Sponsors, anglers, FWC asking $15,000 question: What other ‘promises’ will PTTS break?

When a man repeats a promise again and again, he means to fail you.  ~Proverb

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio

PTTS host Joe Mercurio performs one of his favorite Broadway show tunes for the cameras: “Promises, Promises.”

What’s a promise made by the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series worth? As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Wildlife Research Institute will tell you, not much. Actually, not anything.

But that hasn’t kept the PTTS from making lots of them as the tournament scrambles to promise everything and anything to its handful of remaining sponsors and participants. And the PTTS is good at making promises. Delivering on them is, apparently, another story. Like we said. Ask the FWC. Ask the FWRI. And if you’re a PTTS sponsor or angler, ask yourself. It’s the $15,000 question.

In September, 2012, PTTS television show host Joe Mercurio, who doubles as vice president and general manager of Silver King Entertainment LLC, the tournament’s parent company, stood before the FWC commissioners and made a lot of promises.

He promised, for instance, that the PTTS would “voluntarily” replace its sacrificial gaff, drag, hoist, weigh, drag and dump “live catch and release” format with some mystery gaff, drag, measure, drag and dump “live catch and release” sleight of hand. He then instantly rendered his promise meaningless by begging the commission to disregard everything he just promised and keep the rules that make gaff, drag, hoist, weigh, drag and dump legal. Confused? So were the commissioners. But Joe had promised. And a promise is, of course, a promise.

Mercurio was in a promising mood that day. “I ask that you accept these changes as part of all of our responsibility to ensure the conservation and preservation efforts we have made in the past continue to have a positive impact on the fish and fishery,” Mercurio said of his gaff and drag promise made to the seven FWC commissioners.

He wasn’t finished. “We will continue to promote conservation and to conduct our activities while exercising the utmost respect for the fishery.” Mercurio’s pile of promises was growing faster than his nose.

Then came the payoff. Literally.

Noting that “our organization and anglers understand that we have a duty to conserve and protect the resource we enjoy so much, and to give back to the community by supporting conservation and preservation efforts,” Mercurio promised to put his money – actually, Gary Ingman’s money and the tournament’s sponsors money – where his mouth was.

Mercurio paused. He looked each commissioner in the eye. There was one more promise to be made by the PTTS that day in Tampa. Mercurio had a big finish he was about to drop on the FWC commissioners, a honking big finish, a jaw dropping “this guy means business” honking big finish wrapped in yet one more promise that made all his other PTTS promises look puny by comparison. It was a Take It To The Bank, May God Strike Me Dead, Mother Of All Promises promise. Joe glanced to his left. Joe glanced to his right. The moment had come.

“This year,” Mercurio promised the seven FWC commissioners as the Florida Channel’s cameras beamed his words live and in color to every cable subscriber in the state, “we pledge to provide $15,000 to further support the FWRI’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study.”

No more gaff and drag. We promise. We will continue to promote conservation. We promise. We will conduct our activities while exercising the utmost respect for the fishery. We promise. And to back up all our other promises, we will give you $15,000. We promise. We promise. We promise. We promise.

Kathy Guindon, PhD, is the FWRI’s lead tarpon researcher. She runs the institute’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study. The same Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study Mercurio promised the FWC commissioners would soon be cashing a nice, fat $15,000 check courtesy of the generous folks at Ingman Marine, Miller/Coors, Yamaha Marine Group, Sea Hunt Boats, Reactor Watches, Continental Trailers, Miller’s Ale House, Johnson Outdoors, Humminbird and, or so the promise went, the PTTS. Joe promised.

So where’s Joe’s promised $15,000?

“To my knowledge, the tarpon genetic recapture study never received money from the PTTS in 2012, or prior,” says Dr. Guindon. There is, in fact, no $15,000. Just a promise. One of many promises Mercurio made that day to the FWC, its sponsors, its participants, the people of Florida and, through his own words posted on his own PTTS website, roughly three billion people worldwide.

“To my knowledge, the tarpon genetic recapture study never received money from the PTTS in 2012, or prior.”

If nothing else, at least we all know – including the FWC commissioners Joe stood before that day in Tampa – what a PTTS promise is really worth.

End catch and drag. We promise.

Promote conservation. We promise.

Utmost respect for the fishery. We promise.

Fifteen thousand dollars? The check’s in the mail. We promise.

(Want to do something that will actually help the tarpon genetic recapture study? Join us Sunday, March 3 at the Boca Grande Community Center/Community House from 2 to 6 p.m. Our captains will be on hand to explain how the program works. We promise.)

WaterLine’s Josh Olive: ‘I was wrong’

Newbridge

“I was wrong to take at face value what I was told by tournament supporters. There are two sides to every story, and I’ve done an unacceptably poor job of reaching out to those who want the PTTS to end.”

The following appears in the Feb. 28 edition of WaterLine, the outdoors magazine produced by the Suncoast Media Group and distributed in the Charlotte, North Port and Englewood Sun newspapers. It was written by WaterLine Publisher Josh Olive and is reproduced here with permission. See related story.

Mending the bridge to Boca Grande
By Josh Olive
WaterLine Publisher

“The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” — Albert Einstein

Somewhere along the line, I rubbed a bunch of people wrong. I think it started back in July 2011, when I interviewed Gary Ingman about the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, an event of which he is part-owner.

At the time, I was aware of the controversy regarding the tournament, but it seemed — based on the conversations I had with WaterLine writers, charter captains and bait shop staff — people in opposition were few and had axes to grind. Basically, the consensus I gathered was that was no big deal.

