Tarpon, the silver king of gamefish, may soon become a catch and release fishery. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted recently to protect this prized sportfish. Anglers hoping to set a world record may still keep a tarpon if they first purchase a $50 tarpon tag. Fishermen, however, will be limited to one tag per person, per year. Before the new rules become law, they must first be approved by the commission at its June meeting in Lakeland.
Florida’s tarpon fishery is a conservation success story. Last year, the state sold 375 tags, mostly to anglers fishing a tournament in Boca Grande Pass, but records show the only six fish were actually kept for trophies or records.
Tarpon have always been a state treasure. These fish can grow to 8 feet and weigh 280 pounds. They are found throughout the estuaries and coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea and in the eastern Atlantic as far north as Nova Scotia.
The migratory habits of this species, sought by sportsmen on Florida's west coast since the 1880s, have been the subject of much discussion. For decades, anglers knew tarpon gathered during the summer in places such as Boca Grande Pass to feed. Where they went afterward was anybody's guess.
In 2005, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory launched the Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study, which enlisted anglers to gather DNA samples from tarpon they caught and released.
To date, more than 100 genetically tagged tarpon have been recaptured. In the summer of 2010, anglers tagged two tarpon in Charlotte Harbor that were caught again the following spring in the Florida Keys, about 150 miles away. A tarpon caught near Islamorada in July 2011 was recaptured about a month later near Sarasota, about 125 miles away.
The research also shows fish hooked on the southwest coast will travel as far as the Panhandle. A tarpon caught near Apalachicola in July 2007 was caught again near Captiva Island, about 285 miles away, in May 2009. So far, anglers have taken DNA samples from more than 13,000 tarpon.
With the action about to heat up through out Florida, anglers will be catching, releasing, and hopefully tagging more tarpon to help the ongoing state study.