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Topic: Tarpon in Trouble, another tragedy...< Next Oldest | Next Newest >
Capn Jimbo Offline
The Godfisher

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Posts: 1712
Joined: Jan. 2004
Posted: May 20 2006,08:38

Thanks to "Terri".  We are watching our Paradise - as we have known it for lifetimes - falling apart...

Tarpon may be in more peril than we think

During last summer's symposium put on by the Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited group, some alarming news surfaced. A number of experts indicated that the worldwide tarpon population may be in peril -- despite what Florida numbers seem to indicate.

The group of speakers at the event ranged from cutting-edge scientists to one of the great legends in fishing.

They all pretty much came to the same conclusions, most of which apply well to tarpon in Florida as well as in other parts of the world. While this summer is seeing silver kings in abundance all over the bays, the great fishing at Boca Grande Pass declines each year. Meanwhile, last year's red tide just about killed tarpon fishing in the Tampa and Sarasota areas.

Tarpon take a long time to mature and they require extensive estuarine habitat to grow up in. The large mature tarpon we see today may have spent their youth in habitats that are not there anymore. In short, we may be fishing on credit.

Shocking most of the audience was Billy Pate's account of tarpon fishing in other countries. Pate is legendary in fishing circles. He was the first man to catch all major billfish species on a fly rod and held the All-Tackle tarpon fly rod record for over 15 years, as well as other light tackle records.

Pate stunned most of the assemblage by revealing that there is a large harpoon commercial fishery for tarpon in Central and South America where the eggs -- aka caviar -- are sold at market. Thousands of tarpon are killed in that part of the word each year -- tarpon which may be of the stock that comes to the west coast of Florida.

But the most crushing of Pate's comments was about the decimation of the tarpon fishery in the Homosassa and Florida Keys areas. Pate is an avid fly fisherman and therefore kept his comments to where he fished, but what he had to say draws great parallels to Boca Grande.

"I used to jump 200 tarpon in the month of May at Homosassa," Pate told the St. Petersburg gathering. "Now you have trouble finding a fish and the decline has just happened in the last five or six years."

A similar event has occurred in the Florida Keys -- a place that got Billy Pate involved in fly fishing for giant tarpon.

"I fished a tournament in the Keys last week and we had 51 schools of fish -- fish that I had good shots at with a fly rod. But out of all those fish, I only caught one. There seems to still be tarpon in the Keys, but they don't bite the way they used to."

Sound familiar? Well it should.

When asked what caused the trouble with tarpon, he came up with the same troubles so familiar with what has happened to tarpon fishing along the west coast of Florida, especially Boca Grande Pass.

"I'm not an expert," Pate said, "but if you ask me, it is too many boats and lack of courtesy. When I first started fishing in the Keys the guides took me out and taught me the courtesy important to fishing. If a guy is poling down a flat, you don't go in front of him, you slip in behind him. If you hook a fish and somebody is fishing next to you, then you don't start your engine until his fish has passed by. That can spook tarpon like crazy."

Pate said things have changed in his small hometown of Islamorada; they also have changed in tiny Boca Grande.

"I started fishing in the Keys for tarpon in the early 1960s," said the 70-something Pate. "Back in those days, there were about 25 fishing guides in Islamorada, but today there are 200, as well as regular recreational anglers. A lot of the boaters out there don't know the track tarpon take; they don't know where the bonefish lakes are. We have tracked tarpon from Flamingo (at the southern tip of peninsular Florida) to the bridges south of Lower Matecumbe Key, but today's anglers don't understand this and they cut them off their routes."

Though a key theme to Pate's talk was the crash of vital tarpon fisheries in Florida, it was not his chief concern. Instead he raised chills with the audience by his recounting of tarpon fishing trips to Central and South America.

"I asked one government fishery director where the big tarpon were and he got out a map. He pointed to some small towns and looked in a ledger. He told me one town had a slow year and only got 450 big tarpon but another town got over 2,000 -- all in the same country. When I asked what they did with them, I was told that they can sell the eggs -- tarpon caviar -- for as high as $16 a pound."

Mature tarpon often carry as much as 40 pounds of eggs. The average fisherman in these third world countries can probably harpoon and take to market several a day. Pate said the carcass may be sold as fertilizer, minus the valuable eggs.

If you do the math, that means the tarpon harvester can profit a probable minimum of $1,000 a day, more than many Boca Grande fishing guides make -- and in a small country, where such a sum represents a fortune. Pate's concern is that while tarpon populations seem to be in good shape in Florida, they may be in serious danger elsewhere -- all the more reason to work to preserve them everywhere. And he was not alone in that sentiment.

Scientist Aaron Adams of Mote Marine Laboratory also addressed the group. Adams has been studying juvenile tarpon habitat, primarily in Charlotte Harbor. He noted that habitat is very important to the early life cycle of the silver king.

Tarpon spawn far offshore but later, young silver kings move far up the estuary into seemingly hostile waters.

"They go into the nastiest places you can imagine, where you would not expect to find any fish," Adams said.

"They thrive in low-, perhaps no-oxygen environments where tarpon predator fish could not possibly survive. Hence, they grow up in a relatively predator-free environment."

Meanwhile, according to Adams, such interior coastal habitats are being rapidly destroyed by development, dams or other water-alteration schemes. Adams displayed a portion of the Cape Haze Peninsula and pointed to a number of seemingly landlocked lakes.

"This is where young tarpon need to grow up, but it is an area that can only be accessed through the vast coastal mangrove system during extreme high tides. When a berm or road interrupts this water system, then tarpon are cut off from this valuable habitat."

And since such habitat is rapidly vanishing, the threat remains real to the tarpon population.

"Tarpon live for a very long time, maybe 60 years or more," Adams said. "They take a long time to reach sexual maturity, so we won't know what kind of shape the population is in for some years."

The bottom line is -- as many conservationists have been insisting -- we may already be fishing on credit. If the tarpon schools we see now were spawned 10, 20 or more years ago, they may be devoid of nursery habitat today.

If you combine that with the global threat, with harvest for caviar, then you have a pretty scary picture of what the future could bring.

Think about what has happened to the commercial mullet fishery in the last 20 years. Back during the '50s, '60s and '70s, commercial fish houses used to "cut the fishermen off." Roe mullet could be caught in huge numbers when they gathered in huge schools to spawn, but there was virtually no market for them.

But that all changed with the discovery of a mullet-roe market in Asia. The roe was considered a rare delicacy there and part of several holiday customs. Suddenly the roe of mullet meant the once-valueless fish quickly became the most valuable one in the state.

If the Asians, who covet mullet roe so much (it sells for about $25 per pound there), should discover the tarpon caviar fishery, the pressure on tarpon could become enormous.

We've pretty much controlled the mullet harvest by laws restricting the type of gear used to harvest the roe-heavy fish. But third-world countries might not be so careful with managing the tarpon harvest.

Meanwhile, tarpon anglers around the world are now concerned about fishing pressure. What seems to be an abundant gamefish may well be on the road to extinction.

With migratory fish like tarpon or tuna, you have to look beyond what appears to be a plentiful Florida population.

By G.B. Knowles

Link to article in Waterline


Tight lines,
Capn Jimbo

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