Bonefish & Tarpon Trust has been driving science-based conservation, education and advocacy throughout the southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for nearly 25 years. We recently had a chance to catch up with our friend Nick Roberts; he’s the marketing and communications director for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and the editor of Bonefish & Tarpon Journal. Nick gave us the scoop on some fascinating conservation projects happening right now in some of our favorite saltwater fisheries:
Photo by Dr. Jake Brownscombe
Protecting Spawning Permit
Earlier this year, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) celebrated a big win for spawning permit in the Florida Keys. This spring, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) voted to establish a seasonal fishing closure at Western Dry Rocks, near Key West.
Tracking data from BTT’s Project Permit, sponsored by Costa Sunglasses and the March Merkin Permit Tournament, show that Western Dry Rocks is a critical spawning site for Lower Florida Keys flats permit, attracting about 70 percent of the flats permit tagged in the Lower Keys.
Previous collaboration between BTT, FWC, and the fishing community resulted in the Florida Keys being designated a Special Permit Zone, with more restrictive regulations than in the rest of the state. This included a catch-and-release-only regulation during the spawning season. But research showed that the catch-and-release regulations weren’t sufficient to protect the fishery.
“Although Western Dry Rocks was closed to harvesting fish during the spawn, two studies funded by BTT showed that more than a third of hooked permit were being lost to sharks,” Nick said. “To address this threat to the long-term sustainability of the Keys permit fishery, we worked with the guide community and conservation partners to advocate for a no-fishing closure at Western Dry Rocks during the spawning season. It’s a huge conservation win—now those fish can spawn in peace and help sustain the population.”
Photo by Nick Roberts
Bahamas Mangrove Restoration
“Meanwhile in the Bahamas, we recently launched a large-scale mangrove restoration project,” Nick told us. “That’s being done in partnership with MANG, a Florida-based apparel company, and Bahamas National Trust and Friends of the Environment, both of which are Bahamian conservation organizations.”
In 2019, Hurricane Dorian became one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. It was the worst natural disaster in Bahamas history. BTT’s environmental assessments showed that 69 square miles of mangrove forest were either severely damaged or destroyed. These mangroves, the habitat they provide and the overall fishery represent a sustaining force in the community. Bonefishing contributes $169 million USD annually to the Bahamas economy.
“This project will plant 100,000 mangroves over the next five years,” Nick said. “The idea is not to replant every single mangrove that was lost, because that would be impossible. The goal is to plant mangroves in strategic locations and amounts to kick-start the natural recovery process.
“It’s really a community-based project,” Nick added. “Local students and volunteers are participating in the planting events and helping to raise mangroves in our nurseries. The bonefish guides in the impacted areas play an important role too. They are helping to identify the places to prioritize for restoration and also running boats to take volunteers out to the flats to help replant. It’s neat to see the community working together to make sure this life-sustaining ecosystem fully recovers.”
It’s critical work, and you can help. BTT is offering the chance to sponsor the planting of a mangrove in the Bahamas. All donations include a one-year BTT membership.
“To engage the angling community and the general public in this important project, we created a great membership program through which you can help fund the planting of mangroves—and get some cool BTT gear along with it,” Nick said.
To learn more and to donate, check out the Bahamas Mangrove Restoration Project here.
Photo by BTT
Tarpon Nursery Habitat Restoration
Another great habitat restoration project is happening now in southwest Florida, as BTT works to restore tarpon nursery areas.
“We are working on restoring tarpon habitat in southwest Florida as a way to increase juvenile tarpon populations,” Nick told us. “These fish will go on to contribute to the adult tarpon fishery, which is a significant part of Florida’s sportfishing economy.”
As a part of this project, BTT used three different nursery habitat designs. The goal is to study if habitat restoration is successful and even more specifically, which of those three designs would be most productive for juvenile tarpon. BTT’s scientists are looking at survival rates, growth rates, movement patterns and the abundance of juvenile tarpon and snook, which share the same habitat in many cases.
“At the end of this year we’ll be wrapping up the post-restoration monitoring phase,” Nick explained. “Our scientists are checking each of the three designs to see which one we’ll use as a template in other locations. With that information, we can then make recommendations to other groups working on tarpon habitat restoration. So far, the results are very interesting. It’s showing that there are more tarpon and that they’re growing faster than before the restoration, which is great news.”
