For years, tarpon were one of the most sought-after, yet least understood, sport fish in state waters. Since the 1880s, the world's best anglers have traveled to Florida to catch the silver king of game fish, but nobody really knew where these chrome-bodied brutes went after the fishermen went home. But all that has changed thanks to an ambitious tarpon tracking program that uses cutting-edge technology to link everyday anglers with the world's leading tarpon biologists. Researchers from the St. Petersburg-based Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory have enlisted hundreds of volunteers, including participants in the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, to take DNA samples from tarpon that are caught and released during the prime fishing months of the spring and summer. You don't need any experience to be part of the program. Anglers of all skill levels are welcome.
Florida's tarpon fishery is primarily catch and release. Anglers who "possess" a tarpon, even if it is to be weighed and released alive, must still buy a $50 tarpon tag. The tag law has greatly reduced the number of fish killed statewide and is widely viewed as a fisheries management success story.
But fishing pressure is still high. Tarpon, one of the top fighters in Florida waters, are still the ultimate challenge for many anglers. So most of the research in recent years has focused on whether this prized species can handle so much angling pressure.
From 2002 to 2007, state researchers conducted a detailed acoustic telemetry study in which 82 fish were equipped with sonic transmitters and tracked around Boca Grande and Tampa Bay. The study showed that of the 82 fish tagged, 11 died.
The study concluded that the No. 1 cause of death for tarpon was shark attack. With that in mind, researchers subsequently concluded that, absent sharks, tarpon have a 95 percent postrelease survival rate.
CSI Tampa Bay
Once researchers determined that most tarpon survive an angling encounter, they decided to examine whether the same tarpon were being caught again and again. Like humans, each individual tarpon has a unique DNA tag. So in 2005, the state began a pilot program to evaluate the practicality of genetic testing.
Tracking tarpon via a DNA sample costs just $3 a sample, which is less than most other methods of "tagging" that usually require some type of foreign object being imbedded in the tarpon's body. The DNA "tag" also lasts forever.
The process is simple. Anglers scrape the tarpon's jaws to remove some skin cells, dab the cells on a sponge, then store the sponge in a vial. The researchers do not care how big or small the tarpon is. Information gathered from baby tarpon is just as valuable as that taken from full-grown fish.
Getting a free sampling kit is easy. There are more than 165 bait shops and tackle stores that carry them. Interested anglers can receive a kit through the mail by calling toll-free 1-800-367-4461 or by e-mailing [email protected] Each kit contains a plastic bag and enough material to sample three tarpon.