Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Fishing the Flats for Science – Full Episode

Fishing the Flats for Science – Full Episode


They are vast expanses of serene, crystal-clear
waters, as far as the eye can see. It is an absolutely unique place. It’s usually
less than six feet of water that is a matrix of sand, seagrass, little corals and sponges
that offers good foraging grounds for many different species. The fish are just going about their business.
You just see them in their own element eating and cruising and it’s really neat to see. These are the Flats – a place where recreational
anglers pursue the legendary bonefish, tarpon and permit. There’s no other place I’d rather be fly fishing
than on the flats. Flats fishing is just a very romanticized,
dramatic thing. It’s just the allure, poling around these
flats and trying to find a fish. Oh, come on. What is that? Is that fish? Flats fishing is not like you drop a piece
of shrimp to the bottom and wait for the fish to eat it.  Flats fishing is a hunt. It’s very much a stalking game, it’s like
hunting except you get to release the fish when you catch it. You actually have to see the fish before you
throw the fly. You’re trying to trick a fish into eating
a completely artificial fly that you’ve often tied yourself out of materials. It’s pretty challenging especially when weather
conditions aren’t in your favor. You’re not thinking about anything else when
you’re out on the flats. Research commissioned by the Bonefish and
Tarpon Trust has shown these recreational fisheries are worth big money. There’s a study, in 2009, in the middle
of the recession, found that the annual economic impact of the bonefish catch and release fishery
in the Bahamas was 141 million dollars. We are in the process of redoing that study now
and preliminary estimates are that it’s more than 200 million dollars. In the Florida Keys,
the flats fishery, which is bonefish, tarpon and permit, the annual economic impact is
over 460 million dollars. But in some areas, these fish are on the decline. In order for us to pass this down, we have
to secure what we have now. And in order to do that, you’ve got to work with the researchers. What does scientific research reveal about
bonefish, tarpon and permit? Can it help to ensure their survival into the future? Major funding for this program was provided
by the Batchelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater
resources. And by: Diver’s Direct and Ocean Divers; The Do Unto Others Trust; The Charles
N. and Eleanor Knight Leigh Foundation. And by the following. The Florida Keys – fabled fishing grounds
where history is made. The Keys is really the birthplace of the flats
fishery, it started here post World War II and has just really has taken off since. In the world of fly fishing and saltwater
flats fishing, the Florida Keys is hallowed grounds in many ways. People come from all over to the Florida Keys
and try to catch some of the tarpon, the permit, the bonefish that are found in the flats in
the back country here. So that’s really important to this community, not only economically but
also culturally. On the Florida Keys heyday, it was the world
number one destination to go flats fishing. Islamorada was the fishing capital of the
world. But now, we’ve virtually lost our bonefishery. By the 1990s, guides and anglers had noticed
a major decline in bonefish. To understand what was happening, a group of them came together
in 1997 and created what is now known as the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, or BTT for short. They quickly realized that nobody knew anything
about bonefish, tarpon, or permit from a scientific perspective so they became a science-based
conservation organization. BTT conducts some of that research with our
own staff, but we also do a lot of external funding, So, we’ll work with colleagues in
universities, other non-profits to get a lot of research done. Experts speculate one of the reasons for the
decline in bonefish could be habitat degradation and loss. The basis for healthy fisheries is healthy
habitat. We have water quality issues from leaky septic
tanks that occur in the Lower Keys and major water management issues in the Northern Keys
that have caused algal blooms and sea grass die-offs at unprecedented scales. We’re seeing some issues with pollution, things
like nutrients and other contaminants getting into the water that impact the habitat quality
and potentially even the fish themselves through disease or parasites. We let the data lead the way and advocate
for the types of regulations and restoration that are needed to fix the system. Nicknamed the “gray ghost,” bonefish are
listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and in Florida,
they are “catch and release” only. The species of bonefish that we fish for in
the flats, albula vulpes, is one of four species total in the Caribbean and one of three that
you might catch on the flats. But, albula vulpes is well over ninety-eight percent,
ninety-nine percent of what anglers catch and you can’t tell a difference by looking
at them, it’s only genetics. Where’d they go? I see tailing fish. BTT scientists quickly realized that to understand
bonefish populations and behavior they needed to expand their research to a regional approach. One place where bonefish populations are still
healthy is the Bahamas. Bonefish are very culturally significant to
the Bahamas, you can find it on our ten-cent coin, and people have been eating bonefish
for generations, it actually used to be a staple of the Bahamian diet prior to food
imports coming from abroad. The only way you can legally catch bonefish
is via hook and line and that’s for your own personal consumption, there’s no buying or
