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Tarpon Trials

While the potential benefits of stocking the popular sport fish along the Texas coast are huge, so are the obstacles.

By Marsha Wilson Rappaport

In 1937, just as the fires of War World II were being ignited in Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt checked into the historic Tarpon Inn at Port Aransas for a few days of fishing. At the time, locals boasted you could “almost walk across the surf on the silver backs” of tarpon. While that was certainly an exaggeration even then, there’s no doubt that the fish were once much more plentiful along the Texas coast than they are today.

“There are still tarpon in Mexican and Texas waters, but nothing like the numbers seen prior to the 1950s,” says Ivonne Blandon, a biologist currently working on tarpon research at the Coastal Conservation Association/Central Power and Light Marine Development Center in Corpus Christi. The center combines the efforts of the CCA with American Electric Power and TPWD. The center is investigating the feasibility of a tarpon breeding program similar to its successful redfish and seatrout stocking programs. A healthy tarpon population along the Texas coast could garner millions of sport-fishing dollars.

Renowned for its fight, the tarpon has a cult-like following. “This is a very powerful animal. It fights to the end and, in some cases, will even kill itself rather than be taken,” says David Abrego, facility director at Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, where six tarpon are kept in large tanks for research purposes.

Known for their aerial acrobatics when hooked, tarpon are easily excited, sometimes to their detriment. During a violent electrical storm in Lake Jackson, Abrego says, one 4-foot-long fish jumped about 11 feet to escape the holding tank.

“He hit the top of the tank with such force that it dislodged and destroyed a light fixture embedded in a metal shell,” says Abrego, pointing to the fixture. “The tarpon died from the force of impact.”

Their appearance matches their legendary bad attitude. Growing up to 8 feet in length, this Goliath is mostly silver with dark blue or greenish-black shading along its back. It has a distinctive jaw that seems bent upward in a permanent frown. The average tarpon in U.S. waters weighs between 40 and 60 pounds. But some devotees are willing to spend thousands of dollars to chase their prey as far away as Sierra Leone, Africa, hoping to land the few that can weigh well over 200 pounds.

While the redfish and seatrout stocking programs are undoubtedly successful, that success may be difficult to replicate with tarpon.

“We began our redfish program in 1981 and our spotted seatrout program in 1983,” says Abrego. Those programs have stocked more than 450 million red drum and 44 million spotted seatrout fingerlings into Texas’ coastal bays.

The red drum have been stocked into all Texas bays, while only Sabine, Galveston, Upper and Lower Laguna Madre bays have been stocked with spotted seatrout.

A survey released by TPWD in February 2005 confirmed that anglers are responding to improved conditions. About 2,000 new anglers a month have bought saltwater fishing licenses during the past seven years. Moreover, their enthusiasm has paid off handsomely — anglers are catching more fish. Landings increased along the entire coast in 2003-04. Redfish landings increased 31 percent and spotted seatrout landings increased 11 percent.

In an effort to build a similarly robust program for tarpon, Blandon, a native of Panama and currently associate professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami, has organized and participated in a number of symposia on tarpon in the United States and Mexico. She admits that remarkably little is known about the species and much work remains to be done.

“High-tech tagging methods currently being used may tell us a lot about this species,” says Blandon. “For two consecutive years, research conducted by a Florida researcher, Jerry Ault, involved tagging tarpon in Mexico, Florida and Louisiana.”

“Some tarpon tagged in Veracruz and other parts of Mexico travel along the Texas coast to the mouth of the Mississippi to feed, and others travel from Florida to Louisiana,” says Blandon.

Duncan MacKenzie, an associate professor in the department of biology at Texas A&M University, confirms that the desire to increase the number of tarpon through breeding has been hampered by unexpected obstacles.

“There is no way to externally sex tarpon,” says MacKenzie. “The solution to this question will obviously be critical for the development of captive breeding programs.”

MacKenzie has been active in several studies dedicated to solving that one vital piece of the puzzle. In one study, researchers took blood samples from the Sea Center tarpon and measured reproductive hormones such as estrogen and testosterone.

“But unfortunately, all of the fish had some testosterone and none had estrogen,” says Mackenzie.

Another tricky issue: No one knows exactly where tarpon spawn or what the optimum conditions are for tarpon spawning. Researchers in Nigeria have had some success spawning tarpon in outdoor ponds, says Blandon, and efforts are underway to determine how to repeat that success in Texas.

“Nobody has ever seen a fertilized tarpon egg!” adds MacKenzie.

Blandon also notes that, beyond spawning, the tarpon have a unique, almost prehistoric, larval stage that must be able to survive a “long and complex metamorphosis.” In the wild, the eel-like larval stage lasts up to 60 days, a period in which the larvae are particularly vulnerable to predators. Tarpon grow slowly, requiring a minimum of six to seven years (some require as many as 13 years) to reach sexual maturity — and some live for as long as 80 years.

Given these challenges, why would it benefit Texas to breed this biologically finicky fish? Well, take a look at the numbers. In 2001, retail sales related to saltwater fishing totaled $622,204,552, and there were 13,322 jobs supported by saltwater angling, leading to a total economic impact of more than $1 billion for the Texas economy. And while the average saltwater angler spends only about $80 per day on fishing-related expenses, consider the fact that some Texans currently are willing to spend upwards of $600 a day in hopes of hooking just one tarpon.

Fishing guide James Trimble caught his first tarpon in 1989 — it was a life-altering experience. “In 1988, there was a big freeze that killed a lot of fish,” he explains. “We were having a tough time making a living.”

They went up toward the Houston Ship Channel to look for fish and ran into a huge school of tarpon in the bay.

“We didn’t land them — we didn’t catch them — but we made them jump!” says Trimble.

From that point forward, he and his partners shifted their focus to tarpon. With seven boats, they’ve caught from 100 to 500 fish in some years while chasing tarpon in the bay and near-shore Gulf waters during the peak months between June and October.

Compared to other game fish, however, the population of tarpon in the bay is minuscule and may well be continuing its downhill slide.

“I believe that the decline in Texas tarpon is telling us something important, perhaps about the impact of over-fishing, coastal development or pollution on wild fish populations,” says Mackenzie. “I think research on wild tarpon is critical now to try to establish why populations have declined.”

Both MacKenzie and Blandon agree that a best-case scenario would involve working with Mexico to conserve the species in our shared waters.

In the meantime, guides such as Trimble will continue to cater to a small but devoted group of tarpon enthusiasts.

“They’re extremely hard to catch,” he says. “Their mouth is extremely bony. Hooks don’t penetrate that bone. So they’re very hard to hook.”

“You can find them. You can literally see thousands of them — you can hit them on the top of the head. You can sit there and look at them all day long and never hook them!”

For most of us, that kind of dedication to catching one kind of fish might seem a bit extreme. But for Trimble, who makes his living sharing his passion with fellow tarpon fanatics, the thrill of the chase is worth the hours of frustration

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