Now that we know where the laws come from, here are the three most commonly broken laws:
#1 USING THE WRONG HOOKS
Do you use circle hooks when fishing offshore in the Gulf of Mexico? Non-stainless-steel circle hooks are required when fishing with natural baits for reef fish such as snapper, grouper, and amberjack. Natural bait is anything that was once alive. For example, frozen bait, such as sardines, squid, or shrimp, are considered natural bait. This regulation is commonly broken by anglers who use a J-hook to catch reef fish. These fishermen get caught by later posting videos and pictures on social media with the J-hooked reef fish.
This law was put in place after research showed that circle hooks prevent the “gut hooking” of fish, which means more hooking of fish in the mouth. Circle hooks decrease the chance of death when a fish is released by hooking the fish in the lip. Offset circle hooks are legal in federal waters when fishing for reef fish.
Anglers who prefer fishing jig heads will also note they are not exempt from the circle hook requirement when using natural baits. The problem is finding circle hooks on jig heads, with few options available.
However, jig head anglers will tell you fishing with jig heads itself reduces the amount of fish that swallow the hook since the angler is constantly feeling the bait.
What’s the penalty? A first offense typically results in a warning, whereas repeat offenders can expect to face jail time and hefty fines.
#2 USING REEF FISH AS BAIT
Did you know it’s illegal to use anything considered a “reef fish” as bait? Often, anglers will send back down whatever small fish they catch as bait for bigger fish. Vermillion snapper is often the most commonly caught fish on a reef. While they may make great bait, using them as such is unlawful.
Some of the most popular fishing TV shows and YouTube channels use yellowtail snapper as bait for fish like black grouper or bull sharks. However, reef fish used as bait are likely purchased from a fish processor (which is lawful). The filleted carcasses and offal of gulf reef fish are used as bait in trap fisheries for blue crab, stone crab, deep-water crab, and spiny lobster.
With so many fish falling into the reef fish classification, there’s a good chance an offshore angler or two has broken this law.
What’s the penalty? It varies on the size of the violation and the intent of the violator. See the full enforcement guidelines here.
#3 VIOLATING DISTANCE LIMITS
Finally, many species of fish have distance limits certain times of the year or during season closures. Specifically, grouper have a “deep-water” closure during February and March. Highly regulated species may close before the end of their announced season. Deep-water closure allows these species the opportunity to spawn offshore in their most common spawning season; giving them the greatest chance at maintaining their populations in the future.
During this time, popular species of grouper, like red, scamp, and black, have a closed season past 20-fathoms (or 120-feet). Despite this, recreational anglers, and even charter captains, boldly boast that they fished in deeper water while posting shots of grouper species sprawled out along docks and fillet tables. This is essentially poaching in closed waters.
Venturing to water deeper than 20-fathoms and catching a fish that could go in the box is a temptation that many can’t resist. See the map on page 10.
The big issue with these laws is enforcement. As with most fishery laws, they were put into place to protect the stock of commonly targeted game-fish.
If you intentionally break the law, despite knowing the consequences, there is no one to blame but yourself if you are charged with an offense. Keep this in mind as you venture to your favorite offshore fishing holes. If you have any questions about fishing laws, contact U.S. LawShield and ask to speak with your Independent Program Attorney.