So I wrote as much. Since then, we’ve covered each PTTS tournament with brief stories, photo essays or both. Fast forward to today: Save the Tarpon, a nonprofit that formed last year, has organized a campaign aimed at ending the PTTS.

Their methods include boycotting the tournament’s sponsors and writing letters to same, encouraging them to drop their support of the tournament — and it looks like they’re having quite a bit of success.

What happened? Well, first off, I was wrong about the scope of the PTTS’s opposition. Turns out it’s not just a handful of people on Boca Grande. Second, I was wrong to take at face value what I was told by tournament supporters. There are two sides to every story, and I’ve done an unacceptably poor job of reaching out to those who want the PTTS to end.

Because of that — the positive coverage WaterLine has given to the PTTS without a balancing amount of coverage given to the other side — WaterLine is now a dirty word to many Save the Tarpon supporters.

WaterLine is a magazine, not a newspaper, and is not bound to the strict standards of a newspaper — after all, it’s supposed to be about having fun. But I still have a journalistic obligation to publish the truth and to be fair — and to admit when I get something wrong.

My normal way of figuring out something new is to read up on it, then talk to people and get a variety of viewpoints, then preferably try it for myself. Then, and only then, do I believe I know enough about the subject to say something. That method hasn’t worked for this issue. The history of tarpon in Boca Grande Pass runs deep, and passions are high.

So, after thinking it over for the past few months, I’ve got a new policy with regard to tarpon and Boca Grande Pass: I don’t know enough to say anything. I haven’t been part of the history. I’ve never caught or hooked a tarpon, though I’ve observed at very close range as others have caught them on both live bait and jigs.

I had never even watched one jump until two years ago. I’ve read a lot of things, but that’s not the same as actual experience. Therefore, I’ve concluded WaterLine’s readership will be better served if I allow others to do the talking. That doesn’t mean I won’t be asking questions, and making sure their voices aren’t too loud from either side, but I think it’s best to leave my opinion out of it — on this issue, anyway.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, a few weeks back, I heard that Save the Tarpon was going to be having a party — a shindig, to be specific. I said to myself, “This is going to be perfect. I can put my new policy into action — I’ll go out there and talk to people, take some pictures, and get a good story out of it.”

Then I happened to run into Jennifer McLaughlin, one of the organization’s founders, and I told her I was planning to attend. The next day, I got a phone call from her husband, Tom. He explained that although I would be welcome to come out, it would be a problem if I came representing WaterLine. He said the group doesn’t trust me to be unbiased and he assumed any WaterLine story would be intentionally skewed to make them look bad.

So that’s why I’m explaining this to you: I want to say here, as publicly as I can, that I’m not opposed to Save the Tarpon. I don’t wish them any ill will, and I have no master plan to paint them as evil, stupid or misguided people. In fact, I really need their help — among their supporters are many of the local tarpon experts that I’m hoping to be able to talk to and quote when silver kings are the topic du jour.

I also want to make clear that WaterLine is not “The Official Magazine of the PTTS,” and we have never been a sponsor of or had any “side deal” with the tournament. Although we have published editorial coverage of their events in the past and will in the future, we also intend to cover the live-bait tournaments in more depth this year.

It’s true we have printed much more about the PTTS than other tarpon tournaments over the last two years, but that’s not because we favor their events: It’s because they invited me and offered a boat and captain, freeing me up to shoot photos. Nor does the tournament buy our support through Ingman Marine’s advertisements — Ingman advertises with us because WaterLine is the most widely read outdoor publication in the area. Ingman was an advertiser long before we covered the PTTS at all.

I have my criticisms of the PTTS, and expressing them doesn’t violate my new policy because these are things that I have seen for myself. The tournament needs a limit on how long a tarpon can be fought. The FWC recommends no more than 20 minutes. Perhaps a points loss starting at 20 minutes followed by a disqualification at 30 minutes would work.

Under PTTS rules, fish that are foul-hooked aren’t eligible for points, but there’s no observer or photo to document hook placement — just a judge’s say-so. The way at least some tournament participants operate their vessels is dangerous — perhaps not to others in the tournament, but definitely to the boating public. Boca Grande Pass belongs to the people of Florida, not to any one group, and anyone who wants to utilize it should be able to do so in safety. And as a for-profit business, the PTTS ought to be giving more back to the resource that makes them their money.

With regard to the Pass jig and whether it snags fish, I don’t know enough to take a side. There appears to be a consensus building that the jig is a snagging device, and it’s a fact that the men who say they developed the Pass jig now decry its use. Similar devices with the hook above the weight are used to snag fish elsewhere.

To me, that’s not strong enough evidence to make a conviction, and at this point, I believe people should be able to fish how they want. But I’ll say this: I sincerely hope someone is able to prove whether or not tarpon eat the thing. If it can be shown definitively that most of those fish are hooked without trying to eat the jig, then the jig needs to go. In fact, if and when that happens, I’ll be one of the loudest voices shouting about it.

To anyone who is still not quite sure where WaterLine or I myself stand, I’ll summarize as clearly as possible. We didn’t give Save the Tarpon the opportunity to explain themselves and have their say in the magazine. I apologize for that. We endorse neither Save the Tarpon nor the PTTS, but we believe both have the right to exist, to conduct themselves as they see fit within the law, and to their respective viewpoints.

We also believe both are important enough to include in WaterLine, and going forward I’ll make sure the magazine’s portrayal of those viewpoints is balanced and unbiased.

