Known as the "Silver King" because of its revered status as one of Florida's premier gamefish, the tarpon is a hardy giant that can survive in a variety of habitats - and even gulp air for extended periods when in oxygen-poor water!
Tarpon are silvery with green-gray backs. They have a large, bucketshaped mouth with a protruding upturned jaw that allows them to suck in swimming crabs, baitfish and other food. Tarpon have a single short dorsal fin, but the last ray of that fin is extremely long and thin. Their tail is deeply forked.
Tarpon are ancient creatures with a fossil record reaching back to prehistoric times. They can reach lengths of 8 feet, weigh up to 280 pounds, and live in excess of 50 years.
Tarpon are found in temperate estuaries throughout Florida, including Tampa Bay. They also are found in marine waters, along beaches, and around coral reefs. Adults on Florida's West Coast are believed to spawn offshore in deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Their larvae drift with the currents toward the shore, reaching their estuarine nurseries in about a month. There they undergo a transformation from larvae into tiny replicas of their eventual adult versions. These juveniles make their way into marshes and mangrove swamps where they will spend the first year of their lives, growing to about one foot long. They grow rapidly and reach sexual maturity at about 10 years of age. Although tarpon are often observed participating in a pre-spawning behavior called "daisy-chaining" - in which they swim together in a tight circle - scientists have never actually seen tarpon spawning or collected their fertilized eggs.
Tarpon fishing is Florida today is primarily catch-and-release. They are not considered good to eat because they are so bony, but they are highly soughtafter sportfish. Hooking a 150-pound tarpon is like being tied to the wing of a fighter jet because of their scorching runs and powerful leaps, in which they often catapult themselves several feet in the air. Tarpon tournaments are popular in Florida, and the Tampa Tarpon Tournament has been conducted since before World War II. This tournament was suspended for several years in the 1970s and early 1980s because water quality was so poor that few tarpon were found in Tampa Bay. But as water quality began to improve in the mid-1980s, tarpon began to return. Today, Tampa Bay supports a thriving tarpon population targeted by hundreds of anglers during the "tarpon season" of April through August.
TBEP License Plate
The tarpon's resurgence is a symbol of the impressive recovery of Tampa Bay itself. For that reason, the "Silver King" is featured on the Tampa Bay Estuary license plate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Proceeds from sales of the "Tarpon Tag" fund community grants for bay restoration and education.
State researchers are enlisting the help of anglers to learn more about tarpon growth rates, migration patterns and abundance. They are asking fishermen who catch tarpon to collect a small sample of DNA by rubbing the jaws of the fish with an abrasive pad. To learn more about this project, and to request a DNA sampling kit, visit http://www.floridamarine.org ∞.