Panama City Beach – Gator hunters may run in daylight

Panama City Beach — Florida alligator hunters could start out before the sun sets and finish up well after it’s risen under a plan supported Thursday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

By unanimous consent, the FWC gave preliminary blessing for an additional four hours of daylight-hunting — two more in the early evening and two in the morning — to the state’s recreational alligator hunting season.

If approved following a public hearing June 8-9 in St. Augustine, the change would take effect immediately to set hours from 5 p.m. until 10 a.m. during the annual 11-week season, which runs Aug. 15 to Nov. 1. The change would be the first expansion of hours since February 2008, when FWC added an hour to Florida’s traditionally nighttime hunt.

“Once the season opens we can hunt the gator in the lake behind Dusty’s Oyster Bar” said Jerry Eyler of Best Panama City Beach Condo Rentals at Celadon Beach Resort www.bestpanamacitybeachcondo.com  “But don’t tell anyone about the Dusty’s gator I have dibbs on him” said Eyler.

Harry Dutton, FWC’s alligator management program coordinator, said three Web-based surveys last fall of hunters, conservationists, animal welfare organizations and the general public indicated 80 percent wanted more hours, with most preferring a complete removal of hunting hour restrictions.

Georgia and South Carolina allow for hunting anytime during their seasons, while Texas and Louisiana have daytime hunting, and Mississippi and Alabama nighttime hours.

Dutton said FWC staff believes daylight hunting would have a “negligible” biological effect on the alligator population but that if any substantial long-term changes were detected through rigorous monitoring, harvest quotas would continue to provide the “safety net” to protect the population.

The state issues about 6,000 permits annually for its alligator harvest program, with each permit entitling a hunter to take up to two alligators. Since 2000, the total harvest has more than tripled, to where it totaled 7,844 in 2009, while the average length has steadily declined, from 8 feet 8 inches in 2000 to 8 feet in 2009.

“We got more alligators coming out of our ears,” said FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto.

Opposition to daylight-hunting was led by Bonnie Basham, who spoke on behalf of BoatUS and the Florida Airboat Association. She said that while the season now allows a total of 504 hours for hunting, it takes an average of only about 23 hours for a hunter to reach his limit.

“We do not understand the compelling need for additional hours,” she said. “We’re fine with the extra hours in the evening, but we’re dead opposed to two more hours in the morning.”

Basham said novice gator hunters might not be aware of how quickly alligator meat spoils in the heat and that the daylight hours would generate conflicts with other users of the state’s waters. After the meeting, she said she worried such conflicts could lead to greater local restrictions on airboat use.

Dutton told FWC that public input revealed “a common thread of concern” over potential conflicts between permitted hunters and fishermen, pleasure boaters, water and jet skiers, wildlife observers and eco-tour operators.

“We believe this recommendation strikes a good balance, providing for increased flexibility for (alligator hunters) while recognizing that alligator harvest is only one of the major recreational activities on Florida’s waterways,” Dutton said.

Capt. Phil Walters, with GatorGuides.com, said he would prefer round-the-clock hunting during the season “but we’ll take what we can get. We have to share these resources with everybody. We need to accommodate different concepts of hunting.”

Church Echenique, with United Waterfowlers of Florida, said expanded hours would better serve shift workers, and casual hunters who want to take an alligator while out fishing in the morning or early evening.

“It increases the opportunity,” he said, noting he expected to see a reduction in user conflicts as the hours are expanded.

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