(Josh, you’re welcome to join us March 3 at the Boca Grande Community House-Community Center from 2 to 6 p.m. Kick back and enjoy a nice cold Miller Budweiser – on us.)

 

You’re right, Josh: ‘It’s not just a handful of people …’

Protest

June, 2012 – ‘A handful of people …’

Save The Tarpon’s supporters and members now number nearly 15,000 worldwide. Worldwide? Yes – worldwide. But that’s just part of the story when it comes to spreading the message of a group that is less than eight months old.

WaterLine Publisher Josh Olive wrote in the magazine’s Feb. 28 edition that he once viewed Save The Tarpon as just a few people with “axes to grind.” He’s since changed his thinking on this one. “Turns out it’s not just a handful of people on Boca Grande,” he says in a column he headlined “Mending the bridge to Boca Grande.”

He also notes “I was wrong to take at face value what I was told by (PTTS) tournament supporters.” He’s likely not alone. Maybe it’s a good idea to take a moment to tell the story of Save The Tarpon’s growth over these past eight months. It is, of course, your story. You wrote it. You made it happen.

Now

February, 2013 – A really big handful. (Eleven days later and this number is now approaching 14,000.)

When Skeeter Boats recently announced it was ending its sponsorship of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, the news reached 58,172 people in the United States alone. And that’s just through Facebook. And it’s just the beginning.

When Farlow’s on the Water in nearby Englewood told us they were finished with the PTTS, the news reached 6,256 potential customers in Sarasota, 2,487 in Port Charlotte, 1,884 in Englewood, 1,335 in nearby Venice, 1,272 in Fort Myers, 1,078 in Tampa, 856 in Cape Coral, 779 in Punta Gorda and 747 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Okay, maybe the folks in Barquisimeto won’t be dropping by for dinner tonight, but they certainly know where to eat if they’re in the neighborhood.

At the same time, the numbers tell us there are 116,993 people who likely won’t be living the High Life – as in Miller High Life – along with their Farlow’s scallop salad. Miller/Coors is a sponsor of the PTTS. Just as we once did with Farlow’s prior to this past week, we’re asking our supporters to continue to stay away from the company’s products as long as it’s associated with the tournament. And, according to Facebook, those 116,993 people who dropped by for a visit in the last seven days passed the word along to 5,554,577 of their friends and neighbors online.

Somewhere in Barquisimeto, there’s a cantina owner wondering why everyone has suddenly switched to Budweiser. And somewhere at Miller/Coors corporate headquarters in Chicago (so much for the whole Rocky Mountain shtick) there’s a marketing exec wondering where 5.5 million customers went. Hint: Ask Skeeter Boats. Ask Tires Plus Total Car Care. Ask Costa del Mar Sunglasses. Or ask one of those PTTS team captains who isn’t getting a freebie wrap boat this year, is peeling all those sponsor patches off his NASCAR-style fishing shirt and is now faced with shelling out the tournament’s hefty entry fee –  from his own pocket.

Did you know that last week there were 182 people who read our Facebook page in a dialect of Norwegian? Or that 1,079 of you visited us online from Paris? As in Paris, France? In fact, the page was translated into French 11,502 times. The language is ranked third, behind English (63,629) and Spanish (39,219) among our visitors. And in case you’re wondering, the French word for “tarpon” is “tarpon.”

Tarpon fishing is popular in Venezuela. Which probably explains why 18,632 of our recent visitors call the country home. Did you know there’s a Boca Grande in Venezuela? It’s also an island. The similarity ends there. It’s ranked among the most affordable places in the world if you want a beach a few steps from your front door. Our Boca Grande didn’t quite make the list.

When Save The Tarpon talks about preserving our fishery for future generations, those future generations are paying attention. And they really do care. A remarkable 60.4 percent of our visitors are under the age of 34. And 75.3 percent of our visitors are in the target “under 45” demographic that brands like Miller/Coors spend millions in advertising dollars to attract. Money that’s being largely wasted through the company’s affiliation with the PTTS – and through your affiliation with and support of Save The Tarpon.

Save The Tarpon began in June, 2012 as a small group of people standing on a beach overlooking Boca Grande Pass. We watched as the PTTS gaffed and dragged fish to that beach to be tossed into a sling and weighed. We watched the PTTS pretend these fish weren’t dead or dying as they dumped them in the deepest part of the Pass. We counted the corpses the following day. We resolved to take PTTS host Joe Mercurio up on his offer to stop what the tournament was doing to the fishery “when someone tells us to stop.”

Eight months later, a few dozen have grown to nearly 15,000 who have come together to tell Mercurio it’s time to stop. And the message continues to grow. Or, as Olive now admits, “turns out it’s not just a handful of people on Boca Grande.” The folks in Barquisimeto would likely agree.

Former PTTS sponsors speak out: ‘We personally witnessed the abuse’

Tropical Seas Inc. Letter to Save the Tarpon

Click to enlarge and open in a new window.

The following letter was sent to Save The Tarpon by former PTTS sponsors Dan and Debbie Knorr of Tropical Seas Inc. and Reef Safe Suncare. The letter explains why they ended their PTTS sponsorship in 2010. It speaks for itself.

In 2010 our company Reef Safe Suncare/Tropical Seas, Inc. was a sponsor of PTTS and during this time we personally witnessed the abuse of the Tarpon by most of those involved in PTTS.

Ranging from the excessive manhandling of the tarpon from the time caught, then dragging them 30 minutes or more to the weigh in scales, through filming, and then finally to their release (if you can call it that) .

