Staying legal with Florida fishing license rules

Fishing license rules can be confusing, especially if you’re new to Florida or don’t know where to get good information. We have fishing license requirements for fresh water and salt water. We also have fishing regulations that apply to state waters and federal waters, and they are not always consistent. Knowing how and when they apply to you is important for ensuring a good fishing trip doesn’t go sour when law enforcement arrives. Licensing and regulatory information about fishing in Florida can be found at MyFWC.com.

If you are going fishing in Florida, you can assume you need a fishing license, unless you meet one of the state’s exemptions, are fishing from a pier that has a valid “pier license” (most of them don’t), or are fishing on a licensed charter boat.

There are a number of fishing license exemptions, and all of them can be found on FWC’s website: http://myfwc.com/license/recreational/do-i-need-a-license/. The exemptions that apply most frequently: Any angler (resident or non-resident) under the age of 16 does not need a fishing license, and Florida residents who are 65 or older do not need a fishing license. If you are exempt from needing a fishing license, you also do not need a snook permit or lobster permit. However, for those who intend to fish for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico, participation in the Gulf Reef Fish Survey (mentioned later) is required even if you are exempt from the fishing license.

For anglers who intend to fish for saltwater species, FWC offers a recreational saltwater fishing license that covers both residents and non-residents for all types of saltwater fishing. Residents can purchase this one-year license for $17, and non-residents can purchase a three-day, seven-day or one-year license. For residents of Florida who only fish from the shoreline, FWC offers a free shoreline-only fishing license as an alternative. This license does not cover fishing from a boat, spearfishing, or fishing from a location that can be accessed only by boat.

For anglers who intend to fish for freshwater species, FWC also offers a recreational freshwater fishing license. Freshwater and saltwater fishing licenses may be purchased separately or together, and at any time. Residents may also purchase these licenses in combination for a slight discount.

Where is the saltwater/freshwater line? I get asked that one a lot, and most people don’t like the answer. When it comes to fishing, there is no line. The type of license that you need is determined by the species of fish that you are targeting. If you are targeting freshwater fish with only a freshwater fishing license and happen to catch a snook, flounder, red drum or seatrout, you need to release it immediately. These species are considered a saltwater fish and therefore requires a saltwater fishing license to possess (and of course seasons, bag limits and size limits still apply).

Every year, at least one snowbird comes into my office and tells me they only fish from the beach while visiting Florida because “that is the Gulf and I don’t need a license to fish there.” Wrong! State waters extend 9 miles out into the Gulf and 3 miles out in the Atlantic. And besides, unless you qualify for an exemption, it’s illegal to land a fish in Florida — even from federal waters — without a Florida fishing license. Sorry, visiting anglers, you need a Florida fishing license.

Speaking of the Gulf, all anglers who will be fishing for reef fish species from a private vessel — whether they’re exempt from needing a fishing license or not — need to participate in the free Gulf Reef Fish Survey. This survey, which is still pretty new, is designed to collect information for reef fish stock assessments. Participating is a selectable option when getting a fishing license. You do not need to participate if you will only be fishing for reef fish from a for-hire fishing vessel. Your captain will handle this survey for you.

In federal waters, there are also a number of permits. Only one applies to recreational anglers: The highly migratory species (HMS) permit for recreational angling. Owners of a vessel which will be used to fish recreationally in federal waters for Atlantic tunas (other than blackfin), billfish, sharks and swordfish must have an HMS permit. The permit is for the vessel, not the angler. An HMS permit is also required on for-hire vessels that will be fishing for the same. Information about federal permits can be found at NMFSPermits.com.

Two additional federal permits apply to for-hire captains who will be fishing in federal waters. The first is a coastal pelagics permit for mackerels, cobia, little tunny, cero, dolphin, and bluefish. The second is a reef fish permit for snappers, groupers, amberjack, tilefish, hogfish and gray triggerfish. These permits also apply to the vessel.

Recreational angling HMS permit holders, and all for-hire federal permit holders, must abide by all applicable federal regulations (see: http://gulfcouncil.org/fishing_regulations/ in Gulf of Mexico federal waters), regardless of where fishing occurs, including in state waters. However, when fishing in state waters with more restrictive regulations, the more restrictive state regulations apply.

One final thought on fishing licenses in saltwater. A saltwater fishing license is not just for fish. In Florida it is also required if you wish to take any living marine organism, such as crabs, oysters, and even sand dollars or seaweed. For this type of collecting, refer to the marine life regulations section of the Florida Saltwater Recreational Fishing Regulations http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/.

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