Florida Keys News
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Study: Atlantic tarpon are one population

SOUTH FLORIDA — Tarpon found off the west coast of Africa have a similar genetic makeup to tarpon found in the Florida Keys and other areas throughout the Atlantic Ocean, according to a recently completed study by the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust conservation organization.

The study — referred to as the Tarpon Genetics Program — found that the species is in fact one large mixed population. This means that lax or nonexistent fishing regulations in certain areas could be a threat to migrating stock in the overall population. Because of this, BTT hopes to use the information to continue to work at convincing other states and countries for better protection.

“It’s not an easy task,” BTT Director of Science and Conservation Aaron Adams told the Free Press. “But the more information you have the more it helps.”

Florida has no closed season on tarpon, a popular catch-and-release fish. Only one tarpon is allowed to be harvested per year by an angler, but it must be part of a bid for a potential International Game Fish Association record. A $50 tag is required for this.

Aside from that, tarpon over 40 inches must remain in the water during catch-and-release.

In federal waters, though, even off the coast of Florida, no regulations on tarpon exist. They are also commercially harvested in Mexico and Brazil.

During the two-year program, the non-profit collected and studied more than 23,000 genetic scale samples of tarpon by anglers all over the world. This includes 20,000 samples provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission from a previous unrelated study on tarpon around the state.

BTT had input from nine states, from Virginia to Texas. It also gathered samples from the Caribbean islands, spots in Central America and South America, and as far as West Africa.

“This information [of one mixed population] was all completely unknown,” Adams said.

A study done in 2005 by another organization found that two stocks of Atlantic tarpon existed. However, Adams said they didn’t have the advanced technology now available over a decade later. He said the genetic analysis now used on tarpon was similar to the preciseness of DNA fingerprinting used with people. In a few instances, anglers in very different parts of the Atlantic were catching the exact same tarpon over a long period of time.

Tarpon typically have an 80-year lifespan. The longest recorded travel distance of the Atlantic species was a large adult swimming from Florida to Virginia. A previous FWC study showed that the species, while traveling, often returns to the same places yearly.

Long migrations by some tarpon increase the genetic mixing of this species as they likely congregate on the same spawning sites, according to the study.

Outside of the Atlantic tarpon, Indo-Pacific tarpon are found solely in the eastern hemisphere. They are a close relative but were not included in this study.

This BTT program is the first of its kind that was done intercontinentally, according to BTT representative JoEllen Wilson. For up-to-date information on all of the non-profit’s work, check out bonefishtarpontrust.org.

bbowden@keysnews.com

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