I asked Dr. Aaron Adams a few questions about the state of bonefish, tarpon, and permit, particularly in Florida after this brutal winter. I also asked him about the mission of the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. Here’s what he had to say.
FJ: Could you kind of summarize what the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust is all about? If I’m giving money, where is it going?
AA: Bonefish & Tarpon Trust was founded as Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited in 1998, by a group of concerned, anglers, guides, and scientists. They were concerned about the apparent decline of bonefish and changes in behavior of tarpon in the Keys, and wanted to do something to improve the fisheries. They quickly learned that very little was known about these species, so all threw money in to support some research to figure out enough about the species to improve the fisheries. That initial group has matured into the present day BTT.
BTT’s mission is to support research toward conservation and improvement of bonefish, tarpon, and permit fisheries. BTT currently supports projects in Florida, The Bahamas, and Caribbean. The model we follow is to raise funds from a variety of sources (memberships, individual and corporate donations, grants), and to use these funds to support research, conservation, and education. Approximately 85% of what BTT takes in goes back out to these projects.
BTT uses a set of Research Frameworks to guide research and conservation funding. The frameworks first show the status of knowledge for each species. This is based on peer-reviewed scientific research. Based on the status of knowledge, conservation need, and potential or current threats, we assign a Priority level to each item. We then use these Priority levels to guide funding. You can see the Research Frameworks here: http://www.tarbone.org/research-programs/research-frameworks.html. We review the frameworks once a year and revise as needed. The frameworks not only guide immediate funding allocations, but also allow us to plan longer term strategies.
All that to say – the funds are used very efficiently, and via a formal structure that ensures funds are put to the best use toward conservation of these fisheries. And it’s also important to note that this is all with the goal of ensuring bonefish, tarpon, and permit fisheries are healthy for now and for future generations.
FJ: In light of the recent devastating weather patterns in Florida, it seems like the BTT’s mission is more important than ever. We’ve heard about the toll taken on snook, but is there any data or estimates on what happened to bonefish, tarpon and permit?
AA: I can say with certainty that permit were not heavily impacted. I am not aware of any accounts of dead permit in the Keys, and there were only a couple reports of dead permit from farther north. In fact, reports from small plane pilots a couple weeks after the weather began to warm spoke of large schools of large permit offshore, and moving back into the Keys. So it’s quite possible that most permit headed to offshore waters during the cold snap.
Similarly, there were only a few reports of dead adult tarpon. The best guess is that the adult tarpon were either in winter grounds in other locations, or moved offshore when the cold weather hit. Most reports of tarpon mortalities were of juveniles 1 to 3 years old. Initial reports from biologists working on identification of juvenile tarpon habitats, and from guides in the Everglades, were of high numbers of dead juvenile tarpon. We’ll have a better idea of just how badly these small tarpon were hit as the weather warms and those remaining juveniles return to normal behaviors. Since it takes so long for tarpon to reach maturity (approximately 8 – 10 years, on average), we won’t see any potential effects of the loss of juvenile tarpon for 5 to 10 years.
In the upper keys, there were many reports of dead bonefish. From the data collected by biologists at the University of Miami, most of these bonefish were small. The leading theory is that larger bonefish were able to move offshore into deeper, warmer water. Many, if not the majority, of the dead bonefish were found on the Florida Bay side of the Keys – shallow water that is far from deeper water refuge.
The key question, though, is what portion of the populations were affected by the cold-induced mortalities? If, for example, only 3% of the population died, then no big deal. If, however, 50% of a population died, then there is a problem. The challenge here is that we don’t have a real stock assessment for tarpon or bonefish, so we don’t know what the population sizes are, which makes it difficult to impossible to estimate the proportion of the population that perished in January. Again, we’ll be able to develop a better picture of the cold-kill’s impacts as summer progresses.
FJ: This isn’t the first cold snap to hit Florida, and fish populations have historically recovered. What is different this time? What are some of the obstacles in recovery today?
AA: You are correct, there have been numerous extreme cold events in Florida in the past, and these have also caused large mortalities of fishes. Remember – Florida is at the northern edge of the geographic range for tropical species like bonefish, tarpon, coral reef fishes, etc, and these species are going to be impacted any time there is a cold event. There are two major differences between now and cold kill events in the past, with the degree of difference greater when compared to more distant events. The fish have been through this before, and have always recovered. But now there is less habitat (healthy or otherwise) and more people fishing, both of which impede the ability of the fish populations to recover. This means that anglers have to be especially diligent about being responsible anglers. And I think this is a good call to action for anglers to become involved in habitat protection and habitat restoration – without healthy habitats there can’t be healthy fisheries, and this is especially true when dealing with events like cold snaps (or hurricanes).
FJ: As far as habitat loss and encroachment, how significant is that in placing stress on the species, and how much will that hamper population recovery?