selling of bonefish. These days, the majority of bonefish are caught
by sports fishermen who practice catch and release. To make management recommendations that adequately
protect the fish and their habitats, experts needed to understand their movements. A lot of marine fish aggregate to spawn, they
don’t spawn where they live most of the year. We wanted to figure out from how far bonefish
will travel from a home site to a spawning location. To do so, scientists capture the fish and
tag them. We use a 50-foot soft mesh seine net, that’s
about four feet deep. Once we spot a school we’ll try to basically encircle them. Once we’ve encircled them, we’ll take a few
fish put them in a holding pen, and then we’ll start working them up from there. First thing
we do when we work up these fish, we’re going to pop them on our measuring board, get a
fork length measurement, we’re going to put a tag in that fish. We’ll also use a syringe with a plastic tube
and we can sample eggs from the females and determine if they’re spawning ready. In addition to the external dart tags, scientists
also surgically insert acoustic tags in some fish. We put them in large females. Because those
are the ones that are definitely going to spawn. Acoustic tags put out a supersonic ping, that
we can’t hear but we have underwater receivers that can detect those pings. These underwater receivers are placed at regular
intervals across a study site. Each time a fish swims by a receiver its individual ID
is detected and recorded for download later. Looks like we got a bunch of detections at
the full moon at the beginning of March and then we had fish 11790 show up just today. Over the last eight years we’ve been doing
work in the Bahamas, we’ve tagged over thirteen thousand bonefish around the Bahamas and had
close to seven hundred recaptures. Seventy-two percent of them were caught within a mile
of where they were originally tagged. And then of that 72 percent, 69 percent were caught
in the exact same spot. So, these fish have really, really small home ranges. But, we also found that they’ll make really
long-distance movements for spawning. We were able to see that was around the full and new
moon between October through April, which is spawning season. We’ve had multiple fish
from the west side of Abaco do 140 miles round trip just to get to a spawning site and back.
We also had one fish, it was also tagged out in Abaco as part of a spawning run, and then
was caught later on the north side of Grand Bahama. During the day, bonefish that are ready to
spawn gather in groups, or so-called pre-spawning aggregations, near deep water, before moving
offshore at night. As the sun sets they become more active and
you’ll see them starting to gulp at the surface or even jump out of the water and porpoise. It’s pretty unique from a biological standpoint. And it really only happens for about 20 minutes,
half an hour as they’re making that movement from these transitional habitats to the deep
drop off. And we’re kind of hypothesizing that they’re actually gulping air to fill
up their swim bladders and maybe fill up their gastrointestinal tract and then they go off
the wall down deep and that compresses the air and at the same time they’re making their
eggs really big and puffy and slippery. And when you go down the air compresses, and if
you come up fast the air expands and it helps to push the eggs out and then the male then
releases the sperm, and then they fertilize the eggs and then drift around in the ocean. The eggs hatch offshore in open water and
drift around as larvae for about 40 to 70 days. Eventually the larvae move into shallow, inshore
waters where they settle and metamorphose into baby bonefish. The theory is that when fish spawn offshore,
the ocean currents transport some of those larvae back to the same area where the fish
grew up. But then some of the larvae are transported to other islands, so that gives their genes
a chance of surviving even if there’s a catastrophe in the location where the parents grew up.
And since we live in a place that has high frequency of hurricanes, that’s a pretty good
strategy. To understand exactly where the currents might
take the larvae, scientists conducted computer modeling research. And that has shown that there’s a high probability
of connectivity between the Florida Keys, southwest Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula like
Mexico and Belize, and other locations. And it looks like there’s a lot of connectivity
between the north coast of Cuba and the Bahamas. Understanding how bonefish populations are
connected helps scientists determine if conservation strategies should be local or regional, and
knowing fish migration routes and spawning locations allows them to advocate for habitat
protection. Fish populations can recover from overfishing,
but if they lose their habitats the game’s over. We’ve been working with Bahamas National Trust
and Nature Conservancy in the Bahamas to use some of our information on bonefish habitat
use, spawning migrations and spawning sites to help them identify places for protection. The Bahamas National Trust is charged with
managing the natural resources of the Bahamas and the Trust manages 32 national parks. Back in 2015, we got five new national parks
put in place. And this was based mainly on the work that
was conducted through the assistance of Bonefish Tarpon Trust. The main purpose of these parks was to stop
unsustainable development, so for example the East Grand Bahama Park was under threat
of sand mining, so if that happened, that would have not only possibly killed off the
bonefishery but a lot of other economic important fisheries. We do a lot of work with the fishermen, the
guides, the communities, Bahamas National Trust and other organizations on education.