All supposedly justified by the DNA swabs and testing being done by FWC. It was obvious that most of these people had no clue how to properly handle a tarpon.

After witnessing the above we were sorry that we were involved, as from the very first event we saw that this was a scheme to make money by exploiting the tarpon as well as the pass. Absolutely no respect for our ocean and its inhabitants!

We can confirm the unethical fishing practices, as well as the unsportsmanlike conduct exhibited by those involved in the PTTS as we saw the disrespect first hand every week.

Long before the 2010 season was over we had had enough of the PTTS abuse of the tarpon and knew we would not return for another year. Reef Safe then shifted to helping sponsor tarpon DNA research through Mote Marine Laboratory.

We further donate a portion of Reef Safe sales in Florida to Mote Marine Coral Restoration project. We do believe in and will continue our support of those such as Save the Tarpon who truly care about helping protect our environment and its inhabitants for future generations.

Best Regards,

Dan & Debbie Knorr
Tropical Seas, Inc. / Reef Safe Suncare

Skeeter Boats latest big name sponsor to withdraw from PTTS

Skeeter BoatsSkeeter Boats has announced it is joining Andros Boatworks, Costa del Mar Sunglasses and Tires Plus Total Car Care as the latest high profile brand to end its affiliation with the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.

In a statement released Wednesday, Feb. 20, the company pointed to “the controversy surrounding the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series,” noting that it “will not renew its sponsorship agreement with the PTTS for 2013.”

Skeeter Boats is a subsidiary of Yamaha Marine. The company’s brief statement did not address whether Yamaha has yet to make a decision to continue its 2013 affiliation with the tournament through its outboard motor division. Ingman Marine, owned by PTTS principal Gary Ingman, is one of Southwest Florida’s largest Yamaha dealers, with three locations in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.

“Yamaha Marine supports many agencies and organizations that are focused on conservation to protect and enhance our fishery resources. We encourage all anglers and organizations to support these efforts,” the company said in its announcement.

Yamaha’s decision to further distance itself from the PTTS comes just four days after Tires Plus Total Car Care announced it was ending its sponsorship of the controversial tarpon tournament. The Skeeter Boats announcement was made one day after Save The Tarpon published an “open letter” to PTTS sponsors on SaveTheTarpon.com inviting them to voluntarily end their affiliation with the tournament.

Costa del Mar Sunglasses and Tires Plus Total Car Care pulled the sponsorship plug on the PTTS after the companies were spotlighted by Save The Tarpon through its online “Do The WRITE Thing” campaign. The effort brought together the group’s nearly 14,000 members and supporters who reached out to both high-profile PTTS sponsors.

Yamaha’s decision to withraw the financial support of its Skeeter Boats division – its boats were part of the tournament’s 2012 prize package – is the latest setback to hit the PTTS. The tournament, through its TV show host Joe Mercurio, recently announced it was forced to cancel all but one Women’s Professional Tarpon Tournament Series event due to what Mercurio said was “the persistent challenging economic operating environment.” The decision to abandon the women’s events came in the aftermath of Costa’s withdrawal and eight days prior to Tires Plus official announcement it was pulling the sponsorship plug.

Troy Sapp, senior vice president of the Florida Guides Association and an outspoken supporter of the PTTS, is among the tournament participants who had been sponsored by Skeeter Boats.

Skeeter Boats is a major player in the boating industry. Company founder Holmes Thurmond is credited with inventing the modern bass boat in 1948 and the first fiberglass bass boat in 1961.

Boycott Tires Plus Total Car Care

Boycott Tires Plus - Total Car Care(UPDATE: You did it! Tires Plus Total Car Care has announced it is ending its sponsorship of the PTTS. See related story.)

Tires Plus Total Car Care is a high-profile Professional Tarpon Tournament Series sponsor. Its brand is associated with the tournament’s so-called “Tires Plus Release Team,” also known as the “Tires Plus Drag and Dump Crew” for its documented practice of dragging near-dead tarpon into the deepest part of the Pass and dumping them. In PTTS-speak, this is known as “reviving.” We tend to call it something else: Surgery.

Tires Plus Total Car Care, according to its website, was founded in 1972. Other sources put the date at 1976. In 2000, Tires Plus was sold to Bridgestone/Firestone by founder Tom Gegax. According to the company’s website, Tires Plus is based in Clearwater. Gegax serves as chairman emeritus.

Boycott Tires PlusUnder Gegax, the Tires Plus motto was “Changing the World One Tire at a Time.” This has, apparently, now been updated to “Wiping Out a Species One Tarpon at a Time.” Sponsorship of the PTTS isn’t entirely consistent with Gegax’s most recent interests, however. The former self-described Tires Plus “head coach” is actively involved through his family foundation in a number of conservation causes. Most notably, the Waterkeeper Alliance, a significant player in the aftermath of the April 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

He is also closely associated with John Robbins, founder of EarthSave, an international non-profit organization. Its stated mission is to raise awareness of “ecological destruction and cruelty.” The PTTS doesn’t quite fit the profile on this one. Mr. Gegax is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the company he founded. But his voice still carries substantial influence. He is likely unaware of Tires Plus Total Car Care’s association with the PTTS, and that this association clearly contradicts his otherwise pro-conservation efforts.

This is where your role as educator comes into play. We have every reason to believe Mr. Gegax would be more than a bit distressed to learn of his company’s substantial involvement with an operation like the PTTS. Once he is alerted to the tournament’s history and what the PTTS is doing in his company’s name, it’s a pretty good bet somebody’s phone is going to ring.

