THE ANGLING REPORT: BONEFISH DECLINE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS

Fascinating article by Bill Horn about the decline of the Keys bonefish. Reprinted with permission from the Angling Report, The Newsletter For Anglers Who Travel. Visit www.anglingreport.com to learn more. You can also pick up Bill Horn’s book in the BTT store www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/store

November 2013 -11- Volume 26, Number 11
Don Causey Note: Unless you live in South Florida, you probably haven’t heard that bonefish populations in the Keys are way down. Here’s an in-depth look at the problem and what’s being done to address it. Author Bill Horn is a Keys resident, veteran flats angler (who caught his first bonefish there in 1974), and he has served as assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, chairman of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences environmental board. He is the author of Seasons on the Flats: An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys – a well received and well reviewed description of flats angling in the Keys.

A combination of scientific population surveys and anecdotal information from longtime anglers and guides indicates plainly that the Florida Keys bonefish population has been in a slow decline for decades with a marked drop in recent years. The decline in this iconic flats species triggered overdue efforts to understand the fishery and pinpoint the causes adversely impacting it. The Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC), the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT), and the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine Science (UM) are collaborating on these efforts, producing tantalizing tidbits of data beginning to point toward sound restoration management plans.

Keys bonefish (Albula vulpes) created flats fishing. Starting in the 1920s, anglers ventured to the Keys and discovered the challenging pursuit of the gray ghost in skinny water. Zane Grey, fishing from the legendary Long Key Fishing Club (before it was obliterated by a killer 1935 hurricane), was the first of a long line of bonefish enthusiasts. By the mid-1930s it was discovered that the bonies would take artificial flies. And after a World War II–induced hiatus, outdoor writer Joe Brooks and Keys guide Jimmie Albright demonstrated that one could target and catch big tailing bones on the fly. Through the 1950s, Florida Keys flats fishing meant bonefish. Tarpon were too big to target with the flats tackle of the day and permit were, well, permit.

Bone fishing became increasingly popular with the upsurge in saltwater fly fishing and explosive population growth in south Florida. The Keys were transformed from a sleepy community at the end of the road to a big tourist destination. Thousands of acres of flats and mangrove habitats were dredged and filled to create homes, condos, resorts, and marinas for legions of new residents and visitors. Septic systems, installed in porous coral rock, were the order of the day for all this development. In the early 60s, there were only a handful of flats guides from Miami to Key West; today there are over 300. In fact, the flats fishery is estimated to contribute more than $460 million annually to the Keys economy.
Despite growing pressure, bone fishing remained good into the 1980s. Analysis of bonefish tournament catch records from 1968 through 2010 revealed that catch per unit of effort (CPUE), a relatively crude tool for assessing a fishery’s health, was highest in 1988 at nearly 1.5 fish per hour.

In the middle of that decade, however, a whole lot of environmental bills came due with unwelcome consequences. North of the Keys, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District completed re-plumbing the Everglades in the 1960s. The Glades were diked, diverted, and crisscrossed with canals to sluice water from Lake Okeechobee out to sea. Big swaths of dried-up wetlands were converted to sugar cane farming, cattle ranching, or new urban development west of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. Remaining reduced freshwater was loaded with runoff – mainly fertilizers and excessive nutrients – from sugar cane, tomato farms, and cattle. Everglades National Park (ENP) and Florida Bay, at the south end of the Glades, were getting less than 50 percent of historic water flows, and the water was dirty to boot.

By 1987, Florida Bay, on the Keys’s west and north side, was very sick. Major sea grass die-offs occurred that summer, hyper saline waters became endemic in 1989–1991, and major algae blooms turned clear waters a sickly, gooey green. The pink shrimp fishery was the first to pay the price. In the mid-1960s, Key West shrimpers landed more than 5,000 metric tons of shrimp each year. By the mid-1990s, landings plummeted more than 60 percent, and today only a handful of shrimp boats continues to fish the decimated shrimp. Studies established a clear link between fouled bay waters and the shrimp decline.

Veteran Keys guides and anglers saw a direct connection to bonefish, too. When the C-111 Canal was opened in south Dade County to dry up adjacent lands for farming and to divert water away from Taylor Slough (inside ENP) and Florida Bay, Jimmie Albright predicted trouble for upper Keys bonies, and he was right.

Bone fishing began to slide after the bay got sick. Fish numbers were still pretty good, and the fishery likely got a short-lived bounce from the elimination of “kill” tournaments and
the end of gillnetting for mullet in the bay (bonefish were often caught and killed unintentionally). Good anglers and guides remained successful, but the CPUE numbers for the tournaments exhibited a steady slide until 2010.