Because conservation will only work if the people who live in those areas buy into it. It’s a lot of, you know, stuff that they share
with me that I had no idea. So, they educate a lot of the guides when they come here. Even though I know a lot over 19 years of
doing it, the science part of it is new for me and it helps me understand some stuff I
was wondering about years ago. So, we’re working now to take what we learned
from the Bahamas and figure out where exactly they spawn in the Keys so we can not only
protect those areas, but understand how those areas are being used, how things like pollution
or boat traffic may impact that and also look at migration pathways. Eat it, eat it, eat it, eat it! Another popular game fish that spends time
on the flats is the Atlantic tarpon, whose range extends from the U.S. to Brazil and
Africa. Tarpon and bonefish are in the same family.
They’re a very old lineage Small tarpon- we’re talking like six to twelve
inches. Medium size, you’ll get into the 50-pound range. And then big tarpon, two hundred plus
pound. Recreational anglers like to target them because
of their size and the fact that they jump. That’s pretty, pretty dramatic and really
gets the heart pumping. The last 20 feet bringing them to the boat
is the hardest. Nicknamed the Silver King, tarpon migrate
to the Florida Keys between March and June. A lot of times we’ll see you know, thousands
of fish under the bridges cruising through the Lower Keys and the Middle Keys. These
are basically pre-spawning aggregations. We have yet to identify where they’re spawning
offshore. Recreational anglers enjoy hooking the fish
that aggregate beneath the bridges, but they aren’t the only ones looking for a catch.
Large sharks often prey on tarpon fighting on the line, or exhausted fish that have been
let go. This has scientists worried. As soon as they’re stressed or tired and
the sharks kind of win. You know, is fishing for them under the bridges
having a significant impact on their populations? As an angler and as a scientist, I want to
answer it for both sides. It’s understanding the predator-prey interactions
that’s really going to be the next step in terms of tarpon ecology and tarpon conservation. Like their colleagues in the Bahamas, Andy
and his team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also use acoustic tags to track the
movements of tarpon. We’re tagging from all the way around the
west coast of Florida up into the Carolinas. Tarpon spend time in a variety of habitats
ranging from offshore to inshore wetlands and coastal estuaries. With acoustic telemetry we can put these tags
in tarpon that are 15 pounds or a 150 pounds. And that’s allowed us to really start to uncover
some really neat movement patterns that we wouldn’t normally have predicted. So, for
instance we’ve had some tarpon that were tagged in the Lower Keys, that are in the
40 to 50-pound range that we wouldn’t necessarily equate to a fish that’s migrating a lot, to
then have shown up past Cape Canaveral and then returning back to the Keys for successive
years. We had one of our tarpon that was tagged here
show up off of the Chesapeake. And so that’s, that’s pretty major. The acoustic telemetry is great, because there’s
a lot of other scientists that use the same receivers and it allows us to share data. The International Union for Conservation of
Nature lists Atlantic tarpon as vulnerable, based on past harvest and habitat loss. See that group right there of happy guys going
left? Currently their management varies by location,
creating potential conservation challenges along their migratory routes. In Florida, tarpon are catch and release only
except for people who want to harvest the tarpon for a world record. In order to do
so they have to have a special tarpon tag. Fish that are over forty inches in length
have to stay in the water, you can’t bring them into the boat. There isn’t a lot of harvest in Florida, but
if they go to other states where they’re still legally allowed to be harvested, then that’s
a concern. I think we all have to work together to think
about the conservation of these species. Because of their migratory nature and the
fact that they get intercepted all along the way, the economic value of the tarpon fishery
is huge. Most fly-fishermen agree that of the three
species they like to catch on the flats, one is the most challenging. You might consider bonefish the gateway drug. And then you migrate up to tarpon, which is
a little bit harder. The inevitable end of the road leads to permit. It’s right at the top of the fly-fishing food
chain as far as being difficult and hard to do. Even God has a hard time catching permit on
fly. You can do everything exactly right in your
mind, at least, and they still might not eat your fly. Permit are one of the more spooky fish that
exist and it’s really just the chase, the chance and the glory of just holding that
fish that really drives people. It’s a lifetime achievement for many of the
anglers that come down here. Just how difficult it is to catch permit on
fly is evident at the March Merkin invitational fishing tournament held in Key West each year. You look at a three-day tournament with 26
boats and one team caught two fish. Last year one team caught one fish and granted we had
really tough weather, but it’s – it really is like a legitimately special thing. It’s very difficult but these guys are some
of the top people in the world, top anglers and top guides that fish this tournament. That’s a perm-perm.
