KEY WEST — Gov. Rick Scott cast a fishing line into the calm ocean waters off the Florida Keys on Thursday in an attempt to promote a state tourism industry reeling from a bad economy and last year's Gulf oil spill.
The Republican governor went fishing for tarpon along with Kathy Barco, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's chairwoman, and executive director Nick Wiley.
Tourism officials promote Florida as "the fishing capital of the world," and Scott hoped to show that the state's waters had plenty to offer visitors in spite of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill and federal fishing limits on species such as snapper and grouper.
Wearing a life jacket and a baseball cap against the sun, Scott fished off a 35-foot charter boat in waters about one mile and five miles off Key West, at the very end of the Florida Keys. He hooked one tarpon, but it snapped the line and got away.
"That would have been fun — that would have been my first tarpon that I ever caught," Scott said when the boat returned to the marina.
He did reel in a large gag grouper, which he released back into the water after posing for pictures.
"I love fishing ... and part of my job is to make sure people know about these things," Scott said.
He said the fishing trip had the same intention as the series of "workdays" he began last week, in which he spends time doing jobs with regular Floridians — to "get out and listen to people and make sure you know what's going on out there."
Scott paid $550 for the half-day charter himself. He was accompanied by two conservation commission boats carrying wildlife officers and reporters.
Saltwater fishing in Florida employs nearly 55,000 people and generates more than $5.6 billion, including more than $3.3 billion in retail sales, according to the conservation commission.
Barco praised Scott's support for her agency, but she worried about a decline in fishing tourism.
Last year's Gulf oil spill only stained beaches in Florida's Panhandle, but the state's reputation for diverse fishing in clean waters was badly tarnished by media reports about the spill, she said.
State economists are working to determine how much revenue Florida lost because of the spill as they seek reimbursement from British oil giant BP, which owned the Deepwater Horizon well that spewed oil into the gulf for months.
Barco said her agency might use some of the money from that reimbursement to start fish hatcheries on Florida's Gulf Coast.
The poor economy also has contributed to a tourism decline. Law enforcement and business owners in the Keys reported fewer tourists than in previous years during last month's two-day lobster mini-season, she said.
"Not to say it wasn't a zoo, but definitely not the numbers turned out that were out, say, four years ago. It's been a slow decline, and I'm confident it's the economy," Barco said. "People don't have that extra money, and although it's a little two-day season, if they used to come for a week, they just come for two or three days. And gas prices are high."
Federal limits on hauls of snapper and grouper also keep some fishermen off the water, she said.
"You're only allowed to keep a certain number of fish, and they keep cutting that number back," she said. "That makes somebody think twice before they load up their boat with fuel and ice and lunch and head out to fish."
Scott was sympathetic to the complaints over the federal regulations.
"We care about our state, we should be able to control our own destiny," he said. "We want to make sure we have great fishing, we don't want any of the fish to become extinct, we want to do that right thing. We know — we're here every day."