Photo by: Ian Wilson
Bonefish Spawning Research
A critical part of conserving bonefish fisheries is to locate spawning areas and make sure those areas are protected. BTT has identified bonefish pre-spawning sites in the Bahamas and along the Belize-Mexico border with great success, and as well as other locations in Belize and Cuba. But we still don’t know where bonefish spawn in the Florida Keys. BTT scientists are now working to help unlock the answers.
“Bonefish have very small home ranges, where they live most of their lives on the same flats,” Nick said. “But they’ll migrate long distances to get to pre-spawning aggregation sites, also called PSAs.”
These PSAs are typically found near the shore, but not on the flats. According to Nick, bonefish will gather in these nearshore areas and will then swim into deeper water at night before spawning at depths of around 250-400 feet.
“Although it took more than a decade of work, we’ve located those PSAs in other countries,” he said. “But we haven’t yet honed in on PSA sites in the Florida Keys. There are a number of theories on why it’s been difficult to find them. For example, it’s possible that the bonefish population in the Florida Keys had declined so much that PSAs were so small they were hard to find. In contrast, PSAs in the Bahamas often number from 5,000 to 10,000 fish and the water is generally clearer than in the Keys. Now that we are seeing a bonefish population increase in the Keys, we are hopeful that PSAs are larger and easier to locate.”
To locate the Keys PSAs, BTT scientists have been tagging bonefish with acoustic transmitters. In an early phase of the project, a 24-inch female bonefish left her home flat near Big Pine Key and was later detected more than 30 miles away. For a fish that typically has a two or three-mile home range, this suggests that she was going to spawn. We still don’t know the exact spawning locations. But information like this is closing the gap.
“Recent breakthroughs in science technology will go a long way toward helping us find the PSAs,” Nick said. “Once we find them, we can begin to assess the stresses the aggregations are facing, and work through advocacy and education to improve the health of the aggregations.”
In addition to tracking bonefish, scientists are also working with legendary Keys fishing guides and using their historical knowledge to hone in on where these PSA sites might be. Gathering local guide knowledge was also an essential part of the identification of PSAs in The Bahamas and Belize.
“This is an especially interesting project because it’s pairing science with the knowledge that these famous guides have amassed over the years,” Nick added. “These guides are able to share where they were seeing fish 20 or 30 years ago. We’re essentially melding the bonefish science with unique historical knowledge of the area to identify these important spawning sites for future conservation.”
International Science Symposium and Flats Expo
On November 12th and 13th,, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust will be hosting the 7th International Science Symposium and Flats Expo in Weston, Florida. This special triennial event is presented by Costa Sunglasses.
“It’s a unique event where people can learn about pressing conservation issues, attend science presentations, get fishing tips from tarpon anglers like Andy Mill, and enjoy a flats-focused fishing expo,” Nick told us. “It’s the best of flats fishing all in one place for two action-packed days.”
This year’s international symposium will include presentations from fisheries scientists from the U.S., Bahamas, Belize, Mexico, Sweden, and elsewhere. The first night will include an art and film festival where BTT’s new permit film produced with Costa Sunglasses will premiere. And the second night will feature an awards banquet honoring Florida anglers Sandy Moret and Chico Fernandez and BTT Research Fellow Dr. Andy Danylchuk for their many outstanding conservation contributions.
You can learn more about the International Science Symposium and Flats Expo here.
How You Can Help
At Anglers All, we are proud to help support the work being accomplished by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. It may be a long way from Colorado, but it’s all home water to us. These habitats provide some of the most spectacular fly fishing opportunities anywhere in the world.
Interested in knowing more? You can start by signing up for the monthly newsletter on the BTT home page. You can also keep up with BTT on Instagram at @bonefishtarpontrust and on Facebook. You can learn more about BTT membership here. Or, click here to fund the planting of a mangrove as part of BTT’s Northern Bahamas Mangrove Restoration Project.
“We are a membership-based organization, so our members play a big role in supporting and advancing our mission,” Nick added. “The more members we have, the bigger our voice. Joining as a member is a great way to help us continue the fight for clean water and healthy fisheries. As the people who love these places and these fish, it’s on all of us to do the necessary work to protect and conserve them..”
We’d like to extend a big thanks to Nick Roberts for taking the time to meet with us and to the rest of the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust organization for their dedication and ongoing work on behalf of some of our favorite saltwater fisheries!