© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- State biologists are planning an ambitious four-month study to determine whether light-tackle fishermen are taking a toll on the tarpon population of Boca Grande Pass.
For nearly a century, the narrow pass that guards the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers seeking the "silver king" of game fish, Megalops atlanticus.
These thick-bodied monsters with a mouth like a 5-gallon bucket are known for their fighting prowess and jumping ability.
Most of the "traditional" guides who work the pass use the same techniques their fathers and grandfathers used. They fish with live bait on heavy rods, braided line and wire leaders from the stern of inboard-powered cabin cruisers.
But in recent years, "non-traditional" guides using lighter monofilament line (harder for the fish to see) and leaders used in connection with artificial baits, known as jigs, have done as well or better than their counterparts using live bait.
"I have used both methods," said Dave Markett, a Tampa-based charter boat captain and representative of the Florida Guides Association. "We welcome any data that will help protect or enhance the tarpon fishery. Our only concern is that the state consider both sides in this issue."
The live bait vs. jig debate came to a head in the late '90s when organizers of the high-dollar Chamber of Commerce Tarpon Tournament passed a series of rules that virtually shut out the newcomers.
The traditional guides have long complained that many of the jiggers, who typically use 30- to 50-pound test tackle, take too long to land their catch, and as a result, make the fish more vulnerable to shark attack upon release.
"We have heard from guides who say the increase in shark attacks is on the rise," said Luis Barbieri, a biologist with the Florida Marine Research Institute. "Some of the long-time guides said they are really concerned about resuscitating fish because they are afraid of sticking their hands in the water. The sharks have been that aggressive."
The state also has received complaints from traditional guides who say the lighter tackle enthusiasts, who typically use boats with outboard motors, disrupt the normal feeding tarpon because they often "chase" pods of fish.
"The traditional guides use boats with inboard motors and try to stay above the school and then passively present their bait to the fish," Barbieri said. "This is another issue that has been brought to our attention."
Barbieri said the state is not looking at regulating the fishery, at this point.
"We are simply trying to find out if there is a problem," he said. "All of our catch-and-release mortality data is 10 years old. Since that time, the fishing effort has increased dramatically."
The study, scheduled to run from April through July, will use traditional and non-traditional guides to help determine post-release mortality.
Once a tarpon is brought to a boat, researchers will attach an ultrasonic transmitter to the fish and release it. The fish will then be tracked for six to eight hours to determine whether it recovers. Death due to shark predation will be counted as release mortality.
Researchers plan to track a total of 30 tarpon: 15 from each of the two fishing methods. Other important information, such as fighting time (in minutes) and hook position (in the mouth, gills, internal organs or elsewhere on the body) also will be recorded.
The last catch-and-release study, done 10 years ago, found that tarpon have a high chance of surviving after being hooked and released. But the increase in the number of shark attacks in Boca Grande has prompted officials to re-address the issue.
Markett, a "non-traditional" tarpon guide who lost a $75,000 fish to a bull shark in a tournament this year, said he hopes the state will do a social and economic impact study as well before they consider any regulations.
"We are afraid that there will eventually have to be some kind of management plan for Boca Grande," Markett said. "Nobody likes big government, but if that is what is necessary to protect ther resource, then we will welcome it.
For more information on the FMRI study or on tarpon in general, go to www.floridamarine.org and click on Tarpon Hook and Release Study.