Tires Plus Drag And Dump Crew

Keep this in mind should you choose to reach out to Mr. Gegax. Contacting him, however, could be problematic. His Detroit-based Gegax Family Foundation is operated through U.S. Trust. There is no way to directly contact him through his foundation.

Mr. Gegax does, however, apparently have an email address through Tires Plus. It is tomg@tiresplus.com. No guarantees, but it’s certainly worth trying. If you do reach out to him by email, it’s important to remember he is most likely unaware of the PTTS and his company’s involvement. Accordingly, you may wish to provide a link to SaveTheTarpon.com in your correspondence after briefly stating your reason for writing.

Tires Plus Total Car Care can and should be contacted through its website or, if you wish, by phone. Tires Plus Total Car Care Consumer Affairs can be reached at (800) 440-4167. The company can be contacted online (check the box marked “General Comments and Questions) here: http://www.tiresplus.com/contact/.  Another option would be to leave a message on the Tires Plus Facebook Page.

Boycott Tires Plus

A Mostly True Account of What May Have Happened at the 2012 PTTS Tarpon Cup Championship

Actually, it’s completely true.

June 17, 2012 6:45 AM:  Today is not just the day of the PTTS Tarpon Cup, but it also marks the first time the community of Boca Grande has organized and come together to show their displeasure for this tournament and the actions of its participants in the form of a protest during filming of the season’s final event.

I’m dilly dallying just West of the Pass, trying to affix my “Stop the PTTS Tarpon Kill, SaveTheTarpon.com” banner to the t-top of a borrowed boat, wondering what today will bring.  The plan was to have a peaceful protest on the beach by community members, while a few guides attempted to interrupt some of the filming of the made-for-TV series by navigating our boats into a position where the banners could be seen on camera.  We hoped this would cause enough frustration for the show’s producers and owners that the pleas of the community, and sportsman from around the country, would stop falling on deaf ears.

The PTTS thought things would go smoothly for them today.  Scoffing at the idea that even a small group would actually show on the beach. Our newly formed rag tag not-for-profit thought things would go smoothly for us too.  Thinking the deep passion our community held for the cause would carry us far.  FWC apparently just thought we were all going to lose control and need to be arrested. I could already see their army of officers, complete with paddy wagon.  None of these things happened that day.  The truth is no one was arrested, no tickets were written, the paddy wagon left empty and things definitely did not go smoothly for the PTTS.  How would things turn out for us?  Well, lets just say that I couldn’t have pictured what would happen that day in my wildest imagination.

6:50 AM, still just West of the Pass: I glance up to see a twenty seven foot pink center console coming our way at high speed. Rusty Hooker approached, stereo blasting, belching smoke from its ancient twin outboards as they were pinned at full throttle in reverse, coming to just rest inches from my bow as I sat drifting and still fumbling with that silly banner.

“You ain’t fuckin’ goin’ no where,” said the captain as he took a swig from his beer…at 6:50AM.

Now, I know what your thinking, I should have expected things would not go quite as easily as I had imagined. But, I guess I just gave a little too much credit to the “P” in PTTS.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking the view of a tarpon being "revived and released" by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking Capt. Tom’s  camera view of a tarpon being “revived and released” by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Over about the next fifteen minutes a few more choice words were exchanged by both parties as the captain of the Rusty Hooker shifted frantically from forward to reverse, over and over, in a desperate attempt to keep us from interfering with the tournament that had now started.  I’m pretty sure the nearby FWC officer must have overheard my boisterous objections to this blatant disregard for Coast Guard navigational safety, as he made his way over to us and had a few words for the captain of the Rusty Hooker.   Who had, by the way, quickly stashed his now empty ‘breakfast of champions’ somewhere under his console where it appeared to have a few friends.  After a little more bantering he scurried towards the PTTS support crowd that was now gathering on the beach.

The tournament had started but the beach side protesters and other boats weren’t scheduled to show up for several more hours.  I hopped in the tower, cranked her up, and sped around the corner into the Pass.  Banner flapping in the wind, still not securely attached to the boat,  apparently upside down, and smoke billowing from my ears. But I didn’t care. I was absolutely fuming about the unprovoked little exchange that had just taken place.  If this was how we were going to play today, I was ready to blow off a little steam. To hell with the plan.

8:55 AM, Boca Grande Pass:  For nearly an hour, I had been expressing my extreme displeasure for the previous exchange, mainly in the form of heckling, complete with words only appropriate for a true sailor.  My four-letter word barrage was hap-haphazardly directed at anyone involved with the PTTS who was unfortunate enough to get within earshot, including a few participants of the tournament, PTTS owner Gary Ingman, host Joe Mercurio, the production crew for the show, and at one point, even the acting Captain for our region of the FWC (whoops).  It was starting to look like they might need that paddy wagon after all.  And then something brought me back. A grounding reminder of why we were here this day.

Up until now, I had jumped around, chasing the camera boat, getting in a few shots here and there, beaching next to the weigh boat for a short while, and generally just causing a little confusion.  On the outside it appeared to be a brilliantly orchestrated effort as we confused our newly adopted shadow boats with unpredictable and random movements.  But in reality, I was just really pissed off and had forgotten ‘the plan.’

We had been posting up a little West of the weigh boat, tight to the beach, and made a habit of following the Tires Plus “release boat” as they dragged once mighty fish slowly away from the crowd of proud PTTS family and friends.  As the Tires Plus “drag and dump” crew (as I had now dubbed them) came by, we quickly took position.

