On the program: Atlantic tarpon, the “king of money”

Atlantic Tarpon. Photo: Robert Michelson

The word “Tarpon” conjures up images of the tradition of fishing for large silver fish making dramatic leaps out of the water when hooked.

Atlantic tarpons are actually closely related to eels. They may not look at all like their cousins ​​in adulthood, but their larval stages are considerably more similar.

Also known as the “Silver King,” the tarpon is found in the Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina to Brazil, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. A population is now established on the Pacific side of central and northern South America. These large fish can be up to 8 feet long, but they average 25 to 80 pounds.

In North Carolina waters, the largest tarpon fished was in 2008 off Sea View Pier in North Topsail Beach by Malcolm Condie and weighed 193 pounds, 5 ounces.

This species is frequently found near coasts and in mangrove coves. Tarpons are encountered by divers at dive sites like “Tarpon Alley” north of the island of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean. Divers can easily approach the tarpon for a closer look, provided no sudden movements are made. Being in the water so close to these beautiful fish was a lesson in humility. Some eclipsed my height. I was glad they didn’t like people’s taste!

Tarpon biology

“The Atlantic Tarpon uses a variety of coastal habitats including wetlands, creeks, freshwater rivers, estuaries and the ocean. They can live in open freshwater and open seawater and can tolerate areas of low oxygen content by swallowing air at the surface, ”said Dr. Aaron J. Adams, Director of Science and Conservation at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust in Miami, Florida.

The tarpon is a tropical species but also thrives in subtropics and moves seasonally to temperate areas during the hot summer months, Adams said. “They cannot survive water temperatures below 50 degrees, and if the water is already cold, a strong cold front that causes the water temperature to drop rapidly can kill them as well.”

Tarpons are members of a group of fish with a clear or translucent larval stage, ribbon-shaped animals. Other fish belonging to this group include ten pounds, bonefishes, and eels.

“Atlantic tarpon spawn seasonally, between May and August, usually near the full moon. During the spawning season, tarpons have been observed swimming in a circular and spinning fashion that recreational fishermen call a garland, ”Adams said.

“Scientists believe this behavior could be a response to predators or could be pre-spawning activity. Near full moons during the spawning season, large schools, often 25 to 200 individuals, will move offshore in deep water to spawn. They are broadcast breeders, ejecting their eggs and milt into open water, where the eggs are fertilized, ”Adams said. “These fish have a very high egg generation rate, and large females can produce over 12 million eggs and probably spawn more than once in a spawning season. The eggs hatch after about a day and the larvae live like plankton on the high seas for about a month before moving to coastal areas for juveniles.

After spawning near the edge of the continental shelf, tarpon eggs and larvae begin to develop and drift to potential nursery habitats. Hatching to about a quarter of an inch in size, the larvae take 20 to 30 days to complete their development to their leptocephaly, or “slender head” stage, while feeding on gelatinous “sea snow” as they grow. ‘they reach about an inch in length.

“These larvae have a large, transparent ribbon-like shape, tiny head, and fang-shaped teeth. Throughout their development, they drift with the prevailing currents, and if they are lucky, they end up near an estuarine arm around the time they are ready to settle in a feeder swamp. Wind-driven land flow, including hurricane-driven flow, can allow large numbers of larvae to reach a nursery, ”Adams said.

As they move to dry land, the larvae begin to undergo a physiological change to a juvenile form that has adapted to live in coastal marshes. Unlike the larvae of most fish, tarpon larvae, along with their bonefish, ladyfish, and eel parents, actually shrink as they use their bodies’ energy and nutrients to fuel the development of a new body form.

“Within days, as they move through upper marsh habitats, they are less than three-quarters of an inch long, but have started to develop juvenile body features – fins, including the dorsal or upper fin, and the characteristics of tarpon filaments, a swim bladder for buoyancy and ultimately air breathing, altered laws and intestines. These young juveniles then begin to feed on small plankton and mosquito larvae. In four to five weeks, they develop their scales and silvery pigment, grow to 1 ½ inch long, and look like a real tarpon, ”Adams said.

