Tarpon, Megalops atlanticus
Tarpon are large, migratory fish that occur in coastal and inshore waters of the western
Atlantic Ocean. They are found seasonally in all of Florida’s coastal waters and occur in
peninsular Florida waters year-round. While generally inhabiting marine or brackish
waters, tarpon are known to travel for considerable distances up freshwater rivers.
Spawning seems to be restricted to offshore waters such as the east coast of Florida to
Cape Hatteras, the Florida Straits, west central Florida, the southwestern Gulf of Mexico,
and the outer continental shelf and slope of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, but the exact
locations of spawning are unknown. Females grow more quickly than males and appear
to reach older ages (Table 1, Crabtree et al. 1995). The maximum observed age for male
tarpon was 43 years, whereas the oldest reported female was 55 years. Females become
sexually mature at about 50 inches fork length (FL) and 10 years of age. Spawning occurs
during April–August; peak spawning activity occurs during June and July in south Florida
waters (Crabtree 1995; Crabtree et al. 1997).
Larvae and small juvenile (<5 inches standard length) tarpon are primarily plankton
feeders, preying on copepods and ostracods, mosquito larvae, and detritus (Wade 1962,
Odum 1971; Robins 1978). Once tarpon attain sizes of five inches or more they gradually
switch from copepods to small fish such as killifish, mosquitofish, silversides, and mullet
(Rickards 1968; Odum 1971). Adults feed both nocturnally and diurnally on a variety of fish
species, such as mullet, marine catfishes, pinfish, sunfish, sardines, silversides,
needlefish, and anchovies, and shrimp, and crabs (Babcock 1951; Wade 1962; Rickards
1968; Odum 1971). Predation of adults is limited to other large predators such as sharks.
Young tarpon fall prey to ladyfish, spotted seatrout, dolphins, alligators, other tarpon, and
piscivorous birds such as kingfishers, pelicans, and herons (Killam 1992).
Tarpon anglers are infrequently sampled by the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics
Survey; therefore, estimates of recreational catch are imprecise. The 2005 total landings
estimate was 0 fish in Florida (Fig. 1). Although of questionable reliability, tarpon anglers’
appeared to show an increasing trend through the mid-1990s on both coasts, with a
decreasing trend between 1998 and 2000 (Figs. 2 and 3). Since 2000 there has been a
fairly steady catch rate reported on both coasts (Figs. 2 and 3).
Since 1989, tarpon have been managed using a permit system that requires anglers to
purchase a $50 tag for each tarpon that they intend to possess. If a tarpon is caught and
immediately released, it has not come under possession and no tag is required. All
anglers that use a tag must then provide the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute with
information on the date and location of the tarpon capture, length or weight, how many
other tarpon were captured, and how many anglers were fishing. A summary of the
number of tarpon tags sold and reported harvest in the State of Florida is as follows (K.
Guindon, FWRI, pers. comm.):
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