By this point, we had already followed more than a half dozen or so other fish as they had been towed away, watching as some of these fish would struggle momentarily, roll on to their sides, and quietly sink into the dark water and swift moving tide of Boca Grande Pass.  Others, not willing to show signs of life, were quickly stuffed underwater by the PTTS “trained professionals” in an effort to hurry back to the beach and pick up the next nearly-dead “live release” victim of television entertainment.

A few of these fish had briefly floated to the surface, and one was even deliberately run over by the drag and dump boys. I had managed to get a short series of still photos of that little gem, but after spending a few minutes to review them my heart sunk as I realized that I was holding a pretty poor excuse for a lens and lacked two vitally important things needed to accurately depict the gravity of what was unfolding before my eyes.  A polarizing filter and an even the slightest inkling of skill as a photographer.

If you ever had a bucket full of minnows as a kid you don’t need a PHD and a half-million dollar study to understand what happened to those fish as they swirled around.  I’m sure you would be able to recall what it looked like as the minnows spiraled out of control on the surface in ever tightening circles, rolled belly up, and sank to the bottom.  They were not napping.  They were dead.  Just think, giant minnows in a giant bucket.

But as this particular fish was pulled past my boat, something just felt different about it.  My interest was piqued.   It wasn’t the lifeless calm it exuded as the release team member held tight to its lower jaw. It wasn’t its size or who caught it. Quite honestly, there was really nothing notable about this fish, it wasn’t all that unusual. It was just a feeling I got.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Up to this point there had been nothing we could do except stare in abject horror and snap a few photos as fish after fish was hauled off and stuffed beneath the waves in what had become an obvious attempt to hide it from the view of the crowd.   But as the drag and dump boys pulled away and out into the deep waters of the Pass, the worn tarpon surfaced slowly in a feeble attempt to catch her breath.  It almost appeared like she had an expression on her ancient face.  I don’t know how to fully explain it.  I swear when I looked into her eye, she returned a fleeting look back as she sunk back beneath the surface. It was probably nothing, but I took it as a sign to pay close attention to this one.

As they eased by, bracing for the onslaught of insults I’m sure had now become nothing more than background noise for the PTTS drag and dump boys, I instantly transformed from a profanity wielding Tasmanian devil on the verge of being hauled off by the clam cops, to some type of big cat quietly stalking its prey. Or, something like that.

We trailed closely, jockeying for position with the BudgetHeating.com boat who was trying to keep us from taking pictures.  We finally got a solid position next to the donated Sea Hunt piloted by the Tires Plus drag and dump boys. We had to push in a little more closely than was probably comfortable for all of us, but if we gave an inch, tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher was sure to stick his BudgetHeating.com boat smack dab in between us to obscure the fish from the view of our prying eyes and cameras.  The feeling I had in the pit of my stomach about this fish made me press a little harder this time.  I was willing to take the risk as well as take full responsibility for anything bad that might have happened to any of us or our boats.

They dragged this one much farther down the beach in order to get a little bit more distance between themselves and their cheering section who seemed to have taken notice of the previous fish as it awkwardly thrashed about on the surface in obvious distress. What the crowd didn’t see from the beach was, after the gut wrenching display, the fish then rolled on its side and fell to the bottom like too many others had in just the past two hours.

I was well-aware ‘some’ of the fish in the PTTS did not fare so well after being released. I had stumbled onto enough evidence of that, bloated and rotting, on Monday mornings following the weekend events.  What I certainly did not know until this moment was that based on what I had already seen this day, and the calamity that was about to ensue, the carrion at the foot of the lighthouse after each event was just the tip of the iceberg.  Unless its normal for healthy tarpon to sink motionless, upside down, after being released, then fully half of the fish I had seen let go today today had perished.

My guess is that the wind, waves, current, and sharks take out most of the PTTS trash before it can become the all to familiar silver flotsam that turns the stomach of every true sportsmen or sportswomen unfortunate enough to run across it on Monday morning.

9:05 AM, still in Boca Grande Pass:  I continued to follow as closely as possible, without becoming a physical danger to the release team. I maintained my position despite the constant maneuvering and blocking by the Budgetheating.com boat, still captained by tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher, as well as our suds-guzzling friend from earlier in the morning aboard the Rusty Hooker, who was now accompanied by several friends as well as what appeared to be the vessel’s namesake.

The drag and dump boys in the Tires Plus shirts were taking us on a different route this time, running parallel to the beach and heading offshore instead of towards the middle of the pass.  It seemed that the spectators’ reactions to the prior struggling fish were not sitting well with whoever was calling the shots today.  Although we were surely headed for waters farther offshore, running along the beach allowed tournament detractors to follow us on foot and observe what was happening from the waters edge.  A fact that was visibly upsetting the drag and dump boys.

Despite efforts to make it out of sight of the growing crowd and much to the dismay of the drag and dump boys, we  had made very little headway due to the incoming tide. Only having moved a few hundred yards in about ten minutes.  The reality of the situation was sinking in with the two sorry bastards in the Sea Hunt.  The fish was looking worse by the minute, numbers on the beach were growing, and it had become painfully obvious that anyone with a Tires Plus t-shirt was going to bear the brunt of the crowds’, and our, growing frustration.