Observant anglers and guides were growing concerned and founded BTT in 1998. Mission one was (and remains) to find the answers to why bonefish are in trouble and what can be done to turn things around. Getting hard information was a priority. Fishing was always better in the good old days; the mind remembers the good days and edits out the bad, so fisheries scientists look for facts rather than relying on misty memories. In 2003, BTT teamed up with UM to conduct the first Keys bonefish census. That first year, the sampling and number crunching concluded that 290,000 bones inhabited the Keys and Biscayne Bay. Subsequent efforts – using the same methodology – through 2008 yielded numbers up to 364,000, with a mean population prediction of 316,000 fish. The population appeared stable.

Data on the average size of captured fish reinforced the notion of stability. During a 12-year period, caught and measured Florida bones averaged 22 to 23 inches in fork length,
or approximately six pounds. Michael Larkin’s superb UM PhD dissertation on the fishery (an excellent source of information that provided many of the facts for this article) concluded the “stable average length implies a population that is not declining” but noted that the “population may have declined substantially” prior to 1998.

Veteran Keys anglers weren’t buying the statistical “stability.” By the mid-2000s, bonefish were getting harder to find consistently. Many guides stopped targeting the fish, redirecting
their clients toward tarpon and permit – treating any bonefish that popped up as a bonus. Marathon Capt. Bus Bergmann, who began guiding in the Keys in 1980, has kept a logbook for more than 30 years. His records show a sharp new decline in bonefish numbers beginning in the 2005–2006 period. This situation was demonstrated to me in the fall of 2006: I hit the flats and by 10:00 a.m. had boated a 15-pound permit and 60-pound tarpon and needed only a bonie to complete the Grand Slam. Hours and many flats later yielded not a single sighted bonefish.

The bottom fell out in 2010. January saw record cold descend on the Keys. Water temperatures plunged into the 40s, stayed there for days, and killed fish by the hundreds of thousands. Dead fish, including bonefish, tarpon, permit, and snook, were everywhere. Finding a bonefish in the following months was like finding a needle in a haystack. One competent veteran Middle Keys guide didn’t have a single bone caught in his boat that spring or summer. These grim anecdotal reports were buttressed by the fall 2010 bonefish census. It concluded that the Keys population had dropped more than 33 percent to 240,000 fish.

It seems that 2010–2012 was the nadir. Reports have trickled in this year indicating some uptick in the population. A guide will report good numbers off Key Largo one day; someone else will find a concentration of fish on Nine Mile Bank. My Marathon guide friends were catching a bonefish or two a day this summer when they targeted them.
In the Middle and Lower Keys, specifically targeting bonefish remains an iffy proposition. Most anglers and guides will plan to chase the healthy populations of tarpon or permit (and sometimes red fish) and take shots at whatever bonefish are encountered. In the Upper Keys (and Biscayne Bay), bonefish numbers are better (and have been historically), so targeting the fish there continues to make sense. But Keys bones have always been limited compared to places like the Bahamas or Mexico; the attraction has been the large average size of Florida fish, the chance for 10-plus pound trophies, and the challenge of pursuing an elusive, difficult quarry. It’s akin to the difference between trout fishing in Alaska and New Zealand or strike indicator nymphing from a drift boat versus stalking a sipping spring creek brown trout.

Recent results from the annual Marathon International Bonefish Tournament, however, offer some additional hope as well as confirm how bad things have been. Started 54 years ago, the tournament focuses on numbers of caught bones. Most participants chum and fish with bait to rack up impressive catches. Into the mid-2000s, the winner needed to land 45 fish or more over a three-day period. The 2012 winning team caught only 14 – the lowest winning total in more than half a century. This year, the winning total improved to 20 bonies.

One persistent concern has been that water quality problems in Florida Bay, compounded by old leaching Keys septic systems, have been reducing the numbers of crab, shrimp, toad fish, and other prey available on the flats. If the forage was down, the bonefish would
go elsewhere or starve. This worry may be misplaced. A recent BTT/Audubon collaboration concluded there has been no significant drop in flats forage during the last 25 years. It appears that diminished bonefish numbers cannot be blamed on less productive flats. However, more prey base assessments are planned, so stay tuned.

