FORT PIERCE — For Russ Fisher, few things compare with his love for “hunting” bonefish. When he sets out from his home in Key Largo to catch and release one of the state’s most popular inshore sport fish, Fisher said it’s a lot more like hunting than it is fishing.
He prefers to pursue the torpedo-shaped target in shallow, relatively clear waters. There, he can stealthily approach one, or a small school of, bonefish. He selects a fly he thinks will entice one to bite, then makes a presentation he hopes won’t spook the wary trophy and, instead, start a tug of war.
Fisher is like thousands of other anglers who revere bonefish and their grassflats game fish cousins, tarpon and permit. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars — tourist dollars in many cases — are spent specifically on the same type of “hunting” Fisher finds rewarding. But in recent years, an alarm has been sounded by fishing guides who work the waters of Florida Bay and the adjacent Florida Keys.
The bonefish numbers simply seem to be in severe decline. According to Aaron Adams, Bonefish Tarpon Trust director of science and conservation, reports from longtime guides in the Upper Keys indicate bonefish populations there could be off as much as 85 to 90 percent.
So the trust is aiming to reverse the decline. Thursday, several members of the organization’s board of directors toured the aquaculture facility at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute campus in Fort Pierce to see firsthand what its team of scientists can do to help bonefish in Florida Bay, the Keys and elsewhere in Florida. This week, the organization, in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, announced it has awarded Harbor Branch a $3 million grant to fund first of its kind research to design and test and experimental project to grow bonefish for stock enhancement.
“Our larger goal is to try to determine what has happened to the bonefish stock in the Florida Keys and Florida in general,” said Harold Brewer of Key Largo, trust president. “Working with Harbor Branch, we have an opportunity to start from scratch. This is the beginning of a much larger endeavor once we get these steps in place.”
Fisher said Harbor Branch was chosen for this challenging research for a variety of reasons.
“They’ve given us more than a year’s head start over other options we had,” Fisher said. “Not only do they have the skill set, but they have the team to work through the challenges that will arise.”
Paul Wills, associate director for research at Harbor Branch, said he and his team are ready to do something that has never been done before — raise bonefish in captivity and get them to reproduce.
“The current research plan is a five-year project and at least the first half of it is devoted to brood stock conditioning, hatchery components and producing that first fish,” said Wills, who has been with Harbor Branch since 2006, where he and his team produce red drum, pompano and cobia. “I hope we can get to that point much earlier than that — perhaps in the first year — where we’ll be able to get the technology to where we can produce the juveniles.”
But, Wills admits, there a lot of “ifs.”
“Since it has never been done with this species, there is a lot to be done,” Wills said. “What are the water quality requirements of the juveniles? What can we feed them? Can we train them to feed themselves once they are back in the wild? There are a lot of real basic questions to be answered first.”
The bonefish quandary is a tough one. According to the Bonefish Tarpon Trust, recreational fishing in Florida is a $9.3 billion a year business with $7.6 billion coming from the saltwater fishing sector. In the Florida Keys, some $465 million is attributed to flats fishing, where bonefish, permit and tarpon are commonly encountered. The Everglades region accounts for an estimated $1 billion in recreational fishing economic contribution.
Since the trust was founded in 1998 by concerned anglers, guides and scientists, it has worked to enhance fisheries for these species. Recently, it launched a clean water education campaign that focuses on how healthy habitats equates to healthy fisheries.
“We’re concerned at how low the bonefish population is in the Keys and that even as we try to fix the problems, we don’t know if those populations will be able to sustain themselves once whatever it is that is impacting them is fixed,” Adams explained. “This will be one tool we can use in the bonefish restoration toolbox.”
Sport fish restoration is not a new concept, although it has not been done frequently in marine environments. Throughout the country, states including Florida have established hatcheries for freshwater sport fish like largemouth bass, walleye, muskie and more. It’s been done to help the quality of the fishing and the quality of people’s lives, Wills said.
“But we may also be working on bolstering a species that may be in decline,” Wills said. “Do we want to lose that species? As a biologist I have to say ‘No!’ We want to maintain that diversity.”
One of the first steps, Wills said, when it is time to introduce fish to the tanks at Harbor Branch, will be for scientists and trust anglers and guides to catch bonefish with hook and line methods to bring them to Fort Pierce.
Scientific name: Albula vulpes
Nicknames: Silver ghost, white fox, macabi
Food value: Seldom eaten in Florida, too bony
Range: A tropical species caught in the Keys, Biscayne Bay, Bahamas and Caribbean, as well as on the Treasure Coast
Habitat: Shallow mud or grassflats
Game quality: Legendary for speedy, long-distance runs in shallow water
Size: Common from 2 to 10 pounds
State record: 16 pounds, 3 ounces, Robert Schroeder, Islamorada, March 19, 2007
State fishing regulations: Catch and release only; Bag limit: 0 per day.
Conservation information: www.bonefishtarpontrust.org
Source: Sport Fish of Florida by Vic Dunaway, Florida Sportsman magazine