She made a feeble attempt at taking a breath, showing us that she was still alive at least. They seized their moment. Her head was quickly shoved downward while she was on her side, making her body into a plane and sending her head first towards the bottom.  It was over.  There was a quick and awkward high five aboard the Tires Plus sponsored Sea Hunt as the duo turned back towards the weigh boat.  Then we saw it.  A silver flash just off our starboard bow.  She materialized from the murky depths and laid on the surface, broad side to the sky.  She halfheartedly fluttered her tail and began to move towards the beach.  We knew what was about to happen, and I quickly jammed the throttle and headed straight for dry land.  As we approached, the cameraman for the day hopped off the bow and ran up a few yards up the beach.  The commotion had now drawn the attention of not only the Tires Plus Sea Hunt, but also of tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher.

Our cameraman stopped running and waded out into the water to about waist deep, putting the camera underwater facing the Pass.  I stared in bewilderment as she swam directly to him, floundering along the bottom on her side.  With a few weak kicks of her tail, she was belly up inches from the sand.  The crowd gathered, shouts such as “This is because of you!” and “Come get your fish! Take off your mask!” began to echo from what I’m sure will be described as an angry mob at some point by the PTTS.  Despite the rising anger, the drag and dump boys were making their way slowly towards the beach.  They were intercepted by Taucher, who had  a quick word with one of the masked fellows.  After the exchange, Taucher slowly idled towards the Pathfinder sponsored camera boat piloted by tournament owner Gary Ingman, as PTTS front man Mercurio slouched in the fighting chair on the bow with a cigarette hanging from his lip.

 

Click here to see the video shot of the dying fish during the PTTS protest.

 

After the chat, the drag and dump boys once again headed towards the fish.  They beached their boat, one of them hopped in the water, and then nonchalantly reattached their rope to the hole in the fish’s lower jaw. After a brief attempt at feigning concern they quickly dragged the fish off towards the relative safety of waters offshore.

Looking back at the video after being removed from the events for nearly seven months, I can honestly say that my feeling about that fish was right.  As I watched the events of that day rerun on the monitor in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel like she knew exactly what she was doing.

What happened to that fish next would further solidify in the minds of all those who came to show their concern for the fishery at  Boca Grande that there was a much bigger problem with what is going on in the Pass during May and June than a few dead fish.  The events of the next half hour would prove that the actions of the PTTS, its owners, and some of its participants were not just a minor annoyance to local fishing guides.  Rather, this was a direct assault on not only the history, culture, and community of Boca Grande but a threat to the continued survival of the worlds first recreational tarpon fishery and the literal birthplace of  big game sport fishing as we know it.

PTTS tarpon seen dying on the beach of Boca Grande

This video was shot on June 17, 2012 as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) was filming their final episode of the 2012 season–the Tarpon Cup Championship.  The tarpon seen in this footage had just been “revived and released” by the official PTTS Tires Plus Release Team after being caught and weighed during the tournament.  Instead of quietly drifting down into the deep dark waters of Boca Grande Pass as the preceding four fish had, this one swam towards the beach.  The final fight for life ended with the tarpon drifting belly up under the gentle surf of Boca Grande’s famous lighthouse beach.  The lifeless tarpon was later retrieved by the Tires Plus Release Team and dragged off shore and out of view of the onlookers as it was stuffed into the prop wash of cooperating PTTS participant boats in an apparent effort to hide the evidence.

More video will be released in coming days illustrating the tragic cover-up performed by the PTTS management and its participants. Please stay posted.

See comments from Capt. Tom McLaughlin at the bottom of this page for more info on the filming of this video.

Colecchio ‘exposes’ imaginary plot to gut tarpon, frame PTTS

Gary Colecchio wants to believe, too.Our old friend and unrepentant PTTS apologist Gary S. Colecchio should probably come down from the grassy knoll, take off the foil beanie and consider the absurdity of the odd little conspiracy theory he’s been trying to peddle to his fish forum followers in recent days.

In a shrill attempt to be relevant again, Colecchio wants his forum friends to believe the now-famous dead tarpon that researchers have linked to a June 3 PTTS event was, in his alternative reality, gutted by someone affiliated with Save The Tarpon. Why? To make the tournament look bad – or, more accurately – worse.

To get his theory to work, Colecchio has resorted to inventing a nameless Save The Tarpon renegade evil genius he’s endowed with the power to magically defy all known laws of probability while simultaneously proving to be the most clueless person on the planet.

While he’s understandably vague on the mechanics at work here, Colecchio claims his purported STT perp cold-bloodedly gutted the fish with some mystic mathematical expectation that it would, miraculously, later be found floating by some random passing boater. A person Save The Tarpon’s evil genius somehow calculated the fates would put in precisely the right place at precisely the right time. A person with absolutely no affiliation with Save The Tarpon. Someone who happened, just happened, to have a FWRI-issued DNA sampling kit on board.

Sure, Gary. Heard from Elvis lately?

But there’s a bigger problem with Colecchio’s conspiracy conjuring. It’s the floating part. The supposed purpose of slitting open a tarpon from tip to tail is, obviously, to make the corpse sink. The fish, DNA and all, goes to the bottom, never to be seen again. Which is pretty much what all of us, if we happened to be in a tarpon gutting mood, would reasonably expect to happen.

In other words, to simulate an attempt to sink the evidence, you would most likely wind up doing exactly that. You’d sink the evidence. Brilliant! Colecchio’s theory essentially requires you to believe something he doesn’t: Save The Tarpon’s master of dirty tricks was apparently smart enough to come up with this convoluted scheme, but too stupid to realize the evidence would most probably head straight for the bottom.

