Can Recreational Anglers Help Save Mangrove Habitats?

by Aaron J. Adams
Ph.D. Director of Science and Conservation, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and Senior Scientist, Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

Much the same way that duck hunters have been instrumental in saving wetlands, recreational anglers can lead the charge in saving mangroves and other habitats that are essential to our fisheries. Without healthy habitats, we can’t have healthy fisheries, no matter how much fisheries managers try. And like the duck hunters who helped save wetlands, the benefits will be much greater than just our fisheries—they will extend to a healthier overall coastal environment. Though many coastal habitats that support our fisheries are under threat, mangroves top the list.

Mangrove forests are among the most threatened coastal habitats worldwide, decreasing an estimated 35% globally over the past 50 years, with continuing annual declines of 2%. Some estimates show that Florida has already lost 50% of its mangroves. Ongoing and planned coastal development in Belize, Mexico, The Bahamas and other locations in the Caribbean and worldwide, pose serious threats to mangroves. All this habitat loss and destruction has direct negative effects on our fisheries.

Rather than despair, we owe it to ourselves to follow the model of duck hunters and make habitat conservation and restoration a battle cry, because as go our habitats so go our fisheries. We have a lot going for us.

Tarpon make a great poster-child for this effort because juvenile tarpon depend on mangroves as nursery habitats. If we lose the nurseries, we lose the fishery. Juvenile tarpon use mangrove wetland habitats that are typically low in oxygen. This reduces the number of predatory fish that swim in these backwaters, which increases juvenile tarpon survival. Common nursery characteristics include: mangroves that provides structure and protection from bird predators; a mixture of depths—primarily shallow with some deeper pools for fish to congregate when water levels decrease; tidal exchange through narrow, shallow passages that inhibits access by predatory fishes; freshwater inflow; calm backwaters. As they grow, older juveniles widen their use of habitats to include lagoons, creeks, canals and sloughs, and coastal bays. And they share these nursery habitats with juvenile snook, so by helping tarpon we help snook too. In fact, we may already be behind the 8-ball on habitat: a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature scientific assessment classified the Atlantic tarpon population as “Vulnerable”, in part due to historical and ongoing habitat loss and degradation.

But we have more in our quiver than we know—our fisheries give us ammunition in the fight for habitats.

First, tarpon are charismatic. Leaping tarpon have graced the covers of countless fishing magazines, not to mention the focus of stories in non-fishing newspapers and magazines. “Fishing for dinosaurs” has a broad appeal. And they occur in picturesque locations that are regularly featured in travel magazines.

Second, tarpon are economically important. The annual economic impact of the tarpon fishery in southwest Florida exceeds $110 million, and exceeds $19 million in the St. Lucie Estuary in southeast Florida. Tarpon account for a significant part of the flats fisheries in the Florida Keys, the Everglades, and Belize, which have annual economic impacts exceeding $465 million, $990 million, and $56 million. Tarpon are also very important to flats fisheries in Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and other locations that have not been quantified.

Third, the fishery for tarpon in these locations is catch and release. And with high post-release survival, the fishery is sustainable. This means that if the habitats are healthy enough to support a tarpon population, and the fishery is catch and release, a low environmental impact and sustainable economy is possible.

Fourth, the fishery is culturally important. In many locations, the fishery and those that participate in it are central to the region’s culture. In Belize, for example, the occupation of tarpon guide is passed from father to son, uncle to nephew.

Most important, the anglers and guides who chase tarpon are passionate about the fish and fishery. And we can say the same about those who fish for bonefish and permit.

It was the economic and cultural importance of duck hunting, combined with the passion of duck hunters that created the movement that saved and continues to protect wetlands. These same traits bless our fisheries. We just need to harness them.