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The Secret Lives of Bonefish, Permit and Tarpon

A tagging tournament helps flats anglers fill in the blanks.

October 15, 2013
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Photo by John Frazier

Most fly-fishermen think of bonefish, permit and tarpon fisheries as primarily being catch-and-release. This leads to the assumption of low mortality and sustainable fisheries. However, there are threats to these fisheries that are often not considered, or are just unknown.

Conservation strategies are needed to counteract these threats and ensure sustainability of flats fisheries. However, information is needed to create effica- cious conservation strategies. Belize river lodge cleverly worked with the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (aka BTT) to create a research tournament to collect informa- tion to guide conservation strategies. The tournament is called the Belize Tagging Challenge, and the catch does not count toward the tournament unless the fish is measured and tagged. Tagging is a tool commonly used to gather salient information on fish populations, such as movements, growth, mortality and popu- lation size, and to reveal the structure of the population. an example of structure of a population is when the juveniles are found in one place and the adults are found in another.

When a tagged fish is recaptured, the original angler who tagged the fish is educated with the growth and move- ments of the fish. This opens the door to some very interesting information. Many Florida keys guides who tagged bonefish learned that they frequently caught the same exact fish two or three times.

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The target species of the tournament in Belize are bonefish, permit and tarpon, and there are prize categories for the most and biggest for each species.

The tournament is also led by a Bonefish and Tarpon Trust scientist. a presentation on BTT research results is given by the scientist at the begin- ning of the event, and the scientist also provides instruction on proper measuring, tagging and release proce- dures. Scientists even fish alongside the tournament participants.

A unique attribute of the tournament is that stakeholders get involved with conservation of the resource. The guides and anglers aren’t just fishing; they are doubling as field scientists conducting research to improve the understanding of the species. Tournament participant Chuck Hemingway, winner of both the largest Tarpon and Most Tarpon categories, summarizes his opinion of the event: “i support BTT’s mission but I don’t want to just write a check. There is value in participating in the research and interacting with the scientist. i love the science stuff and get a huge charge out of learning more about the fish.”

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Belize river lodge is a perfect place to host a research tournament. First of all, the lodge is no stranger to being involved with conservation. lodge owner Mike Heusner has been involved with the Belize chapter of the audubon Society since 1970, and he has served as both a board member and vice presi- dent. in 2007, the lodge got involved with BTT (when the group was called Bonefish and Tarpon Unlimited) by donating a dollar for every bonefish that was caught by guests and guides at the lodge — this amount was then matched by another donor.

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