Why are dead tarpon washing up around Cat Island?

Kyle Johnson photo of one of the many dead tarpon off Cat Island.

Photo by Kyle Johnson of one of the many dead tarpon off Cat Island.

This past weekend, we received reports and photos of dead tarpon that had been spotted floating around Cat Island, a barrier island off the Gulf Coast that is under Mississippi’s jurisdiction. Fishermen Kyle Johnson and Troy Helwig spotted more than a dozen tarpon up to 80 pounds floating dead within a mile of Cat Island, mixed in with 20 to 40 pound jack crevalle. There were no bite marks from sharks. There were no baitfish floating in the water, which would have certainly been present if the fish kill was a result of something like an algae bloom.

Johnson and other experienced anglers from the area suspect that these tarpon and large jacks are the victims of nets from menhaden boats. It’s a likely scenario, as both species feed on the tightly packed schools of menhaden, and could easily get caught up in commercial nets. Menhaden are pursued commercially with purse-seine nets, and estimates show that 500 million pounds are harvested commercially each year. Purse-seine nets are both massive and non-selective, which can spell disaster for non-target species like tarpon, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. Once the nets are set, any fish or mammals within can’t escape and face likely death.

This is a very concerning development and needs to be addressed. Tarpon are incredibly valuable as recreational species throughout the U.S. and around the world, and BTT-funded studies showed that they are capable of long-distance movements, meaning that fish being intentionally or unintentionally harvested in one area could have detrimental impacts elsewhere. We also know that some tarpon spawn in the Gulf, so harvest in this area could truly have detrimental impacts on both migratory and resident fish. It’s time to take note and take action.

Let the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources know how you feel about this.

An interesting day in Florida’s ongoing water crisis.

It’s been an interesting day in Florida’s water news.

Congressman Patrick Murphy announced today that the Army Corps of Engineers has responded favorably to his request to expedite water storage and treatment planning of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Also today, Murphy, who is running for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat, dropped a bottle of toxic algae off at Governor Rick Scott’s office. The question now is…will the SWFWMD agree to expedite planning for the EAA?

“With a record amount of discharges this year from Lake Okeechobee wreaking havoc on local waterways, the need for more water storage and treatment areas could not be more clear. Additionally, while this problem will not be solved overnight, the health of our environment and economy cannot wait for critical projects to get underway,” said Murphy.  “I thank the Corps for their commitment to Everglades restoration projects to reduce these devastating discharges as well as the need to advance these projects as quickly as possible to provide much-needed relief to our communities. I hope the state will work with the Corps to implement an expedited timeline as well as step up and use Amendment 1 funds for additional land acquisition efforts immediately.”

In other news, Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) approved a controversial new rule on water toxins. “We have not updated these parameters since 1992, it is more good than harm,” ERC Commissioner Cari Roth, a Tallahassee attorney, said just before the vote.  “To me it would be far worse to delay.” Water-quality advocates disagree, worrying the rules would weaken the state’s water quality criteria for 120 toxic chemicals, significantly increasing the amount of a number of cancer-causing chemicals industry can dump in Florida’s water. Conservationists also worry that the public’s voice isn’t being sufficiently represented because two of the seven seats on the ERC – one representing local government and the other the environmental community – are vacant because Scott hasn’t appointed anyone to fill the vacancies.

“Why not strive to have the cleanest, purest water possible rather than trying to find out how much toxins and pollutants we can put in our waters (before causing harm)?” said Wakulla County Commissioner Howard Kessler. “Why not stop using our waters as sewers?”

Project Permit…musings, and an update.

by Aaron Adams

A friend of mine once said, “You’d better be OK being alone with your thoughts for long periods of time if you are going to fly fish for permit.” It’s painfully true. Many (if not most) days of fly fishing for permit end with no fish caught. If you’re lucky, you get some shots and looks. And you always have to be alert and maintain your focus. It’s almost a guarantee that the moment the angler on the bow starts chatting with others on the boat, a permit will suddenly appear and then spook, taking advantage of the distraction. Tracking permit movements is no different. It takes focus and commitment, and it can be a long road, with a great reward at the end.

