Tarpon Take Center Stage

Compelling need for conservation brings together science and fishing communities to support sustainable coastal sport fisheries.

Jerald S. Ault Ph.D. July 31, 2012

The Silver King has reigned supreme for more than a century as one of the most sought after game fish in existence. Few species can match the tarpon’s brute strength, airborne acrobatics, tremendous stamina and hair-raising power surges that mark a quality fight. Blessed with superb physical characteristics, these gamesters can resist the strongest currents and attack hapless prey with impunity.

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Photo: Jiangang Luo/University of Miami

Tarpon offer a challenge to biologist and angler alike. Hooked up, one senses the unbridled survival instincts of one of Earth’s oldest creatures, skills that have been honed over more than 100 million years while surviving a range of severe climatic changes. Innate morphological and behavioral characteristics have also enabled tarpon to successfully elude their powerful natural predators.

Changes in their populations may signal greater issues throughout the coastal environment and provide clues that we can study and address before the situation becomes critical.

But the seascape has changed dramatically for tarpon during the last 50 years. This ancient warrior and ultimate sport fish is now on the brink in some of the most prominent historical fishing locations. Tarpon populations have experienced precipitous declines in portions of their range. Port Aransas, Texas—one of the “tarpon capitals of the world” for much of the early 20th Century—is now virtually devoid of the tarpon populations that made it so famous. The fishery is at a critical crossroads.

The tarpon’s complex life history, biology and wide spatial distribution make scientific study difficult. In the past, stocks were measured by enormous commercial catches that could be sorted through to form the basis of stock assessments, but those days and that super-abundance are long gone. Data sources regarding this primarily catch-and-release fishery in the U.S. must now come from non-traditional sources, including satellite tagging and other costly state-of-the-art observational platforms like airborne lasers and hydroacoustics.

To tackle this problem, a collaborative research program between the University of Miami (UM) and the Bonefish Tarpon Trust (BTT) has focused its overarching goal on obtaining essential information to sustain productive tarpon fisheries in Florida and beyond. For the last 12 years, innovative satellite-tagging research has painted a very compelling picture of tarpon seasonal migratory patterns, use of key ocean habitats, critical spawning and feeding areas, and regional over-wintering connectivity using the documented movement of tarpon between the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and southeastern United States. Research has shown that tarpon undergo extensive, long-range migrations, some in excess of 2,500 miles.

Working together, UM and BTT were the first to document that tarpon use specific ocean water temperatures centered on 79°F to guide their migrations. Interestingly enough, this ocean water temperature is the lower boundary for tropical cyclone formation. The UM/BTT team found that tarpon descend to previously unheard of depths of 486 feet, presumably during spawning, and perhaps to feed in ocean frontal systems. This data also demonstrates that tarpon spend most of their time in shallow waters, generally within 30 feet of the surface. The research has also identified seasonal migratory corridors in the Gulf of Mexico and southeastern United States. Critical spawning areas and over-wintering grounds of “our” tarpon remain an elusive mystery, and one that must still be explored.

A compelling need for greater conservation efforts for this premier sport fish and a means to sustain the health of precious and lucrative coastal marine ecosystems worldwide brings together the science and fishing communities. Tarpon, bonefish and other recreational fisheries have a rich cultural history and provide critical economic impact to coastal communities worldwide. They continue to be threatened by the increased degradation of habitats, declining water quality, loss of prey, overfishing, and other environmental factors.

Equally important, these species are also good indicators of the overall health of the coastal oceans because their populations are greatly dependent on the status of the ecosystem as a whole. Changes in their populations may signal greater issues throughout the coastal environment and provide clues that we can study and address before the situation becomes critical.

A new, dynamic collaboration between the BTT and the research team at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has been launched to help continue to advance the science and conservation of tarpon, bonefish and permit fisheries. This unique partnership, dubbed the Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center (TBRC), is dedicated to solving the problems affecting these resources, and has a documented ability to educate and create positive change within the recreational fishing community. The TBRC will continue to build our knowledge base and combine efforts to sustain critical sport fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, southeastern United States and the Caribbean—which potentially impact fisheries worldwide. Annually, these fisheries represent billions of dollars towards coastal economies.

The TBRC will work with deeply committed scientists, legendary anglers and guides, celebrities and others involved in this multi-billion dollar industry to lay the groundwork needed to better understand and protect these critical fisheries. According to Tom Davidson, chairman of the BTT, “Our energy and focus are committed to creating a center of excellence that will protect and preserve these fisheries not only for our enjoyment, but for those generations to come. By creating an on-going source of funding and a perpetual endowment led by world-renowned UM scientists, we hope to ensure this path.”

The goal of the TBRC is to create a powerful, centralized resource that will serve as the world’s premiere location for scientific information on these valuable species.

Key areas of research include:

  • Population Dynamics and Demographics
  • Fishery Dynamics and Exploitation
  • Movements and Migrations
  • Habitat Assessment
  • Fisheries Economics and Policy
  • Stock Assessment and Ecosystem Modeling

Tarpon fisheries, perhaps some of the world’s most storied with a rich cultural heritage, provide livelihoods and sustenance to tens of thousands in coastal communities worldwide. The creation of the collaborative Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center is a win for science, the resources, local and regional economies, and devoted anglers and guides alike.

Help Protect Tarpon Fisheries

Led by world-renowned fisheries scientist-marine biologist Dr. Jerry Ault, the Tarpon Bonefish Research Center is an innovative collaboration between academia and advocacy designed to conserve sport fisheries, using the latest in scientific know-how and technology. For more information and ways you can get involved, please visit tarponresearch.com.

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