Aaron Adams is determined not to let the Chesapeake Bay disaster re-occur in Charlotte Harbor.
Growing up, he watched as the Chesapeake Bay fishery collapsed. Fish were driven from the harbor by intense boat traffic and attendant pollution. He said it's likely too late to save Chesapeake Bay but Charlotte Harbor is a different story.
Adams told key Boca Grande fishing officials, including Capts. Frank Davis and Cappy Joiner of the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, that steps must be taken to preserve the Boca Pass tarpon fishery, a clean, renewable resource he valued at $110 million annually.
Here are excerpts of his hour-long talk Feb. 2 at the Boca Grande Community Center Auditorium.
QUESTION: Tarpon have faced threats before haven't they?
ANSWER: In the 1950s, there was an effort to make tarpon off the Carolina coast into pet food. Fortunately, cats and dogs don't like tarpon. Otherwise we probably wouldn't have any left today
Aaron Adams at a glance
Occupation: Senior scientist and Fisheries Habitat Ecology program manager at Mote Marine Laboratory
Phone: (239) 283-1622
Education: bachelor's degree from St. Mary's College in Maryland, a Master's from the College of William and Mary, and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Boston
Credentials: Holds U.S. Coast Guard captain's license. He has lived, worked, and fished on both coasts of the United States, and throughout the Caribbean, where he has conducted fish research for 20 years. Prolific author.
Formative motivation: His pursuit of effective fisheries and habitat conservation are rooted in his years growing up near Chesapeake Bay, when he witnessed the collapse of the Bay's habitats and fisheries. He now lives in southwest Florida where he is director of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust.
Q: Have all tarpon fisheries gained catch-and-release protection?
A: It used to be you'd bring them in, get the trophy shot and haul them to the Dumpster. In some places they still do harvest them for food and trophies.
Q: How does tarpon longevity works against its survival today?
A: Because tarpon take so long, they live up to 80 years, what happened 30 to 40 years ago, we're still seeing the effects now. Imagine if you took away the Baby Boomer generation now what would happen with the U.S. Census. It takes awhile to recover.
Q: Does what happens in other tarpon fisheries worldwide affect the Charlotte Harbor tarpon fishery?
A: Our tarpon are also their tarpon. They are connected.
Q: How big a problem is netting and kill tournaments?
A: South American netting has been a problem. It's all one big population so we know some of those tarpon would end up here and vice versa if they were not killed.
Q: When did the tarpon overfishing problem become acute?
A: In the late 1950s and 1960s, they harvested a lot of tarpon and the population crashed, especially in Brazil and Colombia. It continues to decline even now. Fishermen became too efficient. Because tarpon grow slowly - for the first 10 years they don't reproduce at all - so they're very susceptible to over-fishing. We're at a deficit compared with 40 or 50 years ago.
Q: With 50 percent of the Florida tarpon habitat destroyed, is it possible to recreate the silver king population?
A: All of the land surrounding Boca Grande used to be a large mangrove lagoon. It was kind of like juvenile tarpon central. If that kind of habitat is lost, so is the ability of the tarpon population to procreate and make future generations. We do have the ability to recreate some of the habitat that used to be there. With a little creative engineering, a lot of juvenile tarpon habitats can be created
Q: How effective is catch-and-release in saving tarpon lives?
A: Research shows about 5 percent, if you let them go and there aren't a lot of sharks in the area, 5 percent don't make it for whatever reason. If you haul them in a boat, the chances for survival go way down. Keep them in the water.
Q: What shape is Charlotte Harbor's habitat in today?
A: With the amount of development that's already occurred in Charlotte Harbor you can get the idea the habitat has already been lost. But Charlotte Harbor, relative to most places in Florida, still has a lot of habitat. Some of it could use some improvement.
Q: What whets the appetite of fish surrounding Gasparilla Island?
A: What they eat is limited by habitat quality. We went and puked some snook - I know it's bad - but the old way was to split them open. This is how we got diet information for juveniles. Around 15 percent of them cannibalize juvenile snook. A fish that eats other fish, 50 percent of them will have full stomachs. That's one way to gauge the health of the habitats. It's just like humans. If all we ever do is eat McDonald's, at some point we will be visiting the doctor for health issues. If we have a diverse diet, we'll be better off. Same thing for snook and tarpon.
Q: Why is Boca Pass such a hot spot for tarpon migration?
A: The seasonal movement for tarpon goes from Chesapeake Bay all around to the Gulf Mexico and then they hang out in the Caribbean. In other words, it's all one big population. The advantage we have is Boca Grande is kind of like Ladies Night at the bar. They come here for the spawning. So we've got that going for us.
Q: Was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 ever a danger to tarpon around Boca Grande, who can hang out as far as 100 miles offshore?
A: I wasn't really concerned about ever seeing oil because of the Loop Current that comes around Southwest Florida. Unless we were dealing with a lot of west winds, we're not ever going to see any oil from Louisiana. But we do have to be concerned about the oil they are drilling of the west coast of Cuba now. If they have a spill, we're going to see that oil.
Q: Does preserving recreational fishing make economic sense?
A: Statewide, recreational fishing is estimated to be worth more than $8 billion a year. That's worth more than citrus, agriculture and Big Sugar.