It’s safe to say that Boca Grande, Florida, was built by a fish. A very strong fish.

As far back as the mid-1800s, the economy of this idyllic fishing village blossomed as news spread of the high-flying, hard driving silver kings. In 1897, a Chicago developer opened The Tarpon Inn about the same time an article in Harper’s Weekly, illustrated by famed artist Frederic Remington, touted the Charlotte Harbor area as a mecca for tarpon hunters. By 1911, when A.J. Dimock’s, The Book of Tarpon, was published, Boca Grande was riding a silver wave. 

These days, the economy is still fueled by tarpon, but a long-running battle continues to rage over protecting the fish that holds Boca Grande’s future in its jaws. As Lew Hastings, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce puts it, “If the fishery collapses, the economy will soon follow.” 

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Tournament Troubles

Tarpons stack up like sardines by the thousands in Boca Grande Pass during May and June as they prepare for their annual spawn. Experts speculate that the configuration of the pass, the crabs that wash through, the sandbars and the deep holes have made this place tarpon heaven. But it’s during the pre-spawning season when the pressure reaches a crescendo. Not only do tourists flock to the area for a chance to hook a leaping beast, but it’s also when the Pro Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) and the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament (WRTT) take place. Both tourneys draw great crowds, but each has divergent philosophies of how to catch the prize. And therein lays the controversy.

The storm intensified in May of this year, when best-selling author and former fishing guide Randy Wayne White withdrew sponsorship from PTTS. In a letter published by the local press, White, who is an owner of Doc Ford’s Restaurant (named for his most famous fictional character), explained that he did not want his restaurant be a sponsor of a tournament that practiced jigging for tarpon. Jigging is the common term used for snagging a tarpon with a hook anywhere on its body — the head, belly, anus or whereever. 

“I’m not blaming guides for jig fishing, but it’s altogether something else to sponsor an event that not only endorses snag fishing, but actually encourages it,” White said.

Critics oppose snagging for many reasons, citing that it’s neither sporting nor does it follows the basic ethos of fishing. And, it’s a far cry from drifting though the pass with live bait from a rickety 12-foot canoe, as anglers did at the turn of the century. Local fisherman Bill Caldwell doesn’t fish from a canoe, but he did catch his first Boca Grande tarpon in 1961.

“Since then, I’ve caught thousands on live bait,” Caldwell said. “We usually catch them from 4 a.m. until sunlight or 4 p.m. until dark when the fish are feeding. However, the jig fishermen can catch them at all times of the day because they’re just snagging them. They use bottom finders to stay on top of the school so they can drop their jig into the fish. When they feel their line bump a fish, they just reel like crazy and hook them in the clipper or eyeball or whatever.” 

On a busy day, or during the PTTS, when dozens of boats are frantically buzzing around jockeying for position, it’s a spectacle to behold.

“It’s too much pressure on the fish,” Caldwell said. “The consequences are horrendous. Their natural behavior has been altered. Plus, it has opened the door for sharks come in and feed.”

A major criticism with jig fishermen is that the lighter tackle they use extends the fight and makes the tarpon more susceptible to shark attacks.

“We used to have the occasional hammerhead,” Caldwell said. “But sharks are quick learners, and the jig guys tire the fish out making it easier for the sharks to get the fish. Now we have schools of bull shark terrorizing the tarpon.”

From talking to local guides and fishermen, you’d think that the jig fishermen should be banished to some soulless hell hole where jig fishing is punishable by death. But the science is not so clear, and a study by Florida’s Fish & Wildlife some 10 years ago further clouded the issue.

“Some people refer to that study as showing no difference in mortality between jigging and live bait fishing,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, a scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory and director of operations at the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. “But the sampling was so small and the error differential was so large, that I would say the results were inconclusive. There’s really no science to support either side of the issue. What we need is a long-term study to learn more about this issue.”

Yet, many continue to cite the decade-old FWC study as proof that jigging is an acceptable method to hook a tarpon and that the population is as healthy as when Teddy Roosevelt fished here in 1917. Others, such as the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, are worried that the fishery is in danger and could collapse like it did at Port Aransas, Texas, in the 1960s. Once called the “tarpon rendezvous of the world,” Port Aransas was a prolific tarpon fishery until overfishing killed the golden goose. Today, some 50 years later, the fishery is just beginning to show a pulse.

“The Charlotte Harbor area generated $110 million in residential recreational fishing alone in 2009,” Hastings said. “And that doesn’t even include tourist recreational fishing. “

Enter Joe Mercuiro, the high-profile director of the PTTS and commentator for the tournament’s television series. He’s also the recipient of considerable angst in Boca Grande.

“We consulted with scientists when we started this tournament eight years ago,” Mercurio said. “We’re an all catch-and-release tournament and we’re the only tournament that provides DNA tagging on every fish we can feasibly tag. In fact, we give $10,000 to buy DNA kits for recreational fishermen to use. When a fish gets weighed, we use a specially designed wet hoist so the fish is lifted out of the water safely. The hoist is made with a fabric that does not harm the fish’s protective coating. Our methods follow strict conservation guidelines. Plus, keep in mind, if a fish is foul hooked, it’s disqualified. So, if our participants were jigging, those fish wouldn’t earn any points and they couldn’t win.”

But if the PTTS focuses so much attention to conservation, why is the tournament under such scrutiny? 