Several years into Costa’s Project Permit, we are learning more about permit movements from tag-recapture, and now that we’ve added acoustic tracking to the quiver, our knowledge of permit movements should increase significantly in the next few years.

Permit caught and tagged on the BTT Hell's Bay Whipray.

Permit caught and tagged on the BTT Hell’s Bay Whipray.

Costa’s Project Permit came about because of serious gaps in our knowledge of permit habitat use and movement. We are working to obtain the necessary information so we can improve the knowledge base and conservation efforts for these unique fish. We already worked with the FWC to improve regulations for Florida permit, which included creation of a Special Permit Zone (SPZ) from Biscayne Bay south through the Florida Keys.

Project Permit addresses some important questions about permit.

Do they act like bonefish and stay in relatively small home ranges, or regularly move longer distances?

Is the SPZ of the Florida Keys sufficient to protect the fishery, or do Keys permit migrate north into unprotected areas where harvest levels are high?

Do individual permit go to the same location each time they spawn, or use multiple locations?

Can data on permit movement patterns be used to help guide spatial management zones in the upcoming Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary revised management plan?

So far, anglers and guides have tagged 1,240 permit with dart tags. Most tagging has occurred in the Florida Keys, but there have also been a lot of permit tagged in southwest and southeast Florida. We’ve received 35 reported recaptures. Again, most recaptures are in the Florida Keys. We’re seeing some distinct potential patterns so far:

  • The majority of permit are recaptured within a few miles of where they were tagged. In fact, some fish are recaptured on the same flat where they were tagged, days or years later.
  • The shortest time between the date of tagging and recapture was two days.
  • The longest time between tag and recapture was 897 days – but this fish was recaptured within a ½ mile from where it was tagged.
  • Two permit have made long distance travels:
    • A permit tagged in Biscayne Bay was recaptured and harvested 95 days later near Fort Worth, a distance of approximately 70 miles.
    • A second fish tagged in Biscayne Bay was recaptured 263 days later off a wreck south of Key West, a distance of approximately 120 miles.
Don't forget to send us data on tagged or recaptured fish! Take a picture of the tag or write down the tag number and send to us.

Don’t forget to send us your data on tagged or recaptured fish before releasing them! Take a picture of the tag or write down the tag number, size, date and location and send to us.

Unfortunately, we have a few recaptures for which the original tagging data has never been sent in. If you have tagging data, please send it to us! And remember, for a limited time, anyone who catches and reports a tagged permit is eligible to receive a pair of Costa Sunglasses of their choice.

If we use bonefish as our model, these preliminary data suggest that permit may have relatively small home ranges, but that they migrate to spawning locations. If this is the case, the next questions to address are: Do permit spawn at the same sites every time they spawn or do they move among sites? Is it possible bonefish are not a good model for permit movements? Are these longer distance movements by permit for spawning or just part of regular permit movement patterns? Do all permit move long distances or do some stick to a smaller home range?

 

Continued tagging will help us continue to address these questions. And the new acoustic tracking project in the Lower Florida Keys will provide some fantastic data over the next few years, as those tagged fish only need to swim in range of a network of acoustic receivers to be detected.

Thanks to our generous project sponsors (including lead sponsors Costa and the March Merkin), and thanks to everyone who has participated in tagging for making this project possible. Stay tuned, and keep tagging!

 

Hell’s Bay Cabin Bluff Tarpon Cup benefitting BTT has open spots.

There are still a few open spots for the 3rd annual Hell’s Bay Cabin Bluff Tarpon Cup, taking places August 18-21 in Woodbine, GA. This two day catch-and-release tournament will raise money to benefit BTT’s tarpon acoustic tagging program. There will also be an opportunity to participate in the acoustic tagging program, as Dr. Aaroncabin bluff Adams will be on hand to tag tarpon and present on the program.

This two day catch & release tournament will begin on Thursday evening, the 18th of August, with a welcome gathering and captain’s meeting which will include a Lowcountry boil, cocktails, and a presentation by Dr. Aaron Adams. Friday will be the first day of tournament fishing, followed by cocktails and dinner. Saturday will be the final day of fishing with the awards dinner to follow.

