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Feliz Belize: Tarpon Tagging in Belize

University of Miami's tarpon tagging expedition in Belize supports a $6 billion industry in the United States.

August 21, 2014
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For decades, tarpon migrations have been somewhat of an enigma. The Belize Tarpon Tagging Expedition is trying to resolve that. This expedition program, in its second year, consists of a partnership between University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, El Pescador Resort, and Front Range Anglers.

The question for this expedition: find out if our (U.S.) fish, are their (Caribbean countries’) fish? This question, originally posed by IGFA Hall of Famer Billy Pate, has become the driving force behind this program.

“About 10-15 years ago, we knew nothing of the connectivity of tarpon populations,” says Dr. Jerald Ault, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “The conventional wisdom was that it was a state’s problem, but it also had no international connection.”

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Dr. Ault led the program in that direction. In 2001, Dr. Ault and his team began with satellite archival tags to look at the connections of the populations, the spawning areas, and the ocean habitat use. Since its inception, over 139 tags have been deployed in Florida and the Florida Keys, Louisiana, Mexico, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Trinidad, British Virgin Islands and Angola, Africa.

“We discovered that the tarpon fishery is connected from Texas to Florida to even 500 miles east of Cape Cod,” he says. “We are here in Belize to find out if there is a Caribbean connection. We sense that it is one large unit. In the past, we’ve tagged fish in Trinidad that have traveled up through the Antilles Chain to go to Puerto Rico, and then migrate to the Bahamas and South Florida. We believe it’s one large connected resource.”

Besides the conservation of tarpon, there is a major economic impact that coincides with this tarpon fishery. Figuring out how to maintain the tarpon fishing industry in the United States is finely connected to how to sustain the tarpon fishery in Latin America.

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“The tarpon fishery of the Southeastern United States/Gulf of Mexico needs to be thinking of these tarpon as a single unit,” he says. “It’s important because the tarpon fishery in that area supports about $6 billion of industry and nearly 100,000 jobs — it’s a big deal to that area.”

This study can be more than just science. It is a passion for some. Adam Marton, the Belize expedition leader, drives that ideal. He is based in Chicago, Illinois and can be seen practicing his fly-casts in urban parks around Chi-Town. However, during this expedition, he runs the whole gamut on the program — from workshops to gathering volunteer anglers to tagging the tarpon himself.

“The goal is to advance science and do whatever we can to make sure that this fishery doesn’t get loved to death,” Marton says. “If we care for it and nurture it, we stand a really good chance at making sure it’s here for our children’s children.”

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The expedition’s specific goals are to tag tarpon that exceed 80 pounds. These fish are considered sexually mature, and therefore, migratory. Tarpon under that weight tend to be residential. Marton is fully dedicated to making this expedition successful for a future fishery that not only exists within Belize, but even the entire Gulf.

“We are going to do what needs to be done,” he says. “With us tagging these fish, the biologists at the University of Miami will have the devices in place to collect the data that’s going to enable them to understand the tarpon in Belize. And if we’re successsful, we’re going to learn critical information about the tarpon population in Belize and the region, possibly the whole Gulf.”

The most recent tagging expedition took place on Ambergris Caye at El Pescador Resort — a beautiful setting that makes one forget that technology exists. The resort, which is 2.5 miles from San Pedro Town, stood as the host and provider of guides. It will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in November. The long-standing history of this resort shows that it’s not only some destination, but a place that supports initiatives such as this expedition.

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“It’s one of the original three lodges on Ambergris Caye with third-generation guides,” says Ali Flota, owner and general manager of El Pescador. “The resort started with four guides and it went down the line, sons and nephews kept training one another.”

And anglers feel that lifetime of knowledge as they take morning runs on the 24-foot pangas that cruise the flats off Ambergris Caye. Kechu Marin has been guiding these waters for over 30 years. It’s his home and workplace, just like it was for his father before him.

“My father was one of the first guides at the El Pescador,” Marin says. “My four brothers are all guides in the area, my brother Emir and I strictly guide for El Pescador. It’s a family tradition.”

This entire expedition has all the right elements: The guides know the spots, the anglers catch the fish, the tags are deployed, and the fish can be tracked. It’s like an assembly line for the right equation to find out the tarpon migratory patterns — in turn — advancing science and supporting the economy in more than one place at a time.

The 2015 Belize Tarpon Tagging expedition will be August 15-22 and El Pescador Lodge and Villas will again play host.

For more information, contact Adam Marton, [[email protected]](mailto: [email protected]).

For arrangements and more information on Belize, contact the Belize Tourism Board.

