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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A local Captain speaks out regarding Tarpon DNA research

Captain Mark BennettThis article was contributed by Captain Mark Bennett, a local full-time fishing guide in the Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande region.  For more information on his Snook, Redfish, and Tarpon fishing charters, please visit tarponsnook.com.

In the three years that I was tagging (DNA sampling) tarpon I dominated the competition.  Tagging and releasing more adult tarpon than anyone, anywhere in the world.  I set a record in 2009 for tagging 147 tarpon in one season.  Since the program started in 2005, previously no one had ever even come close to this number in one season.  Previously only one person ever broke 100.  In 2010, I tagged 148.  April through July 2011, I tagged 165 at which point I ceased to tag tarpon for the remainder of the season.

Even stopping early, in July, I still tagged more tarpon than anyone on the West Coast of Florida and more adult tarpon than anyone anywhere.

Unfortunately, because of several unethical actions of the FWRI and it’s employees that were recently (some not so recently) brought to my attention, such as advertising, promoting and endorsing a tournament series that undeniably is the number one greatest threat to the health of the Florida tarpon fishery,  I can not in good conscience continue to help in their agenda.

I honestly thought the research they were doing was meant to help tarpon, not kill them.

2011 was my last year DNA sampling tarpon.

What did they do?

Funny, I have been asked that question many times this season.  The answer is not what did they do, but what they are doing every weekend in May and June.  The tournament series they promote kills just about every tarpon weighed.  They drag the tarpon all of the way to the beach to be weighed and photographed.  The FWRI and FWC are there DNA sampling the fish that come in to the scale.  They see this happening and do nothing.  They also stand around while the tournament officials slit the bellies and pop the eyes of the tarpon that are already dead or are too exhausted to make it.  This is done so there are less dead fish floating on the surface the next day.  The majority of the fish weighed are the largest females that the FWRI says can be 40-50 years old.  The damage to the tarpon fishery can not be undone in many lifetimes.  This affects tarpon populations all over the state, not just Boca Grande.

Tarpon from all over the state come here to spawn.

I first heard of the Tarpon Genetic DNA tagging program in March ’09.  I was browsing the Florida Wildlife Research Institute’s website.  I was interested in the findings of the past and thought I could help out by tagging a lot of tarpon that upcoming season.

What really got my attention was they were keeping track of how many samples each guide/fisherman obtained.  This was a way to FINALLY show who caught the most tarpon over an entire season.  Some of the best tarpon guides from all over the state are already involved.  Any and all naysayers are invited to participate.

Put up or shut up…What a concept!

How do you get a DNA Sample from a tarpon?

Essentially, when a tarpon is boat side, I grab the leader in one hand and the fish by the lower jaw.  Then I rub a piece of scotch-brite pad on the side of his upper jaw.  Then the pad is placed into a small vial that is index numbered by the FWRI.  Lastly, I record all of the pertinent information about the fish size, weight, capture location etc.

That is a little easier said than done.  First and foremost a photo for my client with his or her fish is my number one priority.  Secondly, holding onto a less than happy fish with your hands that weighs over 100 pounds is not that easy to begin with.  Then adding scrubbing his face with a scotch-brite pad.  It tends to make them a bit perturbed to say the least.  During the course of the season if I got samples off of 50% of the tarpon we landed I felt good about it.

This program gives the recreational anglers a chance to see how their numbers stack up against the pros and it gives the pros a chance to put their money where their mouth is.

Actual numbers from the 2011 season were withheld by the FWRI for some unknown reason. One of the many mysteries we have become used to from the FWRI.

Below are the numbers from 2009 and 2010:

May and June Tarpon Challenge Results

Hello Tarpon DNA Anglers,

We are also pleased to announce that Capt. Mark Bennett is the winner of the 2nd annual Markett Tarpon Challenge for 2010.

Capt. Mark Bennett has claimed this honor for the second consecutive year-by collecting 95 samples during the months of May and June.

We have included the May-June Top Ten list for your review:

  1. 1.       Capt. Mark Bennett – 95
  2. 2.       Tie — Capt. Gary Maconi and Capt. Paul D’Antonio – 77 each
  3. 3.       Capt. Jeff Hagaman – 39
  4. 4.       Tie — Jeff Owens and Capt. Tom Stephens – 37 each
  5. 5.       Capt. Skip Neilson – 36
  6. 6.       Capt. Jay Withers – 34
  7. 7.       Capt. Jeff Malone – 32
  8. 8.       Tie — Capt. Carl Ball and Capt. Dave Markett – 30 each

Cheers,

     The Tarpon Genetics Team

2010 Overall Results

  1.    157                     Jon Mallory – East Central, FL
  2.    148                     Capt. Mark Bennett – Boca Grande/Charlotte Harbor, FL
  3.    101                     Capt. Paul D’Antoni – Key West, FL
  4.    100                     Capt. Carl Ball – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  5.    94                       Capt. Ed Walker – Boca Grande, FL
  6.    93                       Capt. Gary Maconi – Key West, FL
  7.    91                       Capt. Skip Nielsen – Islamorada, FL
  8.    78                       Capt. Jeff Malone – Duck Key, FL
  9.    76                       Capt. Francisco Rosario – Puerto Rico
  10.    73                       Capt. Robert McCue – Tampa Bay/Boca Grande, FL

The Tarpon Genetics Team