Major Bonefish and Tarpon Research

Given the interest in catching the glamor species of saltwater fly fishing – particularly bonefish and tarpon – it is surprising how little research has taken place covering these fish. As a result we know relatively little about their life cycles. Fortunately, that situation is beginning to change.

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (bonefishtarpontrust.org) has been doing ground-breaking studies on both of those species. The resulting data is giving us a much better picture of how these fish thrive.

For instance, in February BTT, through their Florida Keys Initiative, finished up three years of bonefish genetics sampling. Fin clippings were collected by hundreds of anglers from thousands of Florida Keys, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico bonefish to be analyzed at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the research arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is hoped that genetic analysis will show whether the Keys’ and other bonefish populations are local and self-sustaining or rely on populations in other regions. By identifying where the fish come from, they can help determine where and how to manage for conservation. 

The Florida Keys Initiative is also supporting the innovative Bonefish Restoration Research Project at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Those scientists are working to spawn and raise bonefish in captivity. With the help of guides and anglers in the Keys, bonefish have been caught at multiple locations to provide brood stock. If stocking becomes a viable restoration method, BTT sees stocking as a tool that might be useful in conjunction with habitat restoration.

Another important effort is the mapping of juvenile tarpon habitat. These immature fish live in the calm backwaters of mangrove creeks, coastal ponds and other bays. Because of their preference for these particular areas, they often are close to humans. This means the habitats are heavily affected by coastal development, changes in water flows and nutrient runoff.

One misconception is that the juvenile tarpon only are found in healthy habitat. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Extensive research in southwest Florida made it clear that altered habitats are not the best for juvenile tarpon. 

Wildflower Preserve in Placida was BTT’s first habitat restoration project. The area contained high densities of juvenile tarpon, which ultimately contributed to poor growth and undersized tarpon leaving the system. A juvenile fish exiting the sanctuary already has to face new predators and competitors for food. If the tarpon are stunted that makes their outlook bleak. 

Juvenile tarpon habitat mapping was the obvious answer to finding nursery areas and studying what an ideal nursery habitat should look like. In January 2016, BTT began asking anglers for their help finding locations with tarpon 12 inches or smaller. 

Those anglers provided GPS coordinates and were also asked if there were larger tarpon present at the site, as well as the little ones. It is important to know if tarpon are able to grow to larger sizes before emigrating or if they are getting too big and overstaying their welcome by competing for food and space with smaller tarpon. 

All this new data can now be used to improve conservation efforts of the correct habitat for increasing tarpon stocks.

Finally, another project is afoot in Belize and Mexico, headed up by Addiel Perez, a Belizean working on his PH.D. at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Chetumal, Mexico. Working with guides, anglers, fishing lodges and commercial fisherman he has tagged more than 6,000 bonefish, as well as over 70 permit, in the area from Cave Caulker, Belize to Xcalak, Mexico.

 

In the last four months he has received 80 reports of recaptures of the bonefish. The idea is to gain understanding of the movement of the fish in this region.

Anglers catching a tagged bonefish or permit are ask to take a photo of the tag, with the number clearly visible. Then, submit the photo, along with date of the catch and as specific a location for the catch as possible to bonefishtarpontrust.org/report-tagging-data.