Tarpon Fly FIshing Belize - 1

Tarpon Fly FIshing Belize – 1

University of Miami’s tarpon tagging expedition needs an adult tarpon, exceeding 80-pounds, for proper tracking of migratory patterns. Those under 80-pounds tend to be residential tarpon, rather than the migratory adult.
Belize Fly Fishing Stu Apte

Belize Fly Fishing Stu Apte

Hall of Famer Stu Apte and the El Pescador crew prepare for the morning run.
Belize Fly Fishing

Belize Fly Fishing

Sunrise at El Pescador’s docks
Belize Fly Fishing

Belize Fly Fishing

A rising sun behind a fish camp, where locals are hired to spend days commercial fishing. They live in this house-on-stilts as their temprorary home.
Belize Fly Fishing - 4

Belize Fly Fishing – 4

The Duo: Adam Marton (expedition leader) and Emir Marin (El Pescador guide) on the hunt.
Belize Fly Fishing - 5

Belize Fly Fishing – 5

Anglers and guides on the lookout for cruising tarpon along South Beach. Most boats used are Pangas, which have a high bow and a narrow beam.
Belize Fly Fishing - 6

Belize Fly Fishing – 6

Marton speaks on the background and use of the tags.
Belize Fly Fishing - 7

Belize Fly Fishing – 7

Fly box filled with Black Deaths, Clousers, and more
Belize Fly Fishing Stu Apte -1

Belize Fly Fishing Stu Apte -1

Stu Apte demonstrates the proper stance when fly fishing for tarpon by tying a dumbbell on the line through a tree hole. “The changes to the resort, since I was last here in 1992, are phenomenal. The resort is really fantastic.”
Belize Fly Fishing - 8

Belize Fly Fishing – 8

El Pescador guide Emir Marin pulls in a 40-pound plus tarpon.
Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon

Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon

The “rolling of the tarpon” is due to the water temperature rising. The sun sucks the oxygen out of the water, in turn, the tarpon rolls to grasp for air.
Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon - 2

Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon – 2

The tagging expedition’s guiding principle is to find out if the tarpon that show up in U.S. waters are the same in the Caribbean.
Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon - 9

Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon – 9

Marton suggests tickling the tarpon’s tongue with your thumb to help revive a tarpon.
img_2373.jpg
Female tarpons can live longer than 50 years.
Belize Tarpon Tagging

Belize Tarpon Tagging

Seconds after the photo was taken, T245 tag was released and swam out of view. While the first few weeks are nail biters, early indications show that T245 is on the move and the tag is working. Photo Courtesy of Adam Marton
Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon - 10

Belize Fly Fishing Tarpon – 10

In the waters of Belize, crab fishermen mark their traps with oil can patterns on sticks.
Belize Fly Fishing - 10

Belize Fly Fishing – 10

Anglers and guides look for sudden flashes in the water, which are sun reflections from the scales of either tarpon, permit or bonefish.
Belize Fly Fishing - 11

Belize Fly Fishing – 11

Angler Dave Decker stands tall over the waters to find any movement.
Belize Fly Fishing - 12

Belize Fly Fishing – 12

Kechu Marin, who has been guiding for over 30 years, poles to the honey holes off Ambergris Caye.
Belize Fly Fishing - 13

Belize Fly Fishing – 13

The Green Lizard bar located between Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye on a small island called “The Split” — reason being, a hurricane in the 1960s split the island in two.
Belize Fly Fishing - 14

Belize Fly Fishing – 14

Even though this sign is in spanish, the primary language used in the country is English, since the country was a former British colony. Some Belizeans speak an English-based kriol, using phrases like “let’s go over yonder” instead of “let’s go over there.”
Belize Fly Fishing - 15

Belize Fly Fishing – 15

Kechu and the team take a break from tarpon to catch the elusive permit.
Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador

Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador

El Pescador Resort will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in November. The resort will be expanding and include renovations, yet keeping the colonial feeling.
Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador -2

Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador -2

The sign that says it all — permit and tarpon run the waters off El Pescador Resort.
Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador -3

Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador -3

El Pescador Resort’s pool even has a stunning view.
Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador - 4

Belize Fly Fishing El Pescador – 4

El Pescador’s bar, where rum punch flows and Belkin beers pop through the night.
Belize Fly Fishing - 16

Belize Fly Fishing – 16

Inside El Pescador’s bar sits a fly-tying table for all your needs the night before the morning run.
Belize Fly Fishing - 17

Belize Fly Fishing – 17

Belize City’s port area
Belize City Travel Water Taxi

Belize City Travel Water Taxi

Belize City’s water taxis dock for those heading to the islands off the mainland, including stops at Caye Caulker and San Pedro (Ambergris Caye). Water taxis are affordable and include a beautiful ride in the waters of Belize.
Belize British Honduras

Belize British Honduras

In 1840, Belize was known as British Honduras. It didn’t become Belize until 1973 and gained full independence from Great Britain in 1981.
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