The Bokeelia Boat Club had a guest speaker at its meeting Thursday night to discuss the harmful technique some fishermen are using to capture tarpon.
Board of Directors Captain Rhett Morris, who has been a charter captain in Boca Grande since 1995, explained what the organization, Save the Tarpon, is trying to accomplish to save the fishery in Boca Grande Pass last week.
"Save the Tarpon Inc. is a 100 percent volunteer organization without a single paid employee," Capt. Tom McLaughlin, chairman of Save the Tarpon said. "We are made up entirely of concerned community members, anglers, and those around the world who have an interest in the proliferation of tarpon in the Charlotte Harbor region."
Capt. Rhett Morris shared information about the organization Save the Tarpon at the Bokeelia Boat Club last Thursday.
The organization began after McLaughlin decided he wanted to put a stop to the technique of jigging, which he used to do for a living.
"The jigging technique is basically a system of using a weighted snatch hook disguised as a lure in such a way that it can hook a tarpon on the outside of the jaw without actually having the fish strike or bite the lure," he said. "It was adapted from a salmon fishing technique, long since outlawed, where salmon are snagged on the outside of the mouth as they stage in large schools before they spawn."
McLaughlin said virtually the same situation takes place in Boca Grande Pass in May and June.
"Most fish hooked in a place other than the large boney plates of the mouth are lost because it is very difficult to control a fish of this size in the deep current of Boca Grande Pass when it is hooked in a place other than the face, head or tail," he said. "Not having to rely on the fish to bite means you have removed the mechanism that generally protects the fish from excessive aggression by the anglers."
Morris said McLaughlin realized how horribly unethical that style of fishing was and began to make a stance.
"I fished with the jig for two seasons, by the end of the second season we were spending more time experimenting with different hook locations, configurations to see how they affected catch rates rather than just fishing the traditional method of jig, snag fishing," McLaughlin said.
Unfortunately when discussing the issue of jigging to his peers who taught him how to use that technique and rig it so it would snag better, he realized it was falling on deaf ears.
In desperation to look out for the tarpon, McLaughlin began the organization Save the Tarpon, which is seeking its 501c3 status. It formed in May 2012.
"We didn't actually intend to start an organization of this size and scope, but rather just wanted to make our voices, and the voices of our community, heard above those of the company dominating our local natural resource," McLaughlin said. "It really just started out as a website and blog shedding light on the problem at hand and who was behind it. It was so well received by the local community, travelers to our area, and concerned anglers in other places, all over the world in fact, that it quickly turned into a much larger group and became the non-profit organization with nearly 17,000 supporters that it is today."
Morris said many of the guys who fish in the Professional Tarpon Tour Series, which has been going on for approximately 10 years, use the technique jigging.
"The fish are literally being driven from the pass by the constant barrage of gear dragged through them in what can be described a 'vertical net' of sorts because the boats are packed so tightly together," McLaughlin said of the televised series.
Morris said Boca Grande Pass is the only place where thousands of tarpon congregate to in May and June. He said in water that is typically 80 feet deep at its lowest point in the pass reads about 25 feet deep during tarpon season.
The change in depth is due to the 10,000-20,000 tarpon that congregate to the area, Morris said.
"There is no other place like Boca Grande Pass," he said.
Morris said the very first tarpon was caught on hook and line in 1886, which is one of the many reasons why the Boca Grande Pass area blew up as an angler/tourist attraction.
"That one event is what spawned all big game fishing," he said because the individual who caught the tarpon brought it back to New York to show off his catch.
During the Professional Tarpon Tour Series, Morris said, guys, who travel to the area from thousands of miles away, are pounding the tarpon in the middle of Boca Grande Pass.
He said during the tournament every fish is dragged for at least a half a mile out of the water before it is put on the scale to be weighed. Once the tarpon is weighed, Morris said it is put back in the water - unfortunate, he said, many drifts to the shore dead.
"Every Monday morning after the two-day event, there will be dead tarpon on Cayo Costa and Boca Grande," Morris said.
The tarpon that wind up dead on the shore, Morris said, are not eaten by the bull sharks or hammer head sharks that also migrate to the area in May and June. He said that shows just how full the sharks are.
"That's how many are eaten during the snagging process," Morris said.
The tournament, he said, is threatening the very existence for the spawning population of the fish.
Through the organization, Morris said they are sharing firsthand knowledge of what jigging can do to the population of tarpon.
"All the guys who fish around here realize how horrible it is for our tarpon industry," he said. "That's why most people who live here don't do it."
Unfortunately 10 percent of the population that travel to the area from out of town still use the jigging technique, he said.
"We encourage ethical techniques for tarpon in Boca Grande Pass and spread awareness to those who will listen," Morris said.
The organization is striving to create a category in FWC law that states fishermen cannot legally kill the tarpon. Morris said they want the law to include that tarpon are only catch and release.
"We are letting less than 200 people personally threaten the future to that major jewel in Southwest Florida," he said referring to tarpon.
Morris said after they receive that designation, they also want to restrict specific gear that is being used.
"Our hope for Save the Tarpon is that we will first eliminate the televised tournaments that promote unethical and unsportsmanlike fish handling and angling practices as well as restoring the public's access to the fishery by eliminating the snag fishing and hyper aggressive techniques employed by the same anglers on a daily basis," McLaughlin said. "Past that we hope to use the relationships we have forged to promote ethical and conservation minded angling practices through education and outreach."
McLaughlin said they are already funding and assisting with satellite tagging programs of adult tarpon that will be carried out this season by Dr. Jerry Ault of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Biology.
"We hope to continue to try and spearhead research projects that have realistic goals, and real-world results. We believe that because of our intimate connection to the community, we are able to do so in a much more efficient manner than many larger groups," he said.
For more information about the organization visit www.savethetarpon.com.