By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
The tarpon is called “the Silver King” for good reason. It can grow upward of seven feet long and 300 pounds, and it is generally acknowledged as the toughest sportfish on Florida’s coast, known for its muscular runs and spectacular leaps.
However, when The Florida Aquarium Associate Curator Eric Hovland (pictured below) calls the tarpon “scrappy,” he is not talking about its rod-bending ability. The tarpon, in his view, is the ultimate survivor. With the ability to gulp surface air thanks to a unique swim bladder, the tarpon has been around since prehistoric times and can survive conditions deadly to other fish.
Hovland recounts that when Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans’ Aquarium of the Americas without power for days, the sharks and other fish died. The tarpon, able to gulp air at the surface even as the tanks’ oxygen levels plummeted, survived. (The Florida Aquarium, for its part, has a comprehensive disaster plan to protect wildlife that includes roof-top generators that can provide power for at least a week.)
Hovland says The Florida Aquarium’s half-dozen tarpon were obtained as fingerlings with the assistance of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They have been in the Aquarium’s Coral Reef habitat for close to 15 years.
The tarpon’s air-gulping ability allow juvenile fish to inhabit stagnant water inhospitable to many predators, an early advantage. The tarpon themselves are remarkable predators, long-lived – perhaps 50 years or more – and incredibly adaptable. Tarpon can survive in deep offshore waters or in flats scarcely deep enough to cover their bodies. They spawn offshore around full moons in early summer.
Despite its tolerance for stagnant water, Hovland says the fish, usually found in large schools, are vulnerable to pollution that may damage its skin and reproductive functions and eliminate prey species.
The tarpon is not a picky eater – though anglers know that predicting when it will feed is another matter. Baby tarpon feed on insects and plankton. Adults feed on fish and shellfish large and small, including mullet, pinfish, ladyfish, shrimp, crabs and threadfin herring. Hovland believes the northern migration of tarpon during the summer months is likely driven by its search for prey species, though some tarpon do not migrate.
Threadfin herrings and crabs probably are the most popular baits in our region. The little threadfin may seem an odd target for the bruiser tarpon, but Hovland says the tarpon are attracted by the “big disco ball” of congregated baitfish. “They just open their jaws and slurp.” Bottom fishing with a dead fish also can be productive, as can be fly fishing, which is popular in the Florida Keys.
Jack E. Davis’ superb book on the Gulf of Mexico, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” describes how the quest for tarpon brought visitors and development to Southwest Florida after the first tarpon, once thought to be uncatchable on a rod and reel, was landed in 1885. (A wonderful book on tarpon fishing, full of historic photographs, is “Randy Wayne White’s Ultimate Tarpon Fishing: The Birth of Big Game Fishing.”)
Fortunately, the tarpon represents a conservation success story, especially in Tampa Bay. Decades ago, pollution and overfishing threatened the tarpon, and its numbers dwindled. Now anglers and biologists say the Tampa Bay area’s population is the best it’s been in years.
A big part of that comeback can be attributed to the pollution laws that cleaned Tampa Bay. Hovland believes the net ban also helped. But strict tarpon-protection laws also were essential.
Evidence of how regulations have changed over the years can be seen at the pull-off on Bayshore Boulevard where the Jose Gasparilla Ship is moored. Colorful fiberglass fish hang from a narrow concrete structure. It is a nifty example of public artwork.
But years ago, dead tarpon, not artwork, hung at this check-in station for the tarpon tournament. Many, perhaps most, ended up in the dump (tarpon are bony and not considered edible).
Such “kill” tarpon tournaments, much promoted by local boosters, were once common. But regulators took steps to stop the waste, largely at the urging of conscientious anglers. Even before the tighter rules were adopted, many tournaments became catch-and-release. Outdoors enthusiasts often don’t get the credit they deserve for being environmental leaders.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission records has ratcheted down on the number of tarpon tags issued to anglers through the years until now it is essentially a catch-and-release fishery, with a kill tag being issued only when an angler is in “pursuit of IGFA record.”
The Commission has rigorous guidelines for handling tarpon, which include not taking them out of the water, though one occasionally sees photographs of triumphant fisherman cradling a tarpon in both arms like a rolled-up rug.
Sharks are the tarpon’s primary predator. Once while fishing near the mouth of Tampa Bay, I saw a hammerhead toss up and then chomp a six-foot tarpon in an explosion of blood.
Captain Justin Moore, my guide, told me that a shark is unlikely to catch a healthy adult tarpon, but an exhausted fish is vulnerable. That is why Moore, and most charter boat captains, are exceptionally careful about making sure a fish is thoroughly revived before releasing it. They also avoid excessively light lines that guarantee a prolonged fight.
Moore, who fishes out of Anna Maria and has never failed to lead me to tarpon, won’t allow the taking of a fin as a trophy, once a popular way to memorialize a catch. He believes it can lead to a dangerous infection. Hovland, who notes the tarpon has the largest fin of any fish, agrees, saying, “That’s a good captain.”
Such thoughtfulness on the part of Florida anglers is a big reason the Silver King remains an iconic symbol of Florida’s coast.
A visit to the Florida Aquarium will give you a stunningly close look at this strange and magnificent fish. And thanks to smart conservation regulations, you also have a good chance of sighting a Silver King in the wild.