Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Initiative: Filling in the Map Gaps

Worldwide, loss of juvenile habitat is one of the greatest threats to tarpon populations as a whole. In fact, the loss and degradation of juvenile habitats is a major reason that a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature scientific assessment classified the tarpon population as “vulnerable.” This is why Bonefish & Tarpon Trust launched the Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Initiative a few years ago.

Photo: Kevin Wessel

Photo: Kevin Wessel

The most recent phase of BTT’s Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Initiative is our Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Mapping project, in which BTT is gathering confidential information from guides, anglers, scientists and landowners to help identify juvenile tarpon habitat to create maps and help us prioritize areas in need of protection or restoration.

Since BTT’s January launch of the Juvenile Tarpon Habitat Mapping project, over 40 guides, anglers and scientists have contacted us about where they see juveniles under 12″, and we currently have 135 juvenile tarpon locations as a result.  This month we will begin mapping the location data on detailed habitat maps to compile an extensive list of what characteristics are essential for nurseries.  This information will help us protect current sites, and better design habitat restoration plans at altered sites. Although this is a great start, we can always use more information.

Without healthy juvenile populations, the adult fishery suffers.  If you know of any spots or know an angler that fishes for juvenile tarpon, please don’t hesitate to contact us by emailing jwilson@bonefishtarpontrust.org.  As with all of our research, data is confidential.  A special thanks to everyone that has already participated in the project.

BTT Statement on Proposed Bahamas Flats Regulation

 

Below is the letter from Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s Director of Science and Conservation to Hon. V Alfred Gray, Bahamas Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources detailing BTT’s position on the proposed Bahamas Flats Regulations.

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May 13, 2016

Hon. V Alfred Gray, Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources

Dear Mr. Gray:

I write to you to provide comments on the proposed “FISHERIES RESOURCES (JURISDICTION AND CONSERVATION) (FLATS FISHING) REGULATIONS, 2016” dated April 06, 2016. I write to you as Director of Science and Conservation of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, an international, non-profit, membership-based conservation organization based in Florida, USA. BTT’s mission is to protect and conserve bonefish, tarpon, permit and their habitats so that healthy fisheries can be sustained. BTT envisions its role as provider of biological information to resource management agencies, guides, and lodges so that they have the best available information to use as they formulate conservation strategies.

I commend your interest in protecting the economically and culturally important recreational bonefish fishery in the Bahamas.

It is BTT’s assessment that the top threats to the long-term health of the bonefish fishery in the Bahamas are habitat loss, degradation, and illegal netting. This is not unique to the Bahamas – the same threats are impacting the bonefish fisheries in Belize, Mexico, Cuba, and Florida. Although the Draft Regulations address many management aspects of the fishery, there is no mention of flats habitat conservation and protection, which are essential components of a comprehensive conservation plan.

As defined in the Draft Regulations, the flats environment is characterized by water between 0-6’ depth with a long shallow grade. The flats environment is made up of a myriad of different habitats that bonefish and many other economically and ecologically important species utilize. Without habitat protection and enforcement of current laws, the flats environment is vulnerable to destructive development and illegal fishing that will be detrimental to the environment, the fishery, and the Bahamian people.

BTT has been working with the Bahamas National Trust, Cape Eleuthera Institute, College of the Bahamas, Fisheries Conservation Foundation, Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association, and many lodges and guides for many years to identify the habitats upon which bonefish depend. The goal of this research is to provide information to Department of Marine Resources, BNT, and others so that they can prioritize areas for conservation and protection. This research has allowed us to identify bonefish feeding areas, spawning migration pathways, and spawning locations on many islands. The feeding areas directly support the fishery, whereas the spawning pathways and spawning locations are essential to the future of the fishery. It is essential to protect all of these habitats to ensure a healthy fishery. This is especially true of bonefish spawning locations, which are in deep water that will not be protected by protections of only flats habitats. Nassau grouper provide a cautionary tale on the importance of spawning site protections. Therefore, I encourage you to incorporate a habitat conservation component as the core to your overall conservation strategy.

It is also unclear how the permit (license) application process and the limitations listed for the permit will impact bonefish research? Our research is already conducted under a permit from Fisheries, but it is unclear if the proposed regulations will supersede the Fisheries research permit. This is of concern since bonefish are captured for tagging research using both seine nets and hook and line, and by scientists and in partnership with guides.

