Sapp, PTTS crank up the noise machine – let the damage control follies begin!

Seems Capt. Troy Sapp just might have some explaining to do. And this time, it likely won’t be on some obscure Internet fishing forum.

As we all know, dead tarpon are commonly found floating, beached, bloated and sometimes gutted in or around Boca Grande Pass in the wake of Professional Tarpon Tournament Series weekend events in May and June.

The televised tarpon tournament’s viewers are “treated” to shots of the self-described “organized chaos” of the fight, the catch, the gaff and the drag across the Pass to the scales. What those basic cable subscribers aren’t seeing, however, is what takes place the following day – when the cameras have stopped rolling and the tournament’s touted “Tires Plus Release Team” is nowhere to be found.

After the  PTTS packs up and moves on, the rest of us are, of course, left to deal with the tournament’s morning-after, dead tarpon hangover.  With the creation of the Save the Tarpon this past May, the group joined with state researchers to  focus on DNA sampling what was left of these fish in an effort to learn how – and perhaps why – so many were turning up dead in the tournament’s aftermath. This week the answers began to emerge.

Capt Troy Sapp, Team Yamaha

Capt. Troy Sapp, high-profile PTTS participant and VP of the Florida Guides Association, drags a tarpon to the weigh scale for Team Yamaha.

As most of us have already learned, on June 4  a gutted and dead tarpon was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico not far from Boca Grande Pass less than 24 hours after the PTTS, its cameras and NASCAR-clone wrap boats had left town. A DNA sample was taken and sent, along with several others that day, to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.  Months later, this gutted  fish was positively identified by its DNA as a ‘recapture’ that had been caught, weighed and DNA sampled by Capt. TJ Stewart of Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats during the previous day’s PTTS event.

When last seen, this fish was being hauled to the deepest waters of the Pass to be “revived” by the Tires Plus Release Team. When next seen, it was dead. Slit open from tip to tail in an apparent and botched attempt to send the fish – telltale DNA and all – to the bottom.

Enter Sapp. He’s a Tampa-area fishing guide. He’s a  high-profile participant in the PTTS where he and his Team Yamaha Skeeter boat enjoy plenty of cable TV face time. He’s also senior vice president of the Florida Guides Association.  And in recent days, as the FWRI’s initial DNA study results were being released,  Sapp has taken the point as the damage control guy for the PTTS, his sponsorship deal with Yamaha and, of course, himself.

Here’s what Sapp scrawled on the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum on December 4, 2012. Let’s call this one Exhibit A:

“The STT campaign who’s (sic) sole purpose is to run out of town guides off are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating to promote their cause. Yes it died after release, but no one needs to hide anything.”

It died after release. A perplexing admission from someone who, just days earlier, was still beating the PTTS drum, repeatedly insisting the tournament can’t possibly be blamed for those schools of dead fish routinely found floating in the Pass or washed up on Boca Grande’s beaches in the immediate aftermath of PTTS events. Seems Sapp forgot all about those FWRI scientists in St. Pete who are still sitting on a small mountain of tarpon DNA samples.

And what Sapp also didn’t know as he flogged away on the fish forums, is that among those imaginary dead PTTS tarpon was a very real dead PTTS tarpon. And it was easily and positively traced back to Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat. Sapp’s Team Yamaha, the DNA revealed, had scored its own PTTS tarpon kill.

He likely didn’t know that researchers had scooped the now-dead fish from the Pass less than 45 minutes after Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat had towed the tarpon to the scales during Week 2 of the Women’s PTTS competition. That’s where the initial DNA sample was taken and recorded. And DNA doesn’t lie.

Dead Tarpon on Beach of Boca Grande Pass

This tarpon was found the day following a PTTS tournament.

Chalk one up to science.

But let’s get back to Sapp’s tin foil helmet claim that “the STT campaign … are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating.” It doesn’t merit a response. And it’s not getting one. Not here, that is. But let’s take a moment to revisit the facts:

1) The fish in question was DNA sampled during week 4 of the PTTS as having been weighed in at 124 lbs by Capt. TJ Stewart on June 3.