For more information or to register for this event, please call Todd Fuller at Hell’s Bay Boatworks (321) 383-8223 or email: todd@hellsbayboatworks.com

About BTT’s Acoustic Tagging Program: The purpose of this study is to obtain scientific data necessary for tarpon conservation that will be used exclusively to protect tarpon and enhance their habitat through improvements in fishery management.

Although satellite tagging previously funded by BTT provided valuable data, the tags typically only stayed on the tarpon for a few months at a time, which acoustic tags come in many sizesprevented long-term tracking. In addition, because of the large size of the satellite tags, their use is limited to tarpon over 80 pounds. The new Tarpon Program will use acoustic telemetry to track tarpon movements.

Advantages of acoustic tags are that they are smaller and  can remain with the fish and active for up to five years rather than a few months. In addition, because acoustic tags come in a range of sizes, they can be used on tarpon from 20 pounds and larger, not just the extra-large adults. They also cost significantly less than satellite tags.Helios FB

The program just began in May, but we already got a tarpon detection on a 45-lb fish named Helios that was tagged in the Lower Florida Keys and traveled over 400 miles in a month before being detected near Port Orange, FL. This is the first time tarpon of this size have been tracked. As the program continues, we will diversify both the geographic range and fish size in our tagging efforts. During the Cabin Bluff tournament we will be acoustically tagging our first Georgia fish, and results of that will provide fascinating new insight on the tarpon fishery.

Click here for more information on the tagging program.

Gillnetting in Belize is destroying the fishery.

Gillnetting is one of the most destructive fishing practices in existence. Active gillnets are indiscriminate, resulting in significant lethal bycatch. Ghost nets (nets that have been abandoned) float in the ocean and continue their destruction, snaring and killing fish that come into contact with them. One of the great challenges with gillnets in Belize (and elsewhere) is that even protected species like bonefish, tarpon and permit are not safe from the nets, and are still being disguised and sold as other fish at market.

Belize has seen a documented, serious decline in its fisheries, and much of that can be attributed to gillnetting and other destructive practices. OCEANIMG_7066A is advocating for outlawing gillnets altogether to help preserve the fisheries, and recently asked BTT to join its efforts. Their documentary on gillnetting shows the perspective of local fishermen as well as scientists, and provides a good outline of the problem and their proposed solutions.

The economic and cultural value of these fisheries is profound, and species like bonefish, tarpon and permit bring far more economic value alive than dead. Outlawing gillnets will not only ensure the livelihood of many fishermen in Belize, but will also help preserve the amazing recreational fishery and the many Belizeans who depend on it. Whether you’ve been to Belize or want to go, we implore you to take a stand on this issue. If you would like to write a letter, you may address it to the Belize Director of Fisheries, Ms. Beverly Wade. Please send letters to Jacinta Gomez at jgomez@oceana.org. Thanks for helping us take a stand to protect Belize’s fisheries.

The Bahamas regs…a sigh of relief

We all waited with bated breath to hear what Rena Glinton, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries of the Bahamas would announce at her July 13th press conference at ICAST in Orlando. It’s been a crazy year with much public comment and chatter and many anglers pledging never to return to the Bahamas if some of the proposed regulations passed. Given that the announcement was made IMG_4244at a place overrun with fishing industry and media folks, we felt the outcome would be generally favorable and are pleased that the Bahamas has taken all of the feedback under advisement and agreed on more sensible regulations that will generally benefit the fisheries as well as those who travel there to fish. BTT applauds the Bahamas commitment to the resource and their recognition of the tremendous economic impact of recreational anglers (our economic study estimated it at nearly $150 million several years back, a number that has surely grown). There are still some provisions that may be unpopular and some that require more clarity, but this is a step in the right direction.

Ben Bulis, President of AFFTA noted, “cooler heads prevailed in the Bahamas and the new flats fishing regulations announced today clearly show the fly-fishing industry and the interests of the resource remain high priorities in the Bahamas.”

