Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
ne of Florida’s most spectacular game fish, the tarpon tests the skill and fortitude of even the most experienced angler with its powerful leaps and bursts of speed. This hearty giant can survive in a wide variety of habitats and can even gulp air for extended periods to sustain itself in waters low in oxygen. Despite the popularity of this long-lived fish among sport fishers, many aspects of its life cycle and behavior remain a mystery.
Silver King of the Coast
Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
Tarpon share an ancient lineage with seemingly dissimilar relatives, including bonefish, ladyfish, and eels. Indeed, tarponlike fish have been discovered in fossils dating to the Cretaceous period 100 million years ago. In prehistoric times, there were many more species of tarpon; today, there are just two: one that frequents the Atlantic and a smaller species in the Indo-Pacific area. Tarpon are silvery with blue-gray backs. Underwater, they shimmer like huge silver ghosts. This appearance, along with their impressive size, is likely responsible for their nickname, “silver king.”
Another prominent feature is a huge mouth, formed from an upturned lower jaw and an upper jaw consisting of several bones fused into a long bony plate. The tarpon’s short dorsal fin originates just behind the origin of the pelvic (or belly) fin. The last ray on the dorsal fin is very long and thin. Tarpon have a deeply forked tail fin and very large, platelike scales. Tarpon can live decades longer than the 15-year life span researchers had once estimated by counting the rings on scales. A more accurate technique of aging fish—counting the annually deposited rings in the ear bones, or otoliths—has shown that many tarpon caught in the fishery are 15 to 30 years old. The oldest tarpon caught in the wild and aged using otoliths was estimated to be 55 years old. A more sophisticated but less precise technique that evaluates the ratio of radium and lead in an otolith has estimated tarpon ages over 70 years. The world’s fishing record for a tarpon was set in 2003, when a tarpon weighing 286 pounds 9 ounces was landed in Guinea-Bissau, Africa. A 243-pound fish captured off Key West in 1975 holds the Florida record for tarpon caught with conventional tackle.
Scientific name Megalops atlanticus Size Range Habitat
To 8 feet, approximately 280 pounds In the western Atlantic, common from Virginia to central Brazil and throughout the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico; in the eastern Atlantic, along the western coast of Africa Mostly estuaries and coastal waters, but also freshwater lakes and rivers, offshore marine waters, and occasionally coral reefs
Tarpon art after Diane Rome Peebles painting.
Range and Habitat
Tarpon prefer tropical and subtropical waters and are most common from Virginia to central Brazil, throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and in tropical regions of Africa in the eastern Atlantic. Because tarpon are sensitive to cold water, their range is generally limited to temperate climates. However, they have been found off the coast of Ireland and reported as far north as Nova Scotia. In Florida, they are found in water depths ranging from less than 3 feet to more than 80 feet. Tarpon thrive in a variety of habitats. Adults are believed to move offshore to marine waters to spawn, and the larvae gradually make their way back inshore to marshes and mangrove habitats in estuaries. Adults frequent a range of habitats, from offshore and nearshore coastal waters to stagnant freshwater pools off riverine habitats. They can often be seen patrolling the coral reefs and flats of the Florida Keys. In Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua, tarpon are frequently caught in freshwater lakes and rivers miles from the coast. Scientists believe the western Atlantic stock is genetically uniform, though they have observed regional differences in behavior and size. Tarpon in Costa Rica, for example, are generally smaller than Florida tarpon and spawn throughout the year rather than seasonally. Although tarpon migrate, little is known about the frequency or extent of their travels. Scientists do know that tarpon captured in Florida have been recaptured later as far west as Louisiana and as far north as South Carolina. Several projects are under way to learn more about the migratory patterns of
tarpon. Pop-up archival transmitting tags and orbiting satellites are being used to help track migratory paths along Florida’s east and west coasts, as well as waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) are using genetic markers to identify individual tarpon and track their movements along Florida’s coastal and inshore waters.
Florida tarpon begin gathering near the coast in April for the journey to their offshore spawning grounds. In these staging areas, scientists and anglers have observed schools of tarpon swimming in circles. This behavior, known as forming a daisy chain, may be a sort of prenuptial tarpon tango that prepares the fish for spawning. Lunar phases and tides probably trigger the exodus to the offshore spawning areas, which continues through July. By August, 90% of tarpon in Florida have spawned for the year. A mature female may produce from 4.5 million to 20.7 million eggs during one spawning season. The larger, heavier, and older the fish, the more eggs are likely to be released in a single batch.
During aerial surveys by FWRI researchers in 1989, 33 tarpon “daisy chains” of 25 to 200 fish each were observed along a 12-mile stretch of Florida’s west coast.
Many questions about the lifestyle and behavior of the silver king remain unanswered, particularly about its reproductive biology. Though some anglers claim to have seen tarpon spawning, that experience has long eluded tarpon researchers. Locating spawning grounds could provide a wealth of information about the species, as well as an opportunity to collect and describe newly fertilized eggs. Tarpon larvae only a few days old have been collected as far as 125 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.
Larva illustration after B. Eldred, 1972; Florida Department of Natural Resources Marine Research Laboratory Leaflet Series, Vol. 4, Part 1, No. 22.
