Recently, Flylords had the chance to catch up with Dr. Ross Boucek, to talk more on Bonefish Tarpon Trust’s efforts to help preserve Permit populations, and protect them during their spawning season. Ross earned his Masters and Doctoral degrees at Florida International University, studying how weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and extreme cold events, impact sport fisheries in Florida Bay and Everglades National Park. Now, Ross spends most of his time in the Keys, either conducting BTT science, or working with anglers, and management agencies to turn BTT science into meaningful management and regulatory changes that improve Keys fishery.

ross looking off into the distance
Images courtesy of Ian Wilson-Navarro

Flylords: How long has BTT been fighting for saltwater game species?

ross coming up in the boat

Ross: We have been fighting for saltwater gamefish species for more than twenty years. Many of our valuable flats fishes, like bonefish, permit, and tarpon, have not been closely tracked by fisheries managers because no one harvested them. BTT was founded because bonefish in the Keys started declining and no one was doing anything about it. We brought attention to these valuable gamefish, as well as tarpon and permit.

releasing a bonefish underwater

At our beginning, we didn’t know much about these fish, so any type of restoration work to improve the fishery would have been like trying to hit a bullseye in the dark. For this reason, we focused on learning about the species and doing the science needed to figure out how we can keep the flats fishery going. This science is what guides our conservation work, done through habitat restoration, habitat protection, improved regulations, and other conservation measures.

Flylords: What do you think has been your organization’s biggest accomplishment to date?

flats trails

Ross: We have done a lot of seemingly impossible things to get these fisheries protected across the Caribbean. In the Bahamas, we worked in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust, and the guide and angling community to develop six national parks on iconic bonefish flats and spawning sites. These national parks protect those valuable areas from becoming a hotel or cruise ship dock. It is pretty cool to be a part of a small group that can make big things like this happen.

Flylords: Tell us about the recent permit initiative?

fish tailing

Ross: Project Permit is a decade-long initiative to identify and protect permit habitats and minimize unsustainable fishing practices that threaten the Florida Keys trophy permit fishery. Sadly, over the last 20 years, the permit fishery in the Keys has been declining. If we look at the permit fishery like a doctor would look at a sick patient, the symptoms of the declining fishery seem to suggest that too many fish are dying at their spawning aggregations.

To try and fix this problem, we worked with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), our state fisheries agency, to establish a harvest closure during spawning season. A catch and release fishery occurs at the spawning sites because fishing is easy for them—you can hook 10 permit a day. But, because there are so many sharks around those spawning aggregations looking for easy meals, about 2 in 5 of those hooked fish are eaten by sharks prior to being landed. That is not sustainable. So, we are working with the state to make one of their most important spawning sites, a place called Western Dry Rocks, a seasonal no fish zone to keep these fish safe, and rebuild our permit fishery.

permit fish in the water

Flylords: How can anglers make a positive impact on that fishery?

Ross: It is pretty crazy that we don’t have the same respect of spawning fish in the ocean as you do with freshwater fish. If you kill fish when they are spawning, a fishery will always be in trouble, whether it is a trout on a redd or permit spawning on a coral reef.

For permit in the Keys, we are fighting to make one of their critical spawning sites a seasonal no fish zone to stop those spawning fish from being fed to sharks. The science is there, it’s now a policy decision. We 100% need anglers and guides who care about protecting spawning fish, permit, and fly fishing, to take two minutes to make their voices heard on the topic. If you go to http://www.btt.org/protectpermit, we have the information and link to write FWC. Permit will 100% appreciate you for doing this.

Flylords: How important are permit to the Florida Keys?

permit
Image courtesy of BBFL

Ross: Permit in the Lower Keys are a lifestyle, obsession, and an addiction for many. Probably 50% of the Key West flats guides have permit tattoos. Permit are also extremely economically valuable. They are a part of a half a billion-dollar a year flats fishery in the Florida Keys. And, a thriving permit fishery is essential to businesses of 180 full-time Lower Keys fishing guides.

Because they are so hard to catch, each fish is extremely valuable on its own. For instance, the best permit guides in the Keys catch about 30 – 40 permit a year on fly. That is spread across about 180 trips targeting them. So, each permit that is caught on fly is worth about $5,000 dollars just in guide fees alone. Chasing permit on the flats is a crucial part of our economy.

