Busted! DNA test links gutted, dead tarpon to PTTS

Capt. T.J. Stewart of Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats is a proud Professional Tarpon Tournament Series competitor. In fact, Stewart brought home first place in this year’s June 17 PTTS “Tarpon Cup,” the tournament’s Must See TV season-ending championship event. For his efforts, Skeeter boats forked over the keys to a brand new ZX-22 “Bay” with a Yamaha SHO strapped to the stern.

Stewart’s equally proud of his contributions to the ongoing Mote Marine/FWC DNA study. In fact, Stewart was recently recognized as one of Florida’s “top 10” DNA samplers. It’s a pretty straight-forward business. Anglers “swab” their tarpon, including those caught during PTTS events, and send the samples off to St. Petersburg where scientists do their science thing.

Dead Gutted PTTS Tarpon

This 124-pound tarpon, found gutted and floating in the Gulf of Mexico on June 4. It was cut open in a failed attempt to send the fish to the bottom so it couldn’t be DNA tested and traced back to the PTTS. This fish, with belly intact, had been sampled the previous day at the PTTS scales.

Just as Stewart did two weeks earlier when he boated, gaffed, dragged, hoisted and weighed a 124-pounder. “You just gotta try and take care of this fish, that’s why we’re here and … there’s nothing better.” Stewart’s tarpon was DNA sampled, of course, by the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. The next morning, Stewart’s fish was sampled again. But this time, Stewart’s fish was dead.

Very dead, in fact. Stewart’s 124-pounder was found floating near Boca Grande Pass in the Gulf of Mexico, a few hundred yards from shore. Last seen being hauled away from the scales behind the Sea Hunt-sponsored, “Tires Plus Release Team” boat, the “revived” fish had been gutted from tip to tail in an obvious attempt to send it to the bottom. A second DNA sample was taken. This, too, was sent to St. Pete.

Researchers say DNA doesn’t lie. There’s no question the gutted fish photographed and swabbed on June 4 was the same fish caught, swabbed and given to the PTTS “Tires Plus Release Team” on June 3 by Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats. To be revived, or so the PTTS claims.

“I don’t know why they would do that,” said FWRI Assistant Research Scientist Kathy Guindon. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t give the fish a chance to survive.” Guindon agreed it was likely Stewart’s tarpon was gutted after being turned over to the Tires Plus “Release Team.” Hiding the evidence? After viewing photos of Stewart’s eviscerated fish, Guindon said what happened to the tarpon wasn’t nature’s doing. It was intentional. And it wasn’t shown to the basic cable audience.

Early results of this year’s study show six fish that were originally DNA sampled during the tournament’s 2012 season were caught or found at a later date. Four, including the one that had been gutted after being placed in the care of the Tires Plus “Release Team,” were dead. Guindon characterized a fifth fish as “suspicious.” Guindon told Save The Tarpon that “research results did show the weighed in fish are more physiologically stressed. One can presume that mortality rates are higher in these weighed-in, longer-handled fish.”

PTTS Team Edgewater Boats Castaway Charters

With Capt. TJ Stewart at the helm, Team Castaway Charters/Edgewater Boats fights the tarpon that would be found gutted and floating June 4 in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of Boca Grande Pass.

The covert PTTS fish-gutting revealed by the DNA samples in the FWRI’s possession likely took place virtually under the noses of the same researchers the PTTS claims to support. In September, PTTS television host and spokesman Joe Mercurio stood in front of the seven FWC commissioners and boasted “the PTTS has worked closely with biologists from (the) Fish and Wildlife Institute to make sure we all benefit from the best science available.”

We know better. The FWC now knows better. It has the evidence. And there’s no way the PTTS can really get around this one. When that 124-pound tarpon’s guts were cut open, it wasn’t done for science. It wasn’t the “PTTS working closely with biologists.” It wasn’t “to make sure we all benefit from the best science available.” It was a desperate attempt to keep a lie alive. Or, as Mercurio wrote the day following Stewart’s “Tarpon Cup” victory: “We would like to especially thank the release teams that did such an amazing job releasing these tarpon healthy.”

Joe, look at the photo.

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