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A Conservation Story: The Cabin Bluff Tarpon Cup

It’s been two months since we hosted the Inaugural Cabin Bluff Tarpon Cup, but the impact of the research gathered during the tournament will echo for decades. Below Dr. Aaron Adams, Director of Operations for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, reflects on the tournament and how the collected scales will be used.

Although most recreational anglers believe that our fisheries are in the hands of the state and federal fisheries management agencies, they are only partly right. In fact, anglers, guides, lodges, and others involved in the fisheries bear much of the responsibility for making sure our fisheries remain healthy into the future. As my friend Chico Fernandez once said, “Gone are the days when we could go fishing, have fun, and go home and forget about it. If we want to have healthy fisheries in the future, we have to get involved.” 

So it was especially rewarding when a group of dedicated tarpon anglers, guides, Cabin Bluff and Hell’s Bay Boatworks, and industry sponsors Orvis, Costa, and Simms came together for a weekend in August to contribute to tarpon conservation through a friendly tarpon tournament.

The goals of the tournament were to educate about tarpon conservation, to raise funds for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (a science-based, non-profit dedicated to conservation of tarpon, bonefish, and permit), and take part in BTT’s new Tarpon Population Genetics program. 

The goal of the Tarpon Population Genetics program is to determine the extent to which tarpon around the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Southeastern US are related – are they all part of one, big, intermixed population or many smaller regional populations?  Data from satellite tagging of adult tarpon shows that some adults migrate long distances (Florida Keys to Chesapeake Bay), but that others seem to undertake smaller movements. And adult migrations aren’t the only way that tarpon might intermix regionally. Research has shown that tarpon spawn in deep water offshore, and once the eggs hatch the tiny larvae float in the open ocean for up to a month before they find their way into estuaries. Once they make their way into the wetlands of estuaries, the larvae transform into juveniles. So where do the juveniles found in wetland impoundments of Georgia and South Carolina come from? Were they spawned off the southeast coast, or were they carried northward from spawning in the Florida Keys? We are hopeful that genetic analysis can help us answer these questions. 

One of the best things about this research program is that angler and guide participation is required! When a tarpon is caught, we ask for the guide or angler to take a scale from the top side of the fish, measure the fish, record the date and location of capture, before letting the fish go. The scale is placed into a special envelope and sent to BTT. We then send it to genetic scientists, who analyze the DNA that is in the skin attached to the scale. At the end of this two-year project, we hope to have a better idea of which parts of the tarpon population are connected. This information will help us construct the most effective conservation strategy for the fishery. 

The tournament was a great success. Not only was Cabin Bluff a fantastic place in a great location with amazing staff and great guides, the anglers were top shelf as well. In the two-day tournament, 29 tarpon were jumped, 10 were leadered, and scales were collected from 9 tarpon. And we distributed a bunch of scale collection kits to the guides. We’ve already received dozens of scale samples back at BTT! 

Thanks to Hell’s Bay, Cabin Bluff, Orvis, Costa, Simms, the guides, and the anglers for making the tournament a success, and for contributing to building an effective conservation strategy for years to come.

// Aaron J. Adams, Ph.D.
Director of Operations
Bonefish & Tarpon Trust