Angling Trade Magazine provided a good summary of the regulations:

Visitors are going to be required to get a license.  It’s reasonably priced: $20 for a week, or $60 for a year.  A good portion of that money is going to be earmarked directly toward conservation causes.

If you’re on vacation with the family, want to walk the beach with a fly rod before the kids wake up, and you have your license… you’re fine.  Parties of two anglers fishing from a boat will need to hire a guide.

Guides will all be certified by groups (that’s plural… and that’s important) that set uniform standards.

Visiting anglers are catch-and-release anglers, period.

So the guides will be consistent and held to standards.  The 37,000 visitors who visit the Bahamas every year to fish will pay a license fee (as they should) to support conservation of the resources.  The fishery will be better managed. Local guides will be the gatekeepers for most visiting anglers. Tourism appeal will improve even more.  And the Bahamas will retain its rank as the world’s premier bonefishing destination.

If ever there were a win-win outcome, this is it.

45-Pound Tarpon Travels Over 400 Miles in a Month!

BTT began to acoustically tag tarpon this past May in an effort to expand on knowledge of tarpon habitat use and movement at different life stages. We just received report of the first tarpon detection from BTT’s acoustic tarpon tagging program, and it has provided fascinating new insight on tarpon movement.

Helios is an approximately 45-pound tarpon sponsored by Perk Perkins, CEO of The Orvis Company. It was caught on a live crab and tagged in late May in the Lower Florida Keys by BTT scientists from UMass Amherst and Carleton University and Captain Lenny Leonard, and was the second fish ever tagged as part of the program. We just received word from colleagues that their receiver near Port Orange, Florida detected Helios in late June. This relatively small tarpon traveled over 400 miles in a month!

Helios being tagged in the Lower Florida Keys.

Helios being tagged in the Lower Florida Keys. Photo: Lenny Leonard

This detection is really special because it’s the first time BTT has been able to actively track fish in this size range—previous satellite tagging efforts funded by BTT were limited to tagging fish 80 pounds or larger. A 45-pound fish like Helios is years from becoming sexually mature, which has been considered the size at which tarpon start longer distance migrations. It’s also pretty remarkable that it traveled so far in a short period of time.

This underscores the importance of acoustic tagging to provide new insight into tarpon movement and habitat use during different life stages, and will provide information that is critical to BTT’s conservation efforts. Stay tuned for more recaptures!

BTT will be in Orlando June 12-15th! Come see us

BTT is coming to Orlando next week! Visit our booth at ICAST/IFTD (621), come hang out SOW-BTT-PostCard-Templateat our happy hour with Nautilus Reels (457) and Sweetwater Brewery, or join us at a local bar for a Sweetwater tap takeover, with proceeds benefitting BTT’s Fix Our Water Campaign!

July 12th
9am-1pm ICAST on the Water (Big Toho Marina, Kissimmee, FL)
5 pm BTT/Sweetwater Tap Takeover at Tin Roof (8371 International Dr., Orlando)

July 13th
9am-6pm BTT booth open (OCCC, booth 621)
3pm-5pm Social Hour with Nautilus and Sweetwater (booth 457)
8pm BTT/Sweetwater Tap Takeover at World of Beer (431 E Central Blvd)

July 14th
9 am-6 pm BTT booth open
11:30am-1pm TRCP Panel featuring Dr. Aaron Adams Will We Ever Restore Water Quality in the Everglades? (Room W208C)
5 pm Smith Optics Party/Sweetwater Tap Takeover (Adobe Gila’s, Pointe Orlando)

July 15th
9am-3pm BTT booth open
5 pm BTT/Sweetwater Tap Takeover at Fish on Fire (7937 Daetwyler Dr, Orlando)

Tarpon Genetics Study Field Sampling Ends, Results Coming Soon!

The end of the Tarpon Population Genetics program is in sight. Sorry to say for those IMG_6503-1who were using the program as an excuse to go fishing in far-away places – field sampling is complete as of July 1st. Now it’s all about analysis. We will have a report by the end of the year, which will provide some fascinating insights about tarpon. Thanks to anglers and guides, we received nearly 2,500 samples from 25 locations around the world, in addition to the 20,000 we have from the FWC’s prior collection in Florida. We have samples from around the U.S. and Caribbean and from far-flung locations like West Africa, Brazil and Suriname. Thank you to each and every one of you who participated.