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Tarpon eggs hatch into larvae called leptocephali: transparent, ribbonlike creatures with fanglike teeth. The leptocephali drift with the currents toward the shore, reaching estuaries in 30 to 60 days. Storms can shorten the journey to about 15 days. By the time the larvae reach inshore nurseries, they are about an inch long. At this point, they begin an amazing transformation in which they lose their teeth and begin to shrink. Eventually they start to grow again and wind up as miniature versions of the behemoths they will eventually become. The juvenile tarpon make their way into marshes and mangrove swamps, where they will spend the remainder of their first year. They grow rapidly to about a foot long within a year. Females usually grow larger than males and more quickly. However, the sex of tarpon cannot reliably be determined until their second or third year, and then only by an internal examination. Both sexes reach sexual maturity at about 10 years of age. Adult and subadult tarpon are often found in schools and are opportunistic eaters that feed on a variety of fish and crabs. They can tolerate various salinities, but water temperatures higher than 106107°F and lower than 50°F have been found to be lethal to tarpon. They become stressed when water temperatures fall below 55°F. Although adults can often seek refuge in deep holes and channels, young fish are less able to escape the cold. One particularly remarkable facet of tarpon physiology is the fish’s ability to breathe both in and out of the water. When dissolved oxygen levels in the water are adequate, tarpon, like most fish, breathe through their gills. When oxygen levels are depleted, however, they can also gulp air and pass it along to their highly specialized swim bladder. The swim bladder contains four lengthwise rows of spongy, lunglike tissue and functions as an additional breathing organ. The swim bladder also can fill with air as needed to help the fish maintain its desired depth in the water. Scientists believe that the tarpon’s ability to breathe air is an adaptation which allows it to survive in the stagnant, oxygen-poor pools and ditches it frequents, and that this may have contributed to its survival since prehistoric times. The ability to breathe atmospheric air may also
help sustain the tarpon during long swimming migrations and aid in recovery after catch-andrelease fishing events.
Tarpon have earned their place among Florida’s most coveted sport fish with a long history of being killed for sport and mounted as trophies. In the late 1800s, fishermen in canoes hunted tarpon with harpoons, hand lines, and various other gear. Inhabitants of “Old Florida” dried strips of tarpon flesh to make jerky. Though tarpon are still consumed in some parts of the world—particularly in Africa and Central and South America—they are prized nowadays not for their appeal to the palate, but for their size and fighting prowess. In 1953, Florida established a fishing limit of two tarpon 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 a conservation tool for tarpon, as the fishery has become predominantly catch-and-release (no tag is required if the fish is promptly released without leaving the water). Tarpon tournaments are popular in Florida. Perhaps the most famous one is the Gold Cup Invitational, a fly fishing competition in the Florida Keys. Among its winners was baseball legend Ted Williams. One tournament in the Tampa Bay area has been conducted since before World War II. Premier tarpon fishing “hot spots” are Boca Grande Pass in southwest Florida, Homosassa, and the Florida Keys. In general, anglers catch more tarpon on the state’s west coast than on the east. Tarpon larger than 100 pounds are most commonly caught in May through July, but records show that tarpon of all sizes are caught in all months. Tarpon appear to be sensitive to noise and boat traffic and may become skittish and reluctant to take bait when boaters crowd the waters. Yet unlike many other fish, tarpon can frequently be found in highly urbanized areas with poor water quality. They will take a variety of live and dead bait, as well as artificial lures and flies. Many fishing guides specialize in tarpon fishing, and it is thought to be one of the
most economically valuable recreational fisheries in Florida. View the current saltwater fishing regulations for tarpon by visiting MyFWC.com/Marine and selecting “Recreational Regulations.”
Scientists at the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) conduct pioneering research into the life cycle, health, and behavior of tarpon. Scientists believe the Florida population is stable, though they note that a trend of fewer juveniles reaching maturity would be difficult to detect. Because tarpon live so long, it would be many years before the subsequent decrease in adult populations would reveal itself. A predominantly catch-and-release fishery is no assurance of survival for released tarpon. FWRI research using ultrasonic telemetry in Boca Grande Pass and Tampa Bay estimated a short-term mortality rate of 13% for tarpon caught recreationally and released. Sharks were the number one cause of death in that study.
sample skin cells from the outer jaws of tarpon. Scientists analyze the DNA data from those samples and look for possible matches with previously sampled tarpon in their database. Repeated captures of the same individuals provide information on their seasonal movements, and all DNA samples can help to evaluate the distribution of tarpon in Florida estuaries. Knowledge gained from these studies may, in time, reveal a life history that traces the giant tarpon of Florida's recreational fishery back to these inshore waters. Researchers also hope to use the data to determine whether tarpon populations of Florida mix freely with those from other areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. A number of other studies gather data for Florida’s efforts to maintain a sustainable recreational fishery. Research areas include the following: • Stress effects of catch-and-release angling on tarpon blood chemistry. • Health of Florida’s tarpon stocks—for example, the baseline or “normal” levels of red tide toxins in tarpon tissue and organ samples. • Life history—where tarpon spawn, how often they spawn, and what factors influence how many settle into inshore nurseries. Fishing license revenue and the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program are important sources of funding for sport fish research. The Sport Fish Restoration Program is a “user pays/user benefits” system funded by a tax on sales of recreational fishing equipment and boat fuel. The program supplies three dollars for every dollar provided by the state for projects that improve fishing and boating opportunities.
During acoustic telemetry studies in 2006, FWRI researchers watched a tagged tarpon escape the jaws of a hammerhead shark and survive. It traveled more than 12 miles in the four hours and 15 minutes it was tracked after release.
To maintain a sustainable recreational fishery, Florida anglers and guides assist FWRI researchers and other scientists around the state in evaluating the effects of catch-and-release angling on tarpon. One of these cooperative efforts invites anglers to
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute 100 8th Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • (727) 896-8626 • MyFWC.com/Research