Tarpon event goes all release

Suncoast Roundup ends "kill" weigh-in division to combat falling membership.

By Terry Tomalin, Outdoors Editor
Published February 9, 2008

The 74-year-old Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, the last tarpon "kill" tournament in the country, has decided to move to an all-release format when fishing begins in May.

"It is time to look to the future," said Jason Gell, the St. Petersburg-based organization's newly elected president. "We have been losing membership. The only way to assure the future is to change the way we run the tournament."

In recent years, the tournament, which runs from May through July, has endured criticism from conservation and environmental groups because it still allowed a nonfood fish to be caught and killed for sport. The event had also been losing sponsors.

Fifty years ago, before professional sports began competing for area residents' leisure time, the Tarpon Roundup was one of the city's major sporting events. St. Petersburg even had a Tarpon Queen who paraded down Central Avenue in full fishing regalia.

Twenty-five years ago, when Gell, now 29, fished his first tournament, hundreds of tarpon were killed each year for sport. But in the 1980s and '90s, anglers became more conservation-minded. Tarpon were no longer viewed as a trophy to be hung from a nail but as a resource that could have lasting economic impact.

" Times have changed," Gell said. "This is a big step for us. We hope we can convince new people, especially junior anglers, to come out and help us fish for science."

Gell said the tournament plans to work with state biologists involved in an ongoing study of tarpon population dynamics.

"All the anglers will be issued digital cameras and kits to take a DNA sample from each fish caught and released," he said.

Bait shop owner Larry Mastry, whose family name is synonymous with tarpon fishing in the area, says the format change is a step in the right direction.

"We may lose a few people who don't like the changes," he said, "but we will probably gain some people who think what has been done was a good idea."

Florida's tarpon population is not considered endangered because most anglers who target the species have been practicing catch-and-release for more than a decade. State regulations require anglers to purchase a tarpon tag to kill a tarpon.

Still, in recent years, more than 90 percent of the tarpon killed in Florida were caught in the St. Petersburg area by anglers participating in this 10-week tournament, according to state records.

Even though a release division was added, tournament officials and the membership had been resistant to ending dead-fish weigh-ins. But over the past few years, the number of tarpon killed by tournament anglers steadily dropped and the number of tarpon released increased.

Gell figures that for every angler who drops out because of the new format, two new ones will sign up.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I know some people are upset, but I want this tournament to be here 10 years from now so my kids can fish it, too."