Tarpon reaches sexual maturity between 7 and 12 years old. As with many species, males tend to mature at earlier ages and smaller sizes.

“We captured males exuding milt during spawning seasons, for example, which were only 50 inches in length. Tarpon is up to 80 years old, ”Adams said.

An Atlantic tarpon’s favorite foods include Atlantic needlefish, pinfish, as well as many species of shrimp and crab, depending on where they hunt throughout their range. . They will pursue their prey day and night.

Tarpon management

According to Chris Batsavage, special assistant to the boards of the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, this species is not currently managed by the state, the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council, or the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

“Commercial sale of Atlantic tarpon is illegal in the state, and there is a proposal to change the current recreational limit of one fish per day for capture and release only,” a- he declared. “Final approval of the rule change is expected to be made within the next 12 months.”

Catch and release

“The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust has expressed support for the NC Marine Fisheries Commission by highlighting the results of our Bonefish and Tarpon Trust tarpon tagging project showing that the tarpon migrates to North Carolina every summer,” said Lucas Griffin, partner postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Considering that our project highlights the connectivity of tarpons across jurisdictional boundaries, the conservation and management of tarpons should be adopted in all states to protect the fishery as a whole. Capture and release-only regulations are an essential first step in ensuring tarpons are able to navigate safely through the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States to complete migrations of spawning and foraging.

To date only Florida and Virginia are catch and release only, if North Carolina adopts this practice, it will only be the third state in this endeavor and offer a proactive management strategy, Griffin said.

“This is particularly relevant given that tarpon migrations may change their range with warmer sea surface temperatures expected in the future and, as a result, angling pressure,” said Griffin.

Griffin co-wrote the Tarpon Trust’s Capture and Release Guidelines.

Suggested catch and release procedures for Atlantic Tarpons over 40 inches in fork length include the following two key points:

  • Do not remove them from the water. This causes too much damage and stress, and decreases their chances of survival.
  • Minimize the time you spend handling fish in the water beside the boat before releasing them.

Florida regulations prohibit removing the tarpon more than 40 inches from the water.

“For tarpons smaller than the 40 inch fork length, minimize handling, as this can remove the protective mud from the fish. If you are handling a fish, use clean, damp hands.

If you are holding the fish out of the water, support it under the head and stomach.

Minimize exposure to air. If you want a photo, prepare the shot before removing the fish from the water. If the fish is not yet dripping water in the photo, it has been out of the water for too long. Avoid using mechanical lip gripping devices on active fish as this can cause jaw injuries, ”Griffin said.

If a tarpon’s weight is desired, measure the length and girth and use a chart to estimate its weight. Keep your fingers away from the gills; damaged gills prevent the fish from breathing. If a fish loses balance, that is, if it rolls over or noses on the bottom, revive it until it can swim upright, then reduce the fight time on the bottom. future fish. When resuscitating a fish, make sure that the water passes over the gills from front to back. Move the tarpon forward or keep it upright in the water allowing it to pump water through its gills. In warmer water, reduce fighting and handling time, the guidelines suggest.

“When fishing with bait, use circle hooks. If a hook is deeply embedded in the throat, cut the line as close to the hook as possible, this causes less damage than removing a deeply embedded hook. Most fish are able to reject the hook or the hook will dissolve over time. Keep the fight short. Long fights result in a depleted tarpon, which is more vulnerable to predators. Use the right gear for the fish and the conditions, ”Griffin said.

Since predators can reduce fish survival after release, when predators become abundant and seem to be attracted to your fishing activity, Griffin recommends moving to another fishing location. If a shark appears while you are fighting a tarpon, break the tarpon so it has a chance to escape the shark before it gets too tired, he said.

Identification in the field is easy. Tarpons have very large silvery scales, which resemble armor from the days of chivalry. They have a large, ball-shaped mouth, deeply forked tails, and a single-stranded parting from the back, on the underside of the dorsal fin. A very graceful and elegant creature to watch, and my boy, how mighty they are!

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