New trackers help us understand and protect tarpon

With the tarpon population believed to be in decline, a non-profit group is employing new state-of-the-art trackers to better understand and protect Florida's most-prized sport fish.

In the waters off Little Gasparilla Island and Boca Grande, charter fishermen like Captain David Hutcherson hook up with the silver kings, get their photos, then allow them to be tagged and tracked.

"They're beautiful, they're so powerful," said Hutcherson. "It really is amazing and it's worth conserving."

On a steamy July morning, Hutcherson has a full boat, with FOX 13 cameras and JoEllen Wilson and Lucas Griffin of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. Hutcherson spots a tarpon, casts quickly and hooks up in mere seconds. 

What follows is a heart-pounding, awe-inspiring dance of the silver king as the 100-pound fish leaps out of the water, twisting and turning until it eventually frees itself of the hook.

"Awww, so close," he says. 

But only seconds later, Hutcherson gets a call on his phone. One of his friendly competitor charter captains is hooked up nearby and they're holding the fish for us.

We race to the boat and JoEllen and Lucas hop on their boat, deploying a large sling to keep the fish in the water and minimize stress as they insert the tracker. It only takes less than two minutes: A small incision under its belly and the tracker slips right in. 

These new trackers are the size of a typical tube of lipstick and last much longer than satellite trackers that are much bigger. They are ultrasonic, so once they swim by listening stations placed all around the coast, they can be tracked for up to five years.


"It's pretty cutting-edge technology that's growing in our research world," explained Griffin, working with the non-profit through a collaboration with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

And it's important because large fish like these can take years to get this big. A typical 80-pound tarpon could be 30 to 40 years old. "So these fish, you remove one, it's gonna take a big hit in the population," Griffin continued.

Scientists have known for years that tarpon migrate, but research is now showing we share these fish with other states that don't offer the same protections that we do. Last year, scientists were surprised to see a tarpon tagged in the Keys swam its way all the way to Ocean City, Maryland. 

Indeed, trackers show tarpon tagged in Florida are swimming to Louisiana, the Carolinas and beyond. But Florida is the only state that prohibits the killing of tarpon. There are also currently no federal restrictions on tarpon. 

And these trackers are also not just for tarpon. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust is tagging redfish and snook in Tampa Bay as well. The hope is the trackers will provide a better understanding of how and why they move where they move, so that we can better protect them.

 "The whole fishery is tied in to one another," added Griffin. We need to start thinking full picture of management, rather than just Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay or the Keys. It's all interconnected."

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