The program will give us a better handle on the extent that tarpon throughout the region
and the world are related. Do we have several small semi-isolated populations or one large mixed population? We know that large adult tarpon can migrate long distances, which might suggest that we have one large population, but we also know that other adult tarpon seem to stay in relatively small regions. Plus, some of the previous work by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (remember their jaw-scrape program?) suggested that some tarpon show high site fidelity – they return to the same places each year.

IMG_5241Why does it matter? The results of the program will give us guidance on conservation. If there is a single, large population, then a negative impact in one location (such as the loss of juvenile habitats, harvest of adults, or loss of a spawning location) would have impacts on the populations and fisheries for the entire region. If, however, there are multiple regional populations that aren’t well connected, then the best approach would be to prioritize conservation measures for each region. For example, in one region the greatest threat to tarpon might be harvest, but in another region the greatest threat might be loss of juvenile habitats. In this scenario, rather than devise a one-size-fits-all strategy, each region would have its own conservation approach.

The ‘Golden Tarpon’ and Tarpon Tracking

Golden tarpon caught June 2016, Destin, FL by angler Will Chapman, guided by Pat Dineen.

Golden tarpon caught June 2016, Destin, FL by angler Will Chapman, guided by Pat Dineen.

This tarpon season we’ve received numerous reports and photos of a ‘golden tarpon’, a tarpon that appears to lack the darker pigments of its brethren. It was reported at Duck Key on April 27, Seven Mile April 28, Loggerhead Key May 29, estimated at 90 pounds. And a golden tarpon was caught on June 18 near Destin, FL. If this is the same fish, it traveled approximately 400 miles in 20 days. Was it the same fish? What about the golden tarpon that was spotted in the Lower Keys in April 2014? Or the golden tarpon spotted in the Keys in 2012? Was that the same fish spotted and caught this year? Is there just one golden tarpon or are there more? If there is more than one golden tarpon, why are they seen so sporadically in the Keys? Where were they in the years it wasn’t spotted in the Keys? Did they stay offshore where they didn’t cross the path of anglers on flats skiffs? Did they bypass the Keys and go elsewhere? We’ve also had reports of golden tarpon in northern Florida in past years, including just recently near Apalachicola – was it the same fish or is there more than one of them out there?

The answers to these questions are important to conservation, and this is why programs like BTT’s acoustic tagging program are important. We will get a better understanding of tarpon movements, habitat use and the population, which will help guide management decisions.

Golden tarpon spotted in Middle Florida Keys, April 2014. Photo by Neal Rogers, guided by Albert Ponzoa

Golden tarpon spotted in Middle Florida Keys, April 2014. Photo by Neal Rogers, guided by Albert Ponzoa. Is this the same fish?

Most tarpon anglers, myself included, have a few favorite spots for staking out for traveling tarpon. Depending on conditions like tide, sun, wind, I can rank my top three spots. I also have favorite bays to search for laid up tarpon – again, the conditions dictate how these spots rank on any given day. Are the tarpon at these spots the same tarpon every year? Within a season, are we seeing a lot of different tarpon or the same tarpon many times? This is an important issue – if we are fishing to the same tarpon each year, or even within a season, the tarpon population is a lot smaller than we think, which is a cause for concern. The fact that this golden tarpon was seen by numerous anglers in numerous places suggests that many of the same tarpon are being seen over and over again. This is true whether there is a single or a few golden tarpon – the number of such tarpon is small, so if we are seeing them again and again, this implies a small population. In contrast, if tarpon are moving among locations – the Keys one year, Charlotte Harbor another year, Apalachicola another year – then the tarpon population is larger than we think because we are fishing to different fish at our favorite spots each year. We need to know the answer so we know how urgent, or not, our conservation efforts have to be. Since tarpon grow so slowly and live so long, if we react to a population decline after the fact it will be a very long recovery.