The thrill of catching a tarpon, permit and bonefish equates to big money in the Florida Keys, but there are no major research facilities in Monroe County specifically studying these species.
Bonefish Tarpon Trust, the University of Miami, Florida Institute of Technology, and the Wildlife Foundation of Florida want to partner to bring such a facility to the Keys Marine Lab in Layton.
The 7-acre Keys Marine Lab is a full-service waterfront research facility owned by the state, and operated in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The lab provides students and visiting researchers with housing, laboratories, classrooms and vessels.
Bonefish Tarpon Trust and the three other agencies want to lease a half acre of the lab for a state-of-art research facility to study bonefish, tarpon and permit, and to serve as an outreach center.
"The Keys Marine Lab is excited about the idea of partnering with them," said John Hunt, FWC program administrator of the agency's Marathon office.
The initial move-in cost would $3.1 million, but with ongoing research and maintenance costs, the price tag rises to $7.4 million during six years, according to Aaron Adams, director of operations for Bonefish Tarpon Trust.
The groups recently requested $2.4 million from Monroe County's portion of Restore Act funding, which comes from Clean Water Act fines placed on BP and Transocean for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The facility could serve as staging area and data repository for University of Miami professor and backcountry fish researcher Jerry Ault's annual bonefish counts, and his and Bonefish Tarpon Trust's tarpon and bonefish tagging efforts.
Adams also has the lofty goal of one day rearing bonefish there and releasing them back into the wild. But that would be years down the line, if ever, as no research group has been able to successfully rear bonefish in a lab setting.
"No one has been able to grow the larvae," Adams said. "No one has figured out what they eat and the proper water conditions for them."
Backcountry fishing guides have commented in recent years about declining numbers of bonefish in Keys waters. A 2010 cold snap killed hundreds of baby bonefish in Florida Bay.
Ault called bonefish the "canary in the coal mine" when it comes to the health of Florida Bay.
He said the Keys are the perfect place for a research/visitor center for flats fishing, adding that there are museums and centers in the Keys for diving and turtles, but none for flats fishing.
A 2013 Bonefish Tarpon Trust's study found that flats fishing has a direct economic impact of $249 million. That number rises to $427 million after factoring in fishermen's expenses and how their earnings trickle down in the local economy, said Tony Fedler, who conducted the study.
Flats fishing in the Florida Keys supports 4,340 full-time jobs, according to the study. It also generates $31.5 million in federal taxes, and $25.9 million in state and local taxes, the study states.
Fishing in general in the Keys reportedly has an economic impact of $433 million -- $741 million after factoring in fishermen's expenses. It supports 7,536 full-time jobs in the Keys with an associated annual income of $229 million; it generates $54.8 million in federal taxes, and $45 million in state and local taxes, the study states.
Ault has estimated that each bonefish in Florida is worth about $3,500 per year to the fishing industry, or about $75,000 over its lifetime.
"Fishing is the lifeblood of the Keys economy," Ault said.
People interested in learning more about the potential research center can contact Adams via his email at email@example.com.