“I think people want to point the finger at us because our tournament has been successful and we have a lot of boats on the water. It can get hectic out there and I guess some people are offended by that. However, that doesn’t mean we’re having a negative effect on the tarpon population.”

Mercurio’s tournament draws sponsorships from big players in the fishing industry and his PTTS television program is broadcast worldwide. Nonetheless, critics of the PTTS are becoming increasingly vocal. The Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association has produced a video that targets the PTTS as putting tremendous pressure on the fishery. The video shows fishing boats packed together, zigzagging wildly in a state of general chaos. The camera also zooms in on a series of fish that have been snagged in the head area. The traditional fishing method the guides use is to drift through the pass trailing live bait. If the tarpon aren’t biting, they don’t catch fish. 

Dr. Adams has other concerns about the PTTS’s methods. “I’m less concerned with the jigging than with what happens after the fish is caught,” Adams said. “The quicker you get the fish back into its natural environment, the better. But the PTTS has their weigh-in station back at the beach, so the fish gets dragged in to get weighed before they’re released. That puts a tremendous amount of stress on these fish.

“After the weigh in, the fishermen lift the fish out of the water for a photo, which is added stress. The worst part is that they’re weighing and handling the largest fish, which are the egg bearing females, so you’re risking the life of the very fish that perpetuates the species.”

More recent evaluations than the decade-old FWC study have found that juvenile tarpon recover fairly well from over-handling, but larger adult tarpon do not, thereby increasing the chance of mortality significantly. The overwhelming evidence tells us that large tarpon should be brought to the boat as quickly as possible and then released. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that these big mamas will die.

In 1983, the Boca Grande Club started the Boca Grande Club Invitational fishing tournament, which eventually became the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament. In 1991, the Chamber of Commerce took over the event. In its heyday, the tourney paid out prizes of more than $175,000 and attracted fishermen from all over the world. But the tournament was discontinued in 2005 after 22 years when participation began to wane.

“The tarpon were leaving,” Hastings said. “If someone pays that much to join a tourney, they want to catch fish.”

This year, the chamber resurrected the WRTT with a renewed focus on conservation.

“We thought the 30th anniversary was a good time to bring it back,” Hastings said. “But we wanted to minimize the pressure on the fish.”

With that in mind, the WRTT allows live-bait fishing only and they don’t weigh the fish.

“The science is in. We use heavier tackle so we can get the fish to the boat and have a quick release right where the fish is caught rather than dragging it to the beach. Also, winners are determined by the number of fish caught rather than who catches the biggest fish.”

Fishery experts have pointed out for years that “the biggest fish wins” concept is the worst possible scenario, considering those fish are generally females that produce eggs at exponentially larger levels than smaller females.

“We don’t want to see the biggest fish win, because they are the roe bearing females and that’s a recipe for disaster,” Hastings said. 

Death to the King

The PTTS tournament runs for six consecutive weekends and for three hours per day. The TV show that Mercurio hosts is an adrenaline-packed program that reaches a lot of fans and spotlights the Boca Grande area.

“We’re helping to promote tourism and the area to people all over the world,” Mercurio said. “It’s good for the local economy.”

But the images also display what a circus on the water looks like. Boats are packed in so tight that Mercurio can interview fishermen catching tarpon on nearby boats without raising his voice.

According to Hastings, that’s not an image the Chamber of Commerce embraces.

“The perception out there is that Boca Grande is a zoo because that’s what they see on TV. We want them to come here and enjoy their fishing experience.”

To make matters worse, the PTTS is being blamed for numerous dead tarpon that have turned up after each PTTS weekend this year. Photos of lifeless tarpon have been posted all over the Internet as the battle cry has gotten louder. 

Grande Challenges

While the PTTS clearly puts a lot of stress on the fish, there are also other issues facing Boca Grande and Florida’s tarpon fishery in general. Florida has lost 50% of its mangroves, the nursery for tarpon and many other species of game fish. Efforts must be made to rebuild mangroves and protect what is still remaining.

In the Peace River, upstream from Boca Grande, is the Mosaic Company, which extracts some two billion pounds of phosphates from Florida’s soil per year, according to the website for People to Protect the Peace River. Runoff and discharge from the phosphate plant ends up in the estuarial system, a key habitat for the crabs that tarpon feed on.

Whether it’s beach erosion, hurricanes, waterfront developments or gas discharged from two-stroke engines, there are a lot of contributing factors that can damage sensitive watersheds. However, while winds, waves and weather are impossible to control, tournament rules can be altered with a stroke of the pen.

Changing with the Times

If you dive into the tarpon debate at Boca Grande, it’s quickly evident that pressure is continuing to mount against the PTTS, Joe Mercuiro and the way that tournament operates. There’s a rising tide discrediting jigging. There are respected experts rallying against dragging fish to weigh stations and lifting them from the water for photo ops. Using light tackle weakens the tarpon and makes them easier prey for sharks. Perhaps most important is that the tournament is targeting the biggest, egg-bearing fish, and many of those females probably don’t survive to spawn again.

If the PTTS doesn’t change, the tournament risks losing credibility, which could lead to an exodus by sponsors and an end to the tournament altogether. Or the unthinkable could happen. Boca Grande could become the next Port Aransas and another example of how reckless passion killed a king.

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