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The one that got away from the red tape

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000

From the dim past right up until this very morning, human beings have plucked fish from the waters of the earth, cleaned them, cooked them and eaten them. (Certain animal rights groups say that this practice is inhumane to the fish. Let us save that debate for another day.)

Here in Florida, from time to time, a fish is caught. It is difficult to tell exactly how often this actually happens due to unreliable oral accounts. Nonetheless, we may reasonably conclude that it is no small number. Some of these fish are kept to be eaten.

Now, it is a harsh fact of life that if you catch your own fish and wish to eat them, then you must clean them, or have someone who will do the job. The verb "clean" is used ironically, as the process (depending on the person wielding the knife) involves the removal of scales, the chopping off of the head, or the removal of fish guts, with the goal of ending up with the edible portion.

A man or woman who cleans a fish expertly is to be admired.

It also is an individual matter as to when and where to clean one's fish. I remember my father, a fisher of inland freshwater lakes, bringing home his iced-down catch and slapping the fish down on the concrete rear stoop. My job was to hose down the site afterward, then throw away the spare parts, or bury them among the tomato plants, while my mother divided the fillets into piles to be eaten that night, or frozen.

Still, there are those who choose to clean fish on the scene. It is typical on a fishing pier, for instance, for there to be a board or area for fish cleaning. Those who fish from boats often clean their catch, rather than bringing home the entire piscine creature to unenthusiastic spouses or life partners.

This is more than a wandering colloquy on the cleaning of fishes. After millennia of fish cleaning by humans with relatively little involvement from the government, the state of Florida, through its Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, had until Thursday been considering a new rule that would prohibit all fish cleaning on the scene of the actual fishing.

Specifically, proposed new Rule 68B-5.005 said that no person could be in possession of fish that had been:

deheaded, sliced, divided, filleted, ground, skinned, scaled, or deboned while in or on the waters of the state or on any pier, bridge where fishing is allowed, or jetty.

Perhaps one could have argued for this rule on environmental or littering grounds, although even that made little sense. We are talking about fish heads, not chloroflurocarbons. A state whose legislators voted to abandon the inspection of vehicle emissions has little business telling people where they can dump fish parts. Besides, what about the dire effect on the state's pelicans, suddenly deprived of easy pickings?

But it turns out that the intent of this rule was to help the state's officers in enforcing existing rules. There are limits on the size and number of many species. For example, a red drum, or redfish, must be between 18 inches and 24 inches to be kept; a snook, 26 inches to 34 inches. The no-cleaning rule already applies to many of these species.

An unethical angler might keep an illegal fish and cut it up on the spot to avoid detection. A passing officer cannot reconstruct the dimensions of the original fish from the fillet. Unlike, say, shoes, fish do not have their sizes stamped on their insides, although that may be a future regulation.

Meeting in Pensacola on Thursday, the commission decided to withdraw the rule from consideration. It is just as well. It boiled down to the state seeking to inconvenience tens of thousands of citizens for its own convenience. Let the cheapskates in the Legislature (who, you will recall, like to yammer about Getting The Government Off Our Backs) pay for enough officers to do the job in the first place, and leave unmolested those citizens who wish to clean their fish in peace.

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