Based on BTT’s experience in other flats fishing regions, we also offer comments on the fishing license. In the current draft of the legislation it is has listed two different licenses for flats fishing. Shouldn’t there only be a single license that is easily attainable either online or at the local island administrator’s office? There should also be no need for a customs officer to stamp an angler’s license when they enter the country. Once a license has been bought it should not have to be verified by another entity. Only a fisheries officer and other law enforcement should be able to check anglers for fishing licenses. To my knowledge, no US state or other bonefish fishing location has such a procedure, instead requiring only personal information and the required fee. The license fees should be affordable. Charging an angler $50 per day to flats fish is significantly higher than you find anywhere else in the region.

The establishment of a Conservation Fund is an excellent idea. However, it is unclear in the Draft Regulations to what entity and for what purpose the funds will be allocated. This has been an item of concern in many states in the US, as well as in Belize. License fees should be dedicated entirely to conservation, fisheries management, and enforcement. When this is the case, they receive strong support from the recreational fishing community. I realize that partial allocation of fees to a specific fund, such as the Conservation Fund, is a great step forward in Bahamas regulations, but I urge you to consider total allocation of these fees to the Conservation Fund.

As you know, an economic report commissioned in 2010 by BTT, Bahamas National Trust, and Fisheries Conservation Foundation found that the annual economic impact of the recreational bonefish fishery exceeded $141 million, with the greatest relative impacts in the Family Islands. Further, the cultural importance of the fishery on the Family Islands is reflected by the occurrence of the family relations of bonefish guides – an occupation proudly passed from fathers to sons, among brothers and cousins. Given the economic and cultural importance of the fishery, the need for conservation of the fishery and habitats is clear.

The report also showed that anglers that travel from the United States, Canada, and Europe to fish for bonefish in the Bahamas contribute to the Bahamas economy in multiple ways. Many anglers stay at fishing lodges, where their expenditures support guides and lodge staff. Other anglers stay at hotels and guest houses, where their expenditures support the local communities where they stay. Moreover, these anglers spend more money per visitor night and more money per total visit than non-angler tourists. The full report is available here: http://www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/images/stories/Bahamas_Flats_Economic_Impact_Report.pdf

DIY anglers contribute a significant amount to the Bahamian economy. In addition, many DIY anglers are second home-owners who either like to wade the flats or fish from their personal boat. Requiring anglers to have a guide if they are fishing from their personal boat in unnecessary, and no other country in the region or in the US or Canada require people who have a boat to hire a guide. For many of these anglers, being able to fish on their own and figure out the fishery for themselves is the one of the main attractions that brought them to the Bahamas.

Guide training is important, especially when it comes to interacting with clients. Currently, all a guide needs is a class B captain’s license, and then they receive training from other experienced guides out on the water. In the current draft it states that the BFFIA will be in charge of certifying guides. No private entity such as the BFFIA should be given the responsibility to certify guides. This leaves the door open for corruption and favoritism driven by political agendas. Government entities such as the Department of Marine Resources or Ministry of Tourism should be in charge of guide certification, with the focus  on good service and safety when out on the water.

Finally, education is critically important. For example, the general assumption is that since the recreational bonefish fishery is catch and release, that the fishery is automatically sustainable. However, research has shown that if bonefish are improperly handled their chances of survival decreases more than six-fold. Therefore, BTT continually educates fishing guides and anglers about proper handling techniques to ensure that sufficient bonefish survive to maintain a healthy fishery. Education might be considered as an additional component to a comprehensive conservation plan.

Thank you for considering my comments on behalf of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. I hope that BTT can continue to contribute to the conservation of the bonefish fishery in the Bahamas. As always, please consider BTT an information resource for your bonefish conservation efforts. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

Aaron Adams, Ph.D.

Director of Science and Conservation

 

Fix Our Water: Fresh Water for Biscayne Bay and wetlands…NOW!

Biscayne Bay desperately needs fresh water flow but restoration plans for the Biscayne image1-3Bay Coastal Wetlands (BBCW) have been underfunded and delayed year after year. If Governor Scott and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board Members don’t act NOW, we will lose federal funds for Biscayne Bay restoration.