Oh boy—a little close. Fudge, oh he’s coming back for it. Did he eat it? No. These fish see a lot of angling pressure and
when you catch them often, they get smart about it. It’s definitely the big leagues of fishing
down here. It’s probably- the permit fishery down here has got to be one of the best, but
also one of the most challenging in the world. Proceeds from the March Merkin tournament
help to fund Project Permit, a research project spearheaded by Dr. Jake Brownscombe from Carleton
University. Permit are in the jack family. 60 pounds is the world record. They’re found only in the Western Atlantic,
Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Because there’s no monitoring done on these
species, we don’t really have a sense of exactly what’s been going on with their population
numbers over time. From my experience interacting with the fishing
guides down here, especially those that have been around for quite a while, the permit
numbers have been declining pretty significantly. So that’s got me personally very concerned
about these species. Permit spend time on the flats as well as
on nearshore reefs and wrecks. In 2016, Jake started an acoustic tracking project in the
lower Florida Keys. The goal is to better understand the permits’ movement patterns. Whether they’re moving throughout, all the
Florida Keys, or connecting up farther north in Florida or if they remain resident in smaller
areas. As well as whether they’re moving between the flats, and the reefs and the shipwrecks.
This is particularly important information because on the flats, it’s primarily a catch
and release fishery. On the reefs and on the shipwrecks, they have a tendency to be harvested
more often. It’s just a different group of anglers. In the first year of tracking we found that
over forty percent of the fish that visit the flats also go out to the Florida reef
tract. Many of these fish are doing it multiple times
a year and again always returning back to the exact same flat. Even if it’s 50, 60 miles
away. So that’s telling us that these fish that
are comprising mainly a catch and release fishery here on the flats are also becoming
more vulnerable to harvest through that other fishery on the Florida reef tract. This connectivity is particularly important
during spawning season, when the fish are especially vulnerable to fishing pressure. They spawn in big aggregations where they
migrate in mass off to offshore wrecks and reefs. This is a really important part of their life
cycle where they’re contributing to the population. And so, we need to understand when and where
that they’re doing this spawning behavior and try to afford them some protection when
they are doing that. In 2011, at the urging of local guides and
the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
created a “Special Permit Zone.” And that changed the regulations for permit.
It made a closed harvest season within the Keys where people couldn’t keep permit during
their spawning season, which at that time was documented from May to July. The new regulations also changed bag limits
during the months when harvest is permitted. You can keep one fish per day over 22 inches
in fork length. Outside of that zone the regulations are not
as strict. But in recent years, new information about
spawning times came to light. Anglers reported to us that permit were spawning
a month earlier than they used to twenty years ago. And they reported to us that people were going
out there and harvesting these spawning fish at pretty high numbers and they were not being
protected by the closed season that’s already in place. These observations were confirmed by the tracking
study. They’re actually showing up on the reef in
very specific spots in these very large schools starting in April. And so, using that information
we were able to get the harvest closure period extended to cover April as well. So, this
is a really important conservation measure, and we’re really happy that we were able to
make a difference in the management and conservation so quickly with this project. It’s very exciting and we’re all very proud
of this accomplishment. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, together with
its scientific collaborators, is using research findings to conserve and restore the flats
fisheries for many generations of anglers to come. And they’re joined in their efforts
by local fishing guides, who share in their mission. A lot of them donate their time to helping
us out to tag these fish. It wouldn’t be possible to get this done without them. I think they’ve become really good friends
and allies in the research and also understanding that how the data from this work can lead
to conserving bonefish and tarpon and permit. You need to protect what you love to do try
to keep it around for as many generations as possible. Our goal, and BTT’s goal, is to save the fisheries
for the future. Major funding for this program was provided
by the Batchelor Foundation, encouraging people to preserve and protect America’s underwater
resources. And by: Diver’s Direct and Ocean Divers; The Do Unto Others Trust; The Charles
N. and Eleanor Knight Leigh Foundation. And by the following.

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