2) The fish in question was found dead and sampled again the next day,  June 4.

Sapp, however, is recklessly alleging the fish was gutted by some unknown but disgruntled local tarpon fishing captain trying to stop out-of-town guides, like Sapp,  from running carpetbagger charters on a part-time seasonal basis. It’s a dangerous stretch.

3) The fish in question was found floating on June 4 by a boater who seasonally fishes the Pass and surrounding water.

No, it wasn’t discovered, photographed and DNA sampled by some disgruntled “disenfranchised” local Save the Tarpon stooge, as Sapp wants you to believe. Kathy Guindon, PhD, who heads up the FWRI’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study, said the boater who found the fish – someone with no strong local ties or any affiliation with Save the Tarpon – decided to document the recapture with a photograph and DNA sample. Guindon said the boater – an experienced tarpon angler – knew immediately that the fish had been intentionally gutted.  And why.

But over in Sapp World, here’s what supposedly happened. A card-carrying member of Save the Tarpon found the bloated tarpon and gutted it. He’s not real clear how this Save the Tarpon type would know the fish had been caught the previous day by the PTTS. But we can let this one slide for the moment. Back to Sapp World, where Troy’s Save the Tarpon evil genius had cleverly calculated that, despite the hundreds of boats and boaters that were on the water that day, the one to stumble across the sabotaged tarpon would, miraculously, be armed with a DNA sample kit.

Makes sense to us. But strap on the tin foil hats. There’s more.

4) Chances of finding a dead intact tarpon floating near Boca Grande Pass in May and June are exceptionally remote.  The strong tides, high levels of shark activity, and many other variables mean an overwhelming majority of dead tarpon will, in fact, go unnoticed.  The odds of finding the same dead tarpon two times in less than 24 hours rival your chances of carting home the Powerball jackpot.

So once again, how did Sapp’s imaginary left-wing Save The Tarpon environmental extremist know this fish, among tens of thousands of other fish, came from the PTTS? Was it wearing a Team Yamaha tee shirt?  Unless, of course, the boater who discovered the fish already suspected  a majority of the dead fish found floating in or near the Pass are part of the collateral PTTS damage  Sapp and the PTTS noise machine say the tournament’s critics have invented.

Sapp repeatedly claims fish weighed in the PTTS are subject to the same mortality rate as all other catch and release fishing.  Unfortunately for Sapp, there’s the FWRI’s Dr. Guindon, the same Dr. Guindon whose seven-year-old study on tarpon mortality rates has, in the past, been repeatedly referenced by Sapp and friends. But that was then. Along came 2010, when the same Dr. Guindon did some additional research. Her newest findings?

“Preliminary results from research conducted in 2010 shows that the tournament weigh in procedures of the PTTS physiologically stress the Tarpon more so than catch-and-release recreational fishery that does not have a weigh in procedure that involves towing the fish.” Also, from the same source, “one can presume that mortality rates are higher in these weighed-in, longer handled fish.” For the record, Dr. Guindon was talking about the PTTS.

Two years later, after her newest study was published, Sapp and the gaff and drag gang at the PTTS  had suddenly put the now-inconvenient Guindon on Ignore. They continued to boast that they were, incredibly, doing what was “best for the fish.”  In fact, Joe Mercurio, general manager and host of the PTTS, looked into the camera on June 17 and told his audience that gaff and drag had “absolutely zero impact on the survival of the fish.” Kathy? Kathy who?

The PTTS noise machine, of course, doesn’t stop here. June 4, 2012 is a date Mercurio, Sapp and the PTTS would like to pretend never happened. And for good reason. In Part II, we’ll explain why. Stay tuned.

(NOTE: The moderators over at the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum apparently agree. Sapp’s post has been removed.)

NOTE: One week after publication of the original story, the PTTS broke its official silence and issued a statement denying any involvement or responsibility. The statement is contained within the comments that follow, or it can be found here