Write a short email to Governor Scott and the SFWMD to tell them to fast-track all phases of the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Project. You can copy and paste the following addresses and message:

kim.mcdougal@eog.myflorida.com, pantonacci@sfwmd.gov, dokeefe@sfwmd.gov, kpowers@sfwmd.gov, saccursio@sfwmd.gov, fbarber@sfwmd.gov, sbatchel@sfwmd.gov,charlow@sfwmd.gov, mhutchcraft@sfwmd.gov, jmoran@sfwmd.govmpeterson@sfwmd.gov, tbarnett@sfwmd.gov, livablecutler@gmail.com

To Whom It May Concern,

Biscayne Bay desperately needs fresh water flow but restoration plans for the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands (BBCW) have been underfunded and delayed year after year. Rising salinity levels in the Bay are jeopardizing our water and fishery. I am writing to you to implore you to fast-track the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Project. Phase I needs to be completed in a timely manner and the planning for Phase II needs to be expedited immediately and not delayed until 2021. The SFWMD must ask the Army Corps of Engineers to budget for the needed federal funding to complete the project in a timely manner. Our water and fisheries depend on it!

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The Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands project aims to:

  • restore wetlaMail Attachment-16nds
  • improve natural freshwater flows to Biscayne Bay
  • reduce salinity in the Bay
  • rebuild coastal estuaries
  • protect Biscayne National Park
  • protect our water supply
  • sustain the economic viability of the bay

 

For more details on this issue, you can click these links to read the opinions of State Senator Anitere Flores and former Governing Board Member of the SFWMD Irela Bague.

BTT Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project

BTT is pleased to announce that our new tarpon acoustic tagging project is beginning _DSC6255 - Version 2shortly. 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.  BTT will not distribute specific data to the public and will only describe tarpon movements and habitats in a general way in order to build public support for greater protections. This project will help answer the following questions:

  • Is the tarpon population large and robust or small and vulnerable? If anglers in a particular location are fishing for the same fish every year, then the tarpon population is probably smaller than we think, and issues like shark predation will become a bigger concern. If fish move among regions every year, and anglers are fishing for different fish each year, the tarpon population is probably large.
  • Do tarpon use the same spawning site each year or move among spawning sites? On average, ocean currents will carry the larvae from a spawning site to juvenile habitats in a specific geographic region. If it’s the same adults at the spawning site every year, then local adult losses will cause declines in juveniles. If tarpon move among spawning sites, then the population will be more resilient.
  • How do changes in freshwater flows into coastal waters influence tarpon movements? Do the problems with Lake Okeechobee and Everglades restoration impact tarpon? Are the water issues in Apalachicola causing changes in tarpon movements?
  • What are the movement patterns and habitat use of mid-size tarpon (20-50 pounds)? How will these tarpon be impacted by coastal water quality issues? This size class, which is the future of the fishery, is very vulnerable to changes in coastal habitats and water quality.

Why Acoustic Tracking?

 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 prevented 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.

acoustic tags come in many sizes

acoustic tags come in many sizes

Advantages of acoustic tags are that they are smaller and less invasive 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.

How Acoustic Tagging Works

 Tags are surgically implanted in the abdomen. Each tag emits a subsonic ping that has a unique code for each tag. These pings are detected by underwater receivers when a tagged fish swims in range. When receivers are placed at strategic locations like inlets, bridges, and schooling locations, they can be very efficient.

As part of this four-year study, BTT will place 20 new receivers in waters around Florida, to add to the 60 receivers we already have in the water. In addition, colleagues at universities and state and federal agencies are using this technology to study movements of other fish species. Their receivers will also detect BTT tarpon tags. With more than 1,300 receivers in the water in the Gulf of Mexico, and more than 3,000 along the southeastern US coast, this project will be able to examine both local and long-distance movements for many years. BTT will tag 50 fish in each year of the study.

How You Can Help

 Sponsor a Tarpon: Sponsor an acoustic tag for $2,500. You can name your tarpon, and will receive a certificate with its name, photo and initial capture info (very general location and measurements). Each time BTT downloads data from the receivers (approximately every 6 months), a summary of the general data on your fish will be sent to you.

Sponsor a Receiver: Sponsor and name an acoustic receiver (listening station) for $3,000. Each time BTT downloads data from your listening station, you will receive a summary of the fish that have been detected by that station.

