A further, unintended consequence of Stein’s work may be that it proves that oil production platforms are wintering and maybe even spawning habitat for tarpon. That could someday help prevent the wanton removal of rigs, which are some of the most important habitat in the Gulf. Unfortunately, such decommissioned platforms are currently being removed with great haste.
Just about everyone agrees that the tarpon resource has been in decline for decades, especially in Louisiana. The tarpon sport fishery is relatively small in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, yet in Florida it’s quite large. There’s reason to believe that those fish that spend the fall and winter on the oil rigs off Louisiana spend the spring and summer in Florida, where anglers like us pound them. And the larger tarpon that fly-fishers tend to target on the flats are fecund females. The discard mortality on the tarpon that we catch may well be what’s causing the stock to decline, although tarpon kill tournaments and the 2,500 kill-tags Florida distributes every year, as well as nursery habitat loss, are likely all contributing. I’m not suggesting we should stop fishing for them, but I don’t think we can justifiably point our finger at spearfishers for killing a small number of fish for research, when we’re likely doing most if not all of the damage.
Course of action
If we’re serious about tarpon conservation, we need to stop putting blame where it probably doesn’t belong and focus on four things. No. 1: We should be petitioning the state of Florida to stop issuing kill permits. There is no reason to kill a tarpon these days because skin-mounts are a thing of the past and world records can be confirmed with a length and girth measurement. No. 2: We should be petitioning the International Game Fish Association to stop issuing 12-pound-test world records. Using such a light tippet for tarpon is ridiculous, since the resultant extended fight kills, either through exhaustion or post-release shark predation. No. 3: We should educate/encourage fishermen in Florida to stop feeding tarpon to sharks. Do a search and you’ll find more than 200 videos online showing anglers doing just that. No. 4: The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, which sees contestants consistently overstressing fish as a result of excessive handling times and even dragging them through the water to be measured by an official, needs to go away.
The bottom line is this: As a whole, spearfishermen are conservation-minded people (let’s not forget that spearfishing is probably the most selective way to fish). They tend to embrace the ocean and its creatures just like we do. The Hell Divers in particular seem to be known for their conservation practices and devotion to sustaining habitat for tarpon as well as other Gulf fish. And this kind of relationship between researchers and recreational as well as commercial fishermen is critical to the management process. It was unwise to put such “hero” photos of dead tarpon on the Web. I found them offensive, as did many others. But the fact remains that the number of fish killed for research is minimal and each one serves a scientific purpose designed to find out more about the species and ultimately protect it. Indeed, that’s a good thing