For this installment of “Nonprofit of the Month”, we talked with the folks at Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT). “BTT’s objective is to protect and enhance critical flats habitats, reverse the decline of flats species, and use research findings to influence policy, educate the fishing community and improve resource management for long-term stewardship”. Keep reading to learn more about BTT and all the great things they do for one of our favorite fisheries!

Flylords: BTT  has been a leading voice in bonefish, tarpon, and permit conservation for more than 20 years now. How and why did BTT start?

BTT: BTT was founded in response to the drastic decline in Florida’s bonefish population. Tarpon soon became a focus as well, and then permit. BTT seeks to conserve bonefish, tarpon, permit, and their habitats.

Flylords: If you had to describe BTT in a few sentences to someone who had never heard of you all, what would you say?

BTT: BTT is a non-profit organization whose mission is to conserve bonefish, tarpon and permit—the species, their habitats and the larger fisheries they comprise. As a science-based organization, BTT pursues this mission across the southeastern US, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean through research, conservation, education and advocacy.

Photo courtesy Justin Lewis

Flylords: BTT has obviously grown substantially—what were some of the key factors that allowed this growth?

BTT: Growing support from members and donors, the fishing community of guides and anglers, and corporate sponsors. Our sponsors are conservation-minded companies that play a major role is helping us advance our mission and achieve our conservation objectives. We’re grateful to have their support.

Flylords: Similarly, how do guides and anglers help BTT?

BTT: Guides are on the front lines of the fishery and are instrumental in helping our scientists with their research. Guides let us know about changes they see in the fishery and also donate their time and expertise to help our scientists tag permit, tarpon, and bonefish. Anglers also play a major role. Many are members and help spread awareness of BTT’s work throughout their fishing communities.

Photo courtesy of Jordan Carter

Flylords: BTT is very science and research driven. Can you go into some specifics about how science directs or plays an essential role in your projects?

BTT: BTT is a conservation organization, but what really sets us apart is that we only weigh in on issues if we have reliable scientific evidence.  One issue in particular was the harvest of spawning permit on offshore reefs in the Florida Keys.  Because permit form large schools to spawn, they were easy targets for anglers.  There was a harvest closure in place during spawning season that began in May, but through our acoustic telemetry tracking program we realized that permit actually began to aggregate on the reefs and wrecks in large numbers beginning in April.  These fish would be the first to spawn and weren’t protected by harvest regulations.  We presented our data to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation who then extended the harvest closure to include April.  Without the science, we would not have been able to make our case and ultimately protect the fish we love.

Tagging tarpon keys courtesy of Andrew O’Neil

Flylords: While on topic, do you guys have any ongoing projects you could tell us about?

BTT: The Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project is designed to broaden our understanding of tarpon movement and habitat uses. The results will help shape future conservation measures, including the protection of critical habitats and improvements to fishing regulations. The five-year project, now in year three, uses acoustic telemetry to identify tarpon movement patterns and important habitats. It utilizes an extensive network consisting of thousands of acoustic receivers stretching across the Gulf of Mexico and along the coastline of the Southeastern US. To date, the project has tagged more than 130 tarpon and collected more than 70,000 detections. We thank Maverick Boat Group for its generous support of this important project and its commitment to the conservation of the flats fishery.

BTT-restored August Creek in Grand Bahama. Photo courtesy of Nick-Roberts.

Project Permit, sponsored by Costa, is a nearly 10-year project that is improving permit conservation in Florida. Project Permit began in 2010 as a dart-tagging program. The initial goal was to get a handle on overall permit movements in Florida, to answer the question: Are the permit in the Florida Keys the same fish that anglers fish for in other parts of the state? Project Permit has since expanded to include acoustic telemetry to obtain more specific data on permit movements and habitat use. Data from Project Permit were instrumental in Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s creation of the Special Permit Zone and the expansion of the SPZ’s permit spawning season closure to include the month of April.

To date, more than 1,000 permit have been tagged with dart tags, and more than 130 permit have been tagged with acoustic transmitters. The acoustic tracking portion of the study, originally designed as a three-year study but extended to five years, is now in its final year of tagging. Efforts in 2019 are focused on the Upper Keys, with the aim of determining the extent to which permit migrate north of the Keys to areas where the species is not as well protected. Project Permit will also continue to examine the permit spawning movements between the flats and offshore wrecks and reefs.

Photo courtesy of Jordan Carter.

Flylords: Since 1997, when BTT was founded, how have the fisheries you all strive to preserve changed?

BTT: In the past 20 years, the behavior of anglers has changed which is also changing the behavior of the fish.  With the introduction of better technology (side scan sonar) and social media with everyone posting their catches, it has become easier for anglers to find fish.  This added pressure has changed the way the fish react to certain fishing techniques (engine noise, leader size) and we as scientists have to decipher if there are fewer fish or if they’re just tougher to catch.  We rely heavily on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which is the scientific technique of mapping the history by using reports from long time guides and anglers.  Even with the rise of technology, we consistently see a decline in fish catches across the board which means there is fewer fish out there to catch. We strongly believe this is directly correlated to the negative impacts that humans have had on habitat and water quality.

Bonefish netting for data collection. Photo courtesy of Patrick Williams

Flylords: South Florida’s water crises started receiving national attention this past year—care to tell us about your Habitat is the Future of Florida Fisheries petition? 

BTT: Florida has lost a vast amount of coastal habitat to development, altered water flows, and pollution from nutrient runoff and contaminants entering the watershed. The only way to protect and improve our fisheries is by conserving and restoring the habitat that remains. To do this, we must include Habitat in Marine Fisheries Management Plans.

Florida’s recreational and commercial fisheries generate more than $27 billion annually for Florida’s economy. These fisheries rely on healthy habitats.

Habitat is not part of current fisheries management approaches, and fish populations can only be regulated using seasonal closures, slot limits and bag limits. Regulation alone cannot prevent further decline to our fisheries caused by habitat loss and degradation; a new approach is needed, one that makes habitat a central part of fisheries management.

By signing our petition, citizens can express their support for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to collaborate with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust to create a new way to manage our fisheries that focuses on habitat. This includes habitat identification, habitat protection, habitat restoration, and incorporating habitat into fisheries management plans.

Photo courtesy of Justin Lewis

Flylords: What is your current outlook for these fisheries?

BTT: I think the tides are turning and our agencies are starting to understand the importance of habitat.  Nowadays, everyone looks back at the “good ol’ days” of fishing and our global fisheries seem to be on the decline.  If we are able to protect the natural habitat that’s available and restore the degraded habitat, we’ve got a shot at stopping the declines of our fisheries and the overall hope is to improve them.  Better habitat means more fish and that’s what we’re striving for.

Flylords: How can concerned and/or motivated outdoor enthusiasts help BTT?

BTT: Become a member and get your friends who fish or simply enjoy being out on the water to join as well. Your membership supports BTT’s work to conserve and restore bonefish, tarpon, and permit fisheries.  Join today!

Nonprofit of the Month: INDIFLY

Nonprofit of the Month: Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing

This article was written by Flylords’ Conservation Editor, Will Poston.

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