Help us tag tarpon. Prior to a tagging trip, our scientists will put out a notice about when and where they will be, along with contact information. If you are fishing in that area when we are tagging, all you need to do is call us when you catch a tarpon. We’ll come to your boat, transfer the tarpon over, and take care of the rest. Remember to always keep the tarpon in the water!

Contact Us Today!

For more information and to sponsor a tag or receiver, please contact Alex Woodsum, Director of Development and Communications at 617-872-4807 or alex@bonefishtarpontrust.org

The purpose of this study is to obtain data necessary for conservation. Data from this study will only be shared with the public in a very general sense to explain how the data is contributing to conservation. Specific data on tarpon movements, habitat use, etc. will not be shared. Our goal is to use these data for conservation, not to help anglers catch more tarpon. So rest assured, the data is highly confidential.

Postdoctoral Researcher Wanted for BTT Bonefish Project

Ft. Pierce, FL

Postdoctoral Researcher – Aquaculture

A Post-Doctoral Researcher position located at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, FL is available immediately. This position will work closely with the team of researchers conducting a project to determine the requirements for production of juvenile Bonefish Albula vulpes to assist in the recovery of bonefish stocks in the Florida Keys. Key aspects of this research include brood stock conditioning, induced spawning, environmental requirements for rearing leptocephalus larvae, larval nutrition, juvenile husbandry, and juvenile nutrition. The successful candidate will be expected to have excellent English writing and communication skills targeted to both scientific and lay audiences. The applicant will be required to work collaboratively and independently, often in harsh environmental conditions, to achieve the project goals and objectives as part of a large research team including multiple faculty and graduate students. This position is anticipated to last a minimum two years, but is annually renewable dependent upon performance and availability of funds. The position will remain open until filled and applications will be reviewed upon receipt.

Requirements

The applicant must have completed a Ph.D. in Aquaculture, Fish biology, or other closely related fields within the past three years from an accredited academic institution at the time of appointment. The applicant must have experience in aquaculture research or fish biology in areas relevant to the project described above.

Experience in brood stock conditioning, induction of spawning, and larval culture methods for marine fish species is highly desirable

To Apply

Applicants must apply electronically to the currently posted position on the Office of Human Resources’ job website (https://jobs.fau.edu), #01005068, by completing the Faculty, Administrative, Managerial & Professional Position Application and submitting the related documents.

The site permits the attachment of required/requested documentation. In addition to completing the online application, please upload the following: a cover letter, curriculum vitae, copies of official transcripts scanned into an electronic format, a statement of research experience and philosophy; and contact information for three references including email addresses.

Degrees from outside the United States must be validated by an organization belonging to the National Association of Credential Evaluation Service (NACES), with an indication of the documents the evaluation was prepared from (official transcripts, diplomas, dissertation abstracts). The evaluation should be scanned and electronically attached to one’s application as with other US-based transcripts.

Prior to appointment, the candidate must submit official, sealed transcripts from all institutions where graduate coursework was attempted, whether or not a degree was obtained, as well as an original NACES evaluation, if applicable. Transcripts must be issued to Florida Atlantic University not to you as the student.

A background check will be required for the candidate selected for this position. This position is subject to funding.

Florida Atlantic University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability status, protected veterans status or any other characteristic protected by law. Individuals with disabilities, requiring accommodation, please call 561-297-3057 x. 711

GPS Company Contacts Needed-ENP Mapping Project

We are asking our members and followers for help in taking the next step in flats fisheryIMG_0063 conservation. We need assistance from anyone with contacts at GPS companies. We would like them to participate in a mapping project that will help protect flats habitats while ensuring fishing access to the flats. Read on for more details and please email info@bonefishtarpontrust.org if you are able to help.

Everglades National Park recently instituted their new management plan. A significant part of this management plan is the creation of many pole/troll/idle speed zones to protect shallow seagrass habitat. BTT worked with ENP, guides, and anglers to map the flats and access channels to ensure there is access to these new zones as well as to ensure the shallow seagrass beds are protected. These maps have been ground-truthed to ensure accuracy.

An important component of the new ENP management plan is the boater education course- in order for a person to operate a boat in the Park, the boat operator must complete the course that includes conservation, habitat, and vessel operation information. However, many of these boat operators will not have intimate knowledge of Park waters that would aid navigation. And many of the new access channels will be different, so even boaters with local knowledge will have a learning curve.

