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Sea Stats - Tarpon

Sea Stats - Tarpon

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One of Florida's most spectacular game fish, the tarpon is a feisty foe whose powerful leaps from the water and bone-jarring bursts of speed test the skill and fortitude of even the most experienced angler.

This brochure discusses the tarpon found in the Atlantic, and includes information on appearance, range and habitat, fishery history and management, and current research efforts.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/
One of Florida's most spectacular game fish, the tarpon is a feisty foe whose powerful leaps from the water and bone-jarring bursts of speed test the skill and fortitude of even the most experienced angler.

This brochure discusses the tarpon found in the Atlantic, and includes information on appearance, range and habitat, fishery history and management, and current research efforts.

For additional information visit http://myfwc.com/research/

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ne o Florida’s most spectaculargame sh, the tarpon tests theskill and ortitude o even themost experienced angler with itspowerul leaps and bursts o speed.This hearty giant can survive in awide variety o habitats and can even gulp air orextended periods to sustain itsel in waters low inoxygen. Despite the popularity o this long-lived shamong sport shers, many aspects o its lie cycleand behavior remain a mystery.
Tarpon share an ancient lineage with seeminglydissimilar relatives, including bonesh, ladysh, andeels. Indeed, tarponlike sh have been discovered inossils dating to the Cretaceous period 100 millionyears ago. In prehistoric times, there were manymore species o tarpon; today, there are just two:one that requents the Atlantic and a smaller speciesin the Indo-Pacic area.Tarpon are silvery with blue-gray backs.Underwater, they shimmer like huge silver ghosts.This appearance, along with their impressive size, islikely responsible or their nickname, “silver king.”Another prominent eature is a hugemouth, ormed rom an upturnedlower jaw and an upper jaw consistingo several bones used into a longbony plate. The tarpon’s short dorsaln originates just behind the origin othe pelvic (or belly) n. The last ray on the dorsal nis very long and thin. Tarpon have a deeply orkedtail n and very large, platelike scales.Tarpon can live decades longer than the 15-yearlie span researchers had once estimated by countingthe rings on scales. A more accurate technique oaging sh—counting the annually deposited rings inthe ear bones, or otoliths—has shown that manytarpon caught in the shery are 15 to 30 years old.The oldest tarpon caught in the wild and aged usingotoliths was estimated to be 55 years old. A moresophisticated but less precise technique thatevaluates the ratio o radium and lead in an otolithhas estimated tarpon ages over 70 years.The world’s shing record or a tarpon was setin 2003, when a tarpon weighing 286 pounds 9ounces was landed in Guinea-Bissau, Arica. A243-pound sh captured o Key West in 1975holds the Florida record or tarpon caught withconventional tackle.
Silver King of the Coast
Scientific name
Megalops atlanticus
To 8 eet, approximately 280 pounds
In the western Atlantic, common rom Virginia to central Brazil and throughout theCaribbean Sea and Gul o Mexico; in the eastern Atlantic, along the western coasto Arica
Mostly estuaries and coastal waters, but also reshwater lakes and rivers, oshoremarine waters, and occasionally coral rees
Tarpon art after Diane Rome Peebles painting.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionFish and Wildlife Research Institute
Range and Habitat
Tarpon preer tropical and subtropical waters andare most common rom Virginia to central Brazil,throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Gul oMexico, and in tropical regions o Arica in theeastern Atlantic. Because tarpon are sensitive tocold water, their range is generally limited totemperate climates. However, they have been oundo the coast o Ireland and reported as ar north asNova Scotia. In Florida, they are ound in waterdepths ranging rom less than 3 eet to more than80 eet.Tarpon thrive in a variety o habitats. Adults arebelieved to move oshore to marine waters tospawn, and the larvae gradually make their wayback inshore to marshes and mangrove habitats inestuaries. Adults requent a range o habitats, romoshore and nearshore coastal waters to stagnantreshwater pools o riverine habitats. They canoten be seen patrolling the coral rees and fats othe Florida Keys. In Costa Rica, Guatemala andNicaragua, tarpon are requently caught inreshwater lakes and rivers miles rom the coast.Scientists believe the western Atlantic stock isgenetically uniorm, though they have observedregional dierences in behavior and size. Tarpon inCosta Rica, or example, are generally smaller thanFlorida tarpon and spawn throughout the yearrather than seasonally.Although tarpon migrate, little is known about therequency or extent o their travels. Scientists doknow that tarpon captured in Florida have beenrecaptured later as ar west as Louisiana and as arnorth as South Carolina. Several projects are underway to learn more about the migratory patterns otarpon. Pop-up archival transmitting tags and orbitingsatellites are being used to help track migratory pathsalong Florida’s east and west coasts, as well aswaters o the Gul o Mexico and Caribbean Sea.Researchers with the Florida Fish and WildlieConservation Commission (FWC) are using geneticmarkers to identiy individual tarpon and track theirmovements along Florida’s coastal andinshore waters.
Life History
