Longtime tarpon tournament aims to keep catches alive
The Suncoast Tarpon Roundup plans to be all-release by 2006.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 11, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - The Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, one of the longest-running fishing tournaments in Florida, announced it will stop killing tarpon and move to an all-release format.
"We know we have to change to keep with the times," said tournament president Clark Nash, who hopes to restore the 70-year-old event to its former glory. "We know we can't keep killing fish and get the kind of sponsors we need to make this a world-class event."
Nash said the tournament, the largest of its kind in Florida, will accomplish its goal of becoming 100 percent catch and release by spring 2006. The tournament currently has a mixed kill/catch and release format.
"We feel we will change (angler) attitudes through evolution rather than revolution," Nash said.
The roundup, which has had its share of troubles in recent years, is responsible for 97 percent of the tarpon reportedly killed in Florida each year, according to the Florida Marine Research Institute, the agency that keeps track of tarpon tag returns.
Tarpon are not valued as table fare in the United States, and as a result most anglers release the fish after being caught.
State law requires that anglers who do wish to kill tarpon first purchase a $50 tag and attach it to the dead fish. The catch then must be reported to the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
In 2003, 61 of the 63 tarpon tags returned came from anglers in Pinellas and Manatee counties. But the number of tarpon intentionally killed by anglers might be higher than the tag data suggests.
"The numbers we have in terms of tags used are somewhat unreliable and may not accurately reflect the numbers of tags actually used in a given year, as we only get this data from return cards mailed to us from tarpon anglers," researcher Kathy Guindon-Tisdel wrote in response to a Times public records request. "They are supposed to - by law - mail in these cards whether or not they use their tag in season. They often do not. ... "
Two of the 63 tags returned in 2003 came from Lee County, which is just south of Boca Grande Pass, the state's most famous tarpon fishing hot spot. Tisdel noted that a returned tag does not always imply mortality, as some catch-and-release tournaments require anglers to have a tag in the tarpon's mouth as it is transported to the judging station, where it is weighed at an on-the-water scale and then released.
Nash said the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup will move in increments to a totally catch-and-release format. This year, the tournament will increase the minimum weight for a tarpon to 125 pounds, 10 more than last year. Next year, he said, anglers will be prohibited from killing tarpon during the 10 weeks that lead up to the season-ending "Finale Day." In 2006, tournament officials will hold an all-release "Finale Day" utilizing scales similar to those in Boca Grande.
"I don't think the number of fish killed has adversely affected the tarpon population," Nash said. "But we are making the change because killing fish is the wrong thing to do."
According to tournament records, roundup anglers weighed in 66 fish last year, three more than the state records suggest were killed statewide.
At its height, the roundup would draw more than 1,000 participants. The changing attitude of anglers toward killing inedible fish and the introduction of the $50 tarpon tag law hurt numbers. Internal bickering, allegations of cheating and lawsuits also did their share to tarnish the tournament's image.
When Clark and Karen Nash took control of the tournament in 2003, they vowed to make the competition fair and more conservation-minded.
The Nashes put an emphasis on catching and releasing tarpon; anglers may qualify for Finale Day in this manner.
"We may kill 60 or so fish, but the number of tarpon released is 10 or 20 times that amount," Clark Nash said. "That just shows that we have the best tarpon fishing in the world right here in Tampa Bay."
The fish that were killed were donated to Florida Marine Research Institute scientists to use for their research.
"Given the choice between having the fish thrown in a dumpster or ending up in the lab, we would rather use them and get the data," said Luiz Barbieri, the biologist who oversees the fishery programs.
"But our research is no reason to kill fish. We could get even more valuable data from the fish being tagged and released. So given the choice, we would rather see the fish released."
Barbieri noted that the St. Petersburg tournament isn't the only place where tarpon are killed. Each year in Boca Grande, about 4 percent of the fish caught die after being released.
"The number of fish that die there is probably much higher than those killed by the tournament," he said.
Nash said he will seek major sponsors such as Outback, Publix, Budweiser and Pepsi Cola to support a major catch-and-release tarpon tournament in Tampa Bay.
"The tarpon fishing here is every bit as good as it was 70 years ago," he said. "There aren't many things that you can say that about."
Doug Kelly, spokesman for a conservation group Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited, said his organization applauds the roundup's decision.
"It is a step in the right direction," Kelly said. "Let's just hope they stay true to their word."
The fishing begins Saturday with a one-day event, the Jordan Cup. The regular tournament starts May 22 and runs through July 31. Finale day is scheduled for Aug. 7.
Anglers interested in fishing the tournament can attend a captain's meeting 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Gators on the Pass, Treasure Island. Call (727) 214-7402 for information.