Working with Everglades National Park, we would like to provide our new mapping data to the companies that produce the commercial GPS units that many of us have on our boats. This would save a lot of money for the Park by reducing the amount of channels and zones that have to be marked. More importantly, it would ensure that boaters remain in the access channels and avoid running in shallow water, both of which will help habitat conservation and fishing. (It’s important to note that these data DO NOT include information on fishing, only the channels for boat operations and the boundaries of the management zones.)

We’ve had trouble contacting the commercial GPS companies to get this done. We realize this won’t be a big money maker for them, but we’ve already obtained the data so the costs are greatly reduced. We are hopeful that these companies see the conservation (and thus PR) value in including these mapping data in their platforms. In addition, as more resource management agencies turn to spatial management strategies (that is, different types of management zones), this approach is going to become even more important to the flats fishery – the conservation and fishing implications are large.

Our request is for contact information for the GPS companies so that we can work with them to include these data in their platforms, and the same data can reach the public in a user-friendly fashion. The future of the fishery depends on good conservation measures, and healthy fisheries help the bottom lines of these companies – it’s in their best interest to become involved. Thanks for your help. Please contact info@bonefishtarpontrust.org.

Fix Our Water: Massive Seagrass Die-Off in Florida Bay

Mats of seagrass after a dieoff in the Indian River Lagoon. Photo: Dr. Aaron Adams

Mats of seagrass after a dieoff in the Indian River Lagoon. Photo: Dr. Aaron Adams

The Washington Post recently released an article about the massive seagrass die-off in Florida Bay. Over 40,000 acres of seagrass have died since last summer, a result of years of water-mismanagement not allowing enough water to reach Florida Bay, which led to hypersalinity (too much salt water) and caused this die-off. Read the full article here.

We are asking you to take action today if you care about these and the many other fisheries being negatively affected around the state of Florida. Visit www.btt.org/fixourwater to send a message to your government representatives. It only takes a minute to make your voice heard.

Hell’s Bay Donates Skiff for BTT Research

Much of BTT’s research requires our team to be out on the water. Of course there are countless hours spent in labs analyzing data, but our work requires us to put in the time on boats to collect samples and conduct research. We aren’t just out there to fish—though lucky for us that is sometimes (truly!) the best sampling method.

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Capt. Rob Kramarz with an acoustically tagged permit

If we get a call about a spawning aggregation, or a seagrass die-off, or hordes of permit or bonefish swimming, we need to get out there quickly to conduct important research. As the scope of our projects grew, so did our need to be out on the water.

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First fish caught and tagged on the new boat

For a while, this presented a number of challenges because we didn’t have the one thing we really needed for that—a boat. Fortunately, we had generous guides, friends and staff members who could often accommodate our last minute requests to get out on the water, and we still rely on guides who generously donate their time and expertise to put our scientists on fish.

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The BTT Hell’s Bay Whipray in action

But we really needed our own skiff.

Thankfully, our longtime sponsor, Hell’s Bay Boatworks came to the rescue and approached us with the generous offer to donate a Whipray to BTT’s research efforts. Over the past few months since it first hit the water, BTT’s new Whipray has been all over Florida, allowing us to conduct and accelerate important research programs.

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Permit release!

Now that the Whipray has joined the BTT team, we don’t really know how we functioned without her! She was critical to our ability to set our array of acoustic receivers in the Lower Keys and provided a successful trip to the lower Keys last month to acoustic tag permit for that same project. As the permit fishing continues to heat up, we will ramp up our permit tagging efforts in the months to come. With the new boat, we have been able to gather a number of additional bonefish fin clips for our bonefish genetics project. And as we start tagging tarpon and placing acoustic receivers this May for our tarpon acoustic tagging project, those of you in Florida may spot the Whipray out on the flats. Many of our research efforts will rely on this boat to get us there.

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Keys Bonefish-fly caught, fin clipped and released

We are grateful to Hell’s Bay for the newest addition to the BTT research efforts. Our work on the water is critical, and we couldn’t do it without their generosity. Stay tuned for our upcoming stories and photos from the flats aboard the new BTT research vessel, and visit www.hellsbayboatworks.com to check out their awesome lineup of boats.