I remain convinced that this doesn’t provide a complete answer. A variety of studies show that young bonefish target shrimp species; bigger, older fish switch to meatier prey such as toad fish. We also know that the pink shrimp biomass is a fraction of what it was and the loss of this forage during the past 30 years is likely adversely impacting bonefish survival. However, I am optimistic that Everglades restoration and a healthier Florida Bay will prompt a rebound in pink shrimp and better times for Albula vulpes.

And long-delayed Everglades/Bay restoration is finally starting to happen. The 1988 Mod Waters project is finally being implemented with a newly completed two-mile bridge on the Tamiami Trail ready to allow water to flow more freely (for the first time since the 1920s) into Shark River Slough and down into Florida Bay. Similarly, the C-111 Canal Spreader project is beginning to operate, providing more abundant, cleaner freshwater via Taylor Slough to the northeast corner of the bay. This should reduce the hyper saline conditions so deleterious to shrimp, bonefish, and other species. Everglades water quality also continues to improve – although at a much slower pace than expected – so fewer nutrients are reaching the bay, meaning less food for the algae. Progress remains tenuous and it will take a continued, concerted political commitment to ensure that the costly restoration projects are funded, built, and operated and that water quality standards are met. Florida Bay’s long-term health depends on it.

Within the Keys, the communities are systematically retiring the old leaching septic tanks and connecting to water treatment facilities. Marathon has led the way and with each sewer connection, water quality around the islands should improve.
We still don’t know how well Keys bonefish are reproducing – the “recruitment rate,” in fisheries parlance. Studies have provided some insight into the behavior of adult bonefish. Sexually mature fish (four years of age), it seems, spawn offshore beyond the reef. But we don’t know where the juvenile bonefish go and live for years one through three. BTT research in the Bahamas revealed that juvenile A. vulpes share open bottom habitats with mojarra orshad. Efforts to find young bonefish in similar habitats in the Keys have come up empty. Young of another species of bonefish – Albula garcia – have been found but these seem to be a deepwater species of little value or interest to flats anglers. Sketchy evidence also indicates that larval A. vulpes spawned by adult Keys bones ride the Gulf Stream north to points unknown.

A perplexing factor is that red fish populations in Florida Bay and the Keys are healthy and expanding. They now get caught regularly around Marathon and in recent years have become a winter staple in the Big Pine Key backcountry. It seems reds are expanding as bones are contracting. This seems to indicate that the flats environment is recovering and apparently healthy.

My speculation is that bonefish are suffering recruitment failure. We don’t know where larval bones go and whether or not they survive and are able to make it back to the Keys. And I suspect the decline of bonefish in unprotected sections of Cuba’s north shore has also impacted the Keys. North shore Cuba bones probably spawned in good numbers, years ago, in nearby Gulf Stream waters with a lot of juveniles likely riding the stream north into the Keys – a distinct possibility, since larval bones drift in the current for approximately 50 days. Loss of recruits from Cuba coupled with diminished young of year of the Keys may be the fundamental problem exacerbated by events like the 2010 cold snap.
Anglers can do their part in helping to resolve this problem. Even catch and release takes a toll on fish. Between three and 10 percent of bonefish die following catch and release;
higher numbers are associated with prolonged fights that exhaust the fish, excessive handling (i.e., “hero shots”), and the release of tired fish with sharks nearby. The antidotes are employing the beefiest tackle you can (most bones aren’t leader shy, so use 15- or even 20-pound test leaders to muscle the fish), get the fish in quickly, minimize handling (leave them in the water and use barbless hooks to facilitate unhooking), and look out for prowling sharks. Bonefish can live up to 21 years and each time one is caught and let go, the chances of an untimely early death increase.

Flats anglers are optimists by nature and it appears there is hope for Florida’s bonefish. Numbers are inching back up, Everglades restoration is starting to happen with improvements in Florida Bay likely around the corner, and FWC, BTT, and UM are learning more about these mysterious ghostly fish. The combination of improving environmental conditions and smarter management arising from better knowledge should help us turn the corner and restore the Keys bone fishery to some of its earlier glory.

– Bill Horn.

 

Editor Note:
One of the most important things anglers can do to help bring back Keys bonefish – in addition to those things mentioned above – is to join Bonefish Tarpon Trust at www.bonefishtarpontrust.org. And not at only the Associate ($25) or Member ($100) level. Step up to the plate and become a Conservation ($500) or Gray Ghost Sponsor ($1,000). BTT is an effective and efficient nonprofit. They deserve your support, whether you fish the Keys or not, as much of what they are discovering has application throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere.

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