Flylords: We had a chance to spend a day with you and Captain Will Benson, and you ended up landing a monster permit. What did this fish mean to you?

permit in the net

Ross: The experience was really special for a couple of reasons. First, we surgically implanted a transmitter in the permit and will get movement data on the fish for five years. Second, it was one of the largest fish we tagged in Project Permit. Third, we caught it on one of the most iconic permit flats in Key West. Finally, we caught it with Captain Benson. He has been on the front line of the permit conservation fight at Western Dry Rocks. Being able to catch and tag it with Will was really special!

permit tagging device

We lined up a tagging trip in April. I live on a sailboat, and during the quarantine, I sailed to the best permit flats in Key West. We had been living in the permit grounds for about a month before we met up with Will. The morning we planned to fish, the weather sucked, it was cold, super cloudy, and rainy. Not looking promising to catch a permit and get a tag out. Will picked us up anyways, and we decided to go. We checked a few spots, but all of the permit we saw that day were tiny and too small to tag. Finally, we stopped by The Flat. We saw a school of smaller fish, I threw a crab to them, and out of nowhere the monster pushed the small fish out of the way, stuck his head out of the water, and inhaled the live crab we were using. Thirty minutes later, we landed the fish, tagged it and we sent it on its way. It was a day I won’t forget anytime soon.

Flylords: Are you working on anything interesting right now you would like to mention?

bonefish after release

Ross: We are on the hunt for bonefish pre-spawning aggregations in the Florida Keys. Bonefish aggregations are elusive in the Keys, and no one has never discovered one. Bonefish likely form these pre-spawning aggregations in the same places jetskis, sunset cruise boats, and booze cruisers like to go. All of these activities will disrupt their spawning behaviors, and how successful their spawn is.

Right now, we are tagging and tracking bonefish and following these tagged fish to their spawning sites. Once we find where they spawn, we will work with different agencies to make sure that noisy boaters don’t mess with horny fish trying to get it on!

some noisy boaters

We also had a chance to sit down with Costa Guide, Captain Will Benson to discuss his involvement with BTT’s initiatives

Flylords: Who is Captain Will Benson? will benson

Will: I am a Florida Keys native husband and father of two.  Ione World ANGLING and pay my bills by guiding clients to the big three Tarpon Bonefish permit.  My specialty is permit on Fly I have one for major grand championships.  I have involved myself with conservation both as a leader of the lower keys guides association and a leader of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.  I would like to see my passion and livelihood sustained for generations to come and I hope to leave the fishery in a better condition than when I found it.

Flylords: How big of a part do Permit play in your life? 

will benson with a permit

Will: Permit play an important role in my life not only has dave been a tremendous source of pleasure and pain over the years but they are the financial background for the Benson family.  Permit are virtually a year-round fish in the Florida Keys and therefore are the most sought after target for visiting Anglers coming to fish with me.  Permit are virtually a year-round fish in the Florida Keys and therefore are the most sought after target for visiting Anglers coming to fish with me. Permit is my bread and butter!
Over the years I have witnessed a significant decrease in the general size of the permit that we fish for.  When I was a kid first starting to fish the Florida Keys in the early 90s the average size permit that we would catch would be over 20 pounds.  They were extraordinary amounts of large permit some in the 40 to 50-pound range.  I no longer see those fish and it is a real trophy to catch a permit over 20 pounds with the vast majority of the fish that we catch been just under sexually mature size at about 20 to 22 inches.  In other words, our permit fishery is a juvenile permit fishery for the most part.

Flylords: What has been your involvement with BTT?

Will: My involvement with BBT has been for the majority of my professional career.  I have been both a recipient of the scientific knowledge and an active participant in the gathering of data and spreading the overall message.  I think BBT is a wonderful organization filled with people that really believe and care about our fishery and I am proud to be associated with them!

Thank you to Dr. Boucek, Capt. Will Benson, and BTT for all they do in working to preserve and protect the fisheries we know and love so much. To learn more about BTT’s efforts, CLICK HERE and support the and cause.

Also thank you to organizations like Costa, who’s continuous support fuels these initiatives.

Working with and supporting great conservation organizations like BTT has always been of the utmost importance to Costa. We are glad to sponsor and promote the great work they do protect the fish and the fisheries that our so near and dear to us, our pros, and the fishing community at large.” — Costa Community Manager, Joe Gugino

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