Tarpon, frequently referred to by anglers as “silver kings,” are a prized game fish of saltwater anglers along the Gulf Coast. In the early 1900s, future presidents flocked to coastal cities across the Gulf for a chance to catch one of these magnificent fish. However, as tarpon populations in the northern Gulf of Mexico began to decline in the 1960s, so did the number of tarpon fishermen.
Tarpon declines are thought to result from a combination of fishing pressure and coastal development altering rivers and estuaries where juvenile tarpon reside until adulthood. Today’s tarpon fishery is primarily catch and release, with few tarpon kept as trophies. Although tarpon are not consumed in the United States, they are harvested in many Latin and South American countries for their meat and roe, and are considered a delicacy in some African countries, where it is served during special occasions such as marriage ceremonies and festivals.
Tarpon are an ancient fish, and aspects of their biology further contribute to their vulnerability. They are slow growing and can live for over 80 years. During this time, tarpon can grow to over 8 feet long and well over 200 pounds. Tarpon are one of the most fecund fish species; once mature (about 10 years old), an individual female is capable of producing over 20 million eggs per year!
Tarpon have been relatively well studied in other parts of the Gulf of Mexico (Florida, for example), but we know less about the tarpon we see off our coast. Given the cultural significance of tarpon, we sought to better understand their movements, migrations and habitat use in Mississippi and Alabama.
In July 2018, we deployed satellite tags on 10 tarpon as they moved westward on their annual migration. Over the past month, the tags have transmitted over 5,000 messages, and have generated nearly 1000 position estimates (note not all messages provide successful position estimates). In general, these tarpon are moving west, often stopping at the Chandeleur Islands; however, a few have ventured offshore before returning inshore and resuming their westward migration.
The information we’re collecting from these 10 fish will help us better define critical habitat areas for these fish and may even provide insight into their spawning behaviors. Recent studies have suggested that tarpon are among the world’s most sensitive fish to the effects of a changing climate.
Sea Grant is helping support our tarpon tagging project. For updates and maps of tarpon travels, check out our Mississippi State University Marine Fisheries Ecology Facebook page every first Tuesday of the month. Also, our recent issue of Gulf Coast Fisherman has more tarpon tagging info.