AA: To a great extent, the population size and health of our gamefish is limited by the amount of available healthy habitats. So regardless of what management strategies are enacted, populations can really only max out at what the habitats can support. This becomes especially apparent during times of stress – like the loss of fish from a cold kill or hurricane. As habitats are lost, the resilience of the coastal environment and fish populations to any kind of stress is compromised.
FJ: Has the Everglades restoration project lived up to its promises? How has the recession affected efforts to reestablish the natural flow of the Glades?
AA: Great question, but one I am not really qualified to answer. It’s an ongoing process, with, as I understand it, a long way to go. One way to look at the Everglades, or any other restoration or habitat protection, is that before we altered the habitat, the system was functioning well. One way to look at this is as we were just hired as managers of an assembly plant that has been producing a great product. All we really need to do is sit back and let the plant and its workers continue doing what they do. But we’ve changed some of the things at the plant, and now the product coming out is not as good or consistent as it once was. So in a sense, restoration is a way to try to get the assembly plant back to its old, productive ways.
FJ: The BTT has helped sponsor studies by Dr. Jerald Ault of the University of Miami and the life cycles of tarpon and bonefish and the economic impact of these fish. Are there things in his studies that have surprised you? Things you’ve learned about tarpon and bonefish that change the way you think of them?
AA: Every study has provided surprises. Remember, when BTT started (as BTU) there was not much information available on bonefish, tarpon, or permit. Although we’ve made great progress since 1998, there is still a lot that we don’t know. In Jerry’s studies of tarpon migrations, for example, the conventional wisdom was that they didn’t move far, and their management was a state/local issue. The data have revealed that long-distance migrations are common, and support the need for regional conservation efforts. Similarly, the extent of movements by bonefish was a surprise – the length of the Keys, for example – but until recently we didn’t know if that occurred elsewhere. A study in Andros, Bahamas that BTT helped fund found that bonefish migrated approximately 140 miles roundtrip for spawning. This is all new information, and has real applications to conservation. It was also surprising to us to find that bonefish grow at different lengths in the Keys than they do in the Caribbean: a 23” bonefish in the Keys is approximately 6 years old, but is 16 years old in the Caribbean.
We’ve recently been helping to fund work on the economic value of these fisheries, and although not surprising, it has been amazing to see the numbers. For example, bonefishing tourism in The Bahamas was worth $141 million dollars in 2009. And recreational fishing (including tarpon and bonefish) in Everglades National Park is worth $991 million per year. With the economic importance of these fisheries, we are hopeful that habitat protection, fisheries conservation will become a higher priority so that they remain healthy into the future.
FJ: As anglers, how should we approach our pursuit of these fish in light of the historical and recent stresses that have been placed upon them?
AA: That’s a short question with a potentially long answer, but I’ll try to keep it to some main points.
– Treat the habitats well. Don’t damage grass beds with your boat propeller by running too shallow. Don’t damage mangroves, marshes, reefs, etc.
– Use barbless hooks, and if you fish with plugs or other lures with multiple hooks, replace the treble hooks with single hooks. This reduces handling time when releasing the fish.
– Practice catch and release as a general rule, and only keep fish to eat on occasion.
– Follow good practices of catch and release to ensure the fish lives to be caught another day. Good information on catch and release can be found at www.tarbone.org, www.fishermanscoast.com, and www.tribalbonefish.com.
– Lures or flies are typically better than bait in regard to fish swallowing the hook. If you do use bait, use a circle hook.
For some more ideas on responsible fishing, check out http://tribalbonefish.com
FJ: What’s the single most important thing an angler can do to help these fish?
AA: Get involved in conservation. Gone are the days when we could go fishing, have a good time, and go home and forget about it until the next trip. Recreational anglers are the primary users of coastal habitats, and major beneficiaries of what these habitats provide, so it is essential that we are the strongest stewards as well. Join a fisheries conservation group that is focused on making sure the fisheries remain healthy for the long term.
Habitats continue to be lost – anglers are losing their fisheries as these habitats disappear. Anglers need to get involved to stop this. Information is lacking on many recreational fisheries, especially for species like bonefish, tarpon, and permit which have not historically had a commercial fishery. The way that fisheries research and management is conducted has to be changed to accommodate these fisheries – and anglers are the most appropriate group to push for these changes.
Recreational anglers have to re-focus on being responsible in their actions. We’re starting to see too much selfish, short-term gain with long-term loss behavior by recreational anglers on the water. Poaching seems to be more prevalent, herding redfish with airboats, running flats shallow enough for fish to tail, poor handling practices of fish that are eventually released, continued harvest of fish from populations that are in decline. These are just a few of the issues that we, as recreational anglers, must fix and fix immediately. It will be awfully tough to have a respected voice at the resource management table if we treat our own resources poorly.