The fact that the eviscerated PTTS tarpon didn’t wind up sleeping with the fishes baffles even the most experienced and knowledgeable Pass hands – a group that doesn’t, by his own admission, include Colecchio. But our old friend has never left an absence of knowledge or experience get in the way of a good fish forum post.

Tarpon are naturally buoyant  Unless you cut them open. Then they stop being buoyant  Whoever cut open that PTTS tarpon did a thorough job of it. Based on the photos and descriptions provided the FWRI, that gutted PTTS tarpon and its PTTS DNA shouldn’t have been floating in the Gulf near Boca Grande Pass on the morning of June 4.

It should, by all reasoning, have sunk. There should, by all reasoning, have been no possibility it would be found by a passing boater with a camera and a DNA kit just one day after it was caught, gaffed, dragged and sampled. It and its DNA shouldn’t, by all reasoning, have been found lifelessly treading water a day after taking a ride on the PTTS scales. By all reasoning, the fish should have vanished without a trace after it was hauled away to be “revived” by the PTTS Tires Plus Release Team.

But you know what they say about karma.

The case against the PTTS is, of course, largely circumstantial. There’s no question the fish was last seen, supposedly alive, in the loving care of the tournament’s Tires Plus Release Team. Also known as “opportunity.” Slitting it from tip to tail required nothing more than a knife. This falls into the category of “means.” Then there’s the third requirement. “Motive.” You can be the judge on this one.

Colecchio is demanding proof the gutted tarpon was the work of the PTTS. The case, as it stands, is largely circumstantial. But you can ask the folks in prison about circumstantial evidence. Colecchio is also demanding Save The Tarpon prove it didn’t do it.

Aside from the commonly accepted near-impossibility of disproving a negative, the facts as they’re known and the sheer idiocy of Colecchio’s “sink the tarpon so it doesn’t sink” theory, we’re left with nothing but a few photos, a video record of the June 3 tournament, the observations of scientists at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute and two matching DNA samples.

Next thing you know, Colecchio will be demanding to see the tarpon’s birth certificate.

PTTS fires off Facebook attack on ‘extremist’ supporters of FWC tarpon conservation push

As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is poised to adopt language endorsed by Save The Tarpon Inc. and other groups that would pave the way to make tarpon a catch-and-release species, a spokesman for the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is leveling harsh words against those who support the measure as well as the FWC’s other efforts designed to grow the state’s tarpon fisheries.

Joe Mercurio, VP & Host of the PTTS

Joe Mercurio, VP, General Manager and Host of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.

Joe Mercurio, host of the PTTS cable TV show, responded to a Facebook poster’s question on Monday by calling those supporting the FWC’s tarpon conservation efforts victims of “left wing, environmental extremist propaganda.” Mercurio added that those backing the FWC plan, which is expected to be approved by the seven-member commission on Wednesday, don’t have “the facts” and are “disgruntled and disenfranchised individuals.”

In September, Mercurio told the FWC commissioners that the PTTS is opposed to regulations that would force the tournament to stop gaffing, roping, dragging and weighing tarpon, a practice FWC researchers have labled “excessive handling” that leads to observed higher mortality rates.

Mercurio’s Facebook remarks are the tournament’s first in the wake of the FWC’s disclosure of preliminary results of its 2012 tarpon DNA sampling program. FWC researchers said last week that six fish weighed and DNA sampled during this past summer’s PTTS events had since been “recaptured.” Four of the recaptured PTTS tarpon were discovered dead within days of being caught and hoisted onto the tournament’s sling. A fifth PTTS sample was labeled “suspicious” by the FWC. Just one PTTS fish was recaptured alive.

Among the four dead tarpon that have been DNA-linked to the PTTS was a fish that was gutted in an apparent botched attempt to cause it to sink. The gutted fish was photographed and its DNA sampled by a passing boater. The fish was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Grande Pass on June 4, a day after it was caught, weighed and originally DNA sampled during a PTTS event.

FWRI Assistant Research Scientist Kathy Guindon, PhD, who oversees the tarpon DNA program and had seen the photo, agreed the gutting was suspicious. “I don’t know why they would do that,” she said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t give the fish a chance to survive.” The fish, a 124-pounder, was last seen after being turned over to the tournament’s Tires Plus “Release Team” to be “revived.” Guindon said the incision, which ran from the tarpon’s tip to tail, wasn’t the result of natural causes.

Later Monday, in a Facebook posting authored under the alias “Professional Tarpon Tournament Series,” the PTTS anonymously challenged the observations made by the FWC researchers as “baseless.” Mercurio had earlier discounted the FWC observations, suggesting instead that people “rely on credible news organizations and sources.”Joe Mercurio's Cash Cow

“EVERY weighed fish, over 80 were DNA sampled. More were sampled that were caught & released. We’ll present the full facts & figures in regards to the DNA sampled fish, and will address the baseless allegations & claims that have been made,” the PTTS said in its unsigned Facebook post.

The PTTS has otherwise remained mum concerning the gutted fish. FWC researchers have said that recapture rates in this type of study are, understandably, very low. Recaptures of less than one percent aren’t uncommon. So far this year, using the PTTS claim of 80 sampled fish, PTTS tarpon were recaptured at a rate of 7.5 percent – well above the numbers scientists say they would normally anticipate and need to conduct meaningful research.

Below is a screen shot of the PTTS Facebook page. It was made Monday, Dec. 3. Unlike that gutted tarpon, PTTS web content has a habit of vanishing. 

PTTSTV Facebook Dec 3 2012