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If you release them, they will thrive
A tag system and angler ethics keep tarpon fishery in a solid state.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published July 13, 2007
Boca Grande may get most of the attention, but Tampa Bay's tarpon fishing is as good, or perhaps even better, than anywhere else in the state.
"What better way to let people know than have a catch-and-release tarpon tournament," Peter Clark said as he watched a 70-pound tarpon he had just caught swim away unharmed.
Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch, has been a longtime proponent of catch-and-release fishing.
"If you catch a tarpon today and let it go, then somebody can enjoy fighting the same fish tomorrow," Clark said.
Tampa Bay's tarpon fishing has steadily improved in recent years, thanks to sound fishery management and a growing conservation ethic among anglers. A state study has shown that nine out of 10 tarpon caught in Tampa Bay survive after release.
"That is why we started the Tarpon Rodeo," Clark said of Saturday's event. "We wanted to show people that you don't have to kill fish to have a successful tournament."
State officials credit the 1989 law that requires anglers who kill a tarpon to buy a tag now $51.50 annually with helping maintain a healthy tarpon fishery.
When the law was passed, officials set the number of available tarpon tags at 10,000. Because nowhere near that many were sold, the following year state officials dropped the number of tags to 5,000.
Last year, 2,500 tarpon tags were made available to anglers, but only 337 were sold. Of those, nine tags were returned by anglers who said they killed fish.
"In my opinion, Florida's tarpon tag program has been a major success," said Luiz Barbieri of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "The main purpose of the tag was to discourage anglers from intentionally killing tarpon. In that sense, the program has helped reduce the kill from historical levels."
But the tarpon tag program still has some problems.
State law requires that anglers return a self-addressed, postage-paid card that comes with the tag, regardless if the tag is used or not.
"We get a lot of valuable information from these tags," Barbieri said. "The most obvious is how many tarpon are killed in the state each year."
Ask state officials how many tarpon were killed statewide last year and the answer is nine. But one St. Petersburg tarpon tournament killed more than three times that number of fish in a 10-week period.
"The numbers don't jive," Barbieri said. "We rely on the anglers to return the tags. That is something our staff is working on."
A law with no teeth
The tarpon tag law states that any angler who fails to comply with the reporting requirements can be denied tarpon tags.
"As far as we know, that law has never been enforced," said Wendy Quigley, a representative of the research institute, the state agency that maintains the tag records. "It is really a law enforcement issue, and I know it is something that our director has requested they look into."
State officials have begun to factor in a "non-compliance" estimate of 20 percent when calculating the number of tarpon killed each year. But the actual number of tarpon that die each year remains elusive.
Many fish, especially those that are fought to near exhaustion by light-tackle anglers, may not survive upon release. Others, including those that inhale dead bait off the bottom (a popular local fishing technique), may die as the result of an encounter with an angler.
Predators, particularly bull and hammerhead sharks, kill large numbers of hooked tarpon, especially in Boca Grande Pass. This angler-tarpon-shark interaction is so common, state officials have considered conducting a formal study to gauge its impact.
Twenty years ago, hundreds of tarpon were killed each year for sport. But in the 1980s and '90s, anglers' attitudes became more conservation-oriented.
Tarpon were no longer viewed as a trophy to be hung from a nail on a boat dock but as a renewable resource that could have lasting economic impact.
State biologists think Florida's tarpon population is in good shape. One kill tournament, no matter how distasteful it may appear to the majority of recreational fishermen, does not have an impact on the fishery.
But still the debate rages, especially on Web sites, such as Florida Sportsman magazine's forum (outdoors best.zeroforum.com). Since June 19, when a man posted a photograph of a 233-pound tarpon caught in a local tournament, nearly 200 opinions have been posted on the subject. The dialogue is so heated, and at times nasty, that online moderators are forced to restore order.
The subject of most of the discourse is the 73-year-old Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, a tournament with a small but loyal following.
The same families have participated in this 10-week event for generations. It is the only tournament of its kind in Florida that still allows the intentional killing of tarpon.
Over the years, tournament officials have been slow to change. But each year, the number of tarpon killed by tournament anglers has steadily dropped, while the number of tarpon released by tournament anglers has increased.
This year, the tournament has a new president who appears ready to bring the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup into the 21st century.
On June 30, tournament officials held their first "All-Release Hill Tide Tournament" to promote conservation and sportsmanship.
"We only weighed in one fish," said Ken Deacon, the tournament's president. "We only had one weigh station, which was a little rough. We might need two or three, including one that is mobile, to make this thing work."
Deacon said the tournament's new management team is committed to conservation.
FAST FACTS: Learn more
Catch-and-release tarpon study: Go to myfwc.com, click on "Research" then type "tarpon" into the search window