Florida tarpon begin gathering near the coast inApril or the journey to their oshore spawninggrounds. In these staging areas, scientists andanglers have observed schools o tarpon swimmingin circles. This behavior, known as orming a daisychain, may be a sort o prenuptial tarpon tangothat prepares the sh or spawning. Lunar phasesand tides probably trigger the exodus to theoshore spawning areas, which continues throughJuly. By August, 90% o tarpon in Florida havespawned or the year. A mature emale mayproduce rom 4.5 million to 20.7 million eggsduring one spawning season. The larger, heavier,and older the sh, the more eggs are likely to bereleased in a single batch.Many questions about the liestyle andbehavior o the silver king remain unanswered,particularly about its reproductive biology. Thoughsome anglers claim to have seen tarpon spawning,that experience has long eluded tarpon researchers.Locating spawning grounds could provide a wealtho inormation about the species, as well as anopportunity to collect and describe newly ertilizedeggs. Tarpon larvae only a ew days old have beencollected as ar as 125 miles oshore in the Gulo Mexico.
During aerial surveys by FWRI researchers in1989, 33 tarpon “daisy chains” o 25 to 200 fsh each were observed along a 12-mile stretch o Florida’s west coast.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Larva illustration ater B. Eldred, 1972; Florida Departmento Natural Resources Marine Research Laboratory LeafetSeries, Vol. 4, Part 1, No. 22.
Tarpon eggs hatch into larvae called leptocephali:transparent, ribbonlike creatures with anglike teeth.The leptocephali drit with the currents toward theshore, reaching estuaries in 30 to 60 days. Stormscan shorten the journey to about 15 days. By thetime the larvae reach inshore nurseries, they areabout an inch long. At this point, they begin anamazing transormation in which they lose theirteeth and begin to shrink. Eventually they start togrow again and wind up as miniature versions o thebehemoths they will eventually become.The juvenile tarpon make their way into marshesand mangrove swamps, where they will spend theremainder o their rst year. They grow rapidly toabout a oot long within a year. Females usuallygrow larger than males and more quickly. However,the sex o tarpon cannot reliably be determined untiltheir second or third year, and then only by aninternal examination. Both sexes reach sexualmaturity at about 10 years o age.Adult and subadult tarpon are oten ound inschools and are opportunistic eaters that eed on avariety o sh and crabs. They can tolerate varioussalinities, but water temperatures higher than 106-107°F and lower than 50°F have been ound to belethal to tarpon. They become stressed when watertemperatures all below 55°F. Although adults canoten seek reuge in deep holes and channels, youngsh are less able to escape the cold.One particularly remarkable acet o tarponphysiology is the sh’s ability to breathe both inand out o the water. When dissolved oxygen levelsin the water are adequate, tarpon, like most sh,breathe through their gills. When oxygen levels aredepleted, however, they can also gulp air and passit along to their highly specialized swim bladder.The swim bladder contains our lengthwise rows ospongy, lunglike tissue and unctions as anadditional breathing organ. The swim bladder alsocan ll with air as needed to help the sh maintainits desired depth in the water.Scientists believe that the tarpon’s ability tobreathe air is an adaptation which allows it tosurvive in the stagnant, oxygen-poor pools andditches it requents, and that this may havecontributed to its survival since prehistoric times.The ability to breathe atmospheric air may alsohelp sustain the tarpon during long swimmingmigrations and aid in recovery ater catch-and-release shing events.
Fishery History
Tarpon have earned their place among Florida’smost coveted sport sh with a long history o beingkilled or sport and mounted as trophies. In the late1800s, shermen in canoes hunted tarpon withharpoons, hand lines, and various other gear.Inhabitants o “Old Florida” dried strips o tarponfesh to make jerky. Though tarpon are still consumedin some parts o the world—particularly in Aricaand Central and South America—they are prizednowadays not or their appeal to the palate, but ortheir size and ghting prowess.In 1953, Florida established a shing limit o twotarpon per day and prohibited their sale. Since 1989,the state has required anglers to purchase a permit(jaw tag) to legally possess or harvest (kill) a tarpon.Today the permit system serves mainly as aconservation tool or tarpon, as the shery hasbecome predominantly catch-and-release (no tag isrequired i the sh is promptly released withoutleaving the water).Tarpon tournaments are popular in Florida.Perhaps the most amous one is the Gold CupInvitational, a fy shing competition in the FloridaKeys. Among its winners was baseball legend TedWilliams. One tournament in the Tampa Bay areahas been conducted since beore World War II.Premier tarpon shing “hot spots” are BocaGrande Pass in southwest Florida, Homosassa, andthe Florida Keys. In general, anglers catch moretarpon on the state’s west coast than on the east.Tarpon larger than 100 pounds are most commonlycaught in May through July, but records show thattarpon o all sizes are caught in all months.Tarpon appear to be sensitive to noise and boattrac and may become skittish and reluctant to takebait when boaters crowd the waters. Yet unlike manyother sh, tarpon can requently be ound in highlyurbanized areas with poor water quality. They willtake a variety o live and dead bait, as well asarticial lures and fies. Many shing guides specializein tarpon shing, and it is thought to be one o the

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