- By: Will Rice
>If you have ever watched a permit suddenly appear on a flat, bob in a gentle wave for a moment and quickly disappear into deeper water without a trace, you know the deal—permit are confounding.
Was it the slight sound of coral and sand grinding beneath your boots that alerted him to your presence? Could he see you even at great distance through the cobalt-green water? Does he have some type of piscatorial superpower? Why is your mouth bone dry? Why is your heart still racing like a runaway freight train? Is a permit just better than the rest of us?
For anyone who has stared down a permit and taken a shot—whether successful or not—it is an understatement to say there is something mysterious about that fish. Although their geographic range extends as far north as Massachusetts and as far south as Brazil, the permit population is concentrated in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and Florida Keys, and seasonally in subtropical waters of the US southeastern and Gulf of Mexico coasts. While this sounds like a wide reach, for most fly fishers shots at permit are rare. Many questions about permit remain unanswered. One of the biggest for conservationists and anglers alike is this: How do we protect permit when we know so little about them?
That is a puzzle that the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT) and Costa Sunglasses set out to solve in 2010 with Project Permit, a tagging operation that uses guides and anglers as its researchers. The two entities wanted to learn how healthy the permit population might be. Where do those fish spawn? Is there a consistent migration pattern? What local and international regulations are required to ensure that permit thrive and continue to be a viable gamefish? Without first unlocking some of these basic questions and getting a better understanding of the species, it would be next to impossible to develop an effective management plan. Three years into the project, getting that information is proving more difficult than anyone might have expected.
When the program launched, the goal was to tag 15,000 permit within the first year. As we move into 2013, a total of only 800 permit have been caught and tagged. Of those 800, only five have been recaptured. The good news is that the program has seen solid success in Florida with help from captains Joe Gonzalez, Carl Ball, Mike Holliday and Will Benson. It has also expanded to Mexico and Belize with support and participation from guides at lodges like Boca Paila, Pesca Maya, Palometa Club, Ascension Bay Bonefish Club, Grand Slam Lodge, Casa Viejo Chac Lodge, Casa Blanca, Playa Blanca, Paradise Lodge, Costa de Cocos, Club Grand Slam, el Pescador and Belize River Lodge.
“As often occurs with tagging programs, enthusiasm has waned over time, so we need anglers and guides to dust off their tagging kits and get back to it,” said Aaron Adams, director of operations at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. “You only have to see the fruits of labor with the bonefish program to see the value in tagging. We clearly need more permit to be tagged and recaptured before we can reach any conclusions, but thanks to continuing effort by guides and anglers we will get there.”
The information BTT gathers from taggings and recaptures will be used to estimate fish growth rates and populations, and to establish movement patterns to better define the geographic scale for a conservation management plan.
“The plastic tags are inserted into the musculature of the permit between the dorsal fin and tail using a special tagging needle,” said Adams. “Each tag has a unique identification number and BTT’s Web site and phone number for reporting recaptured fish. The identification number, date and location are recorded when a fish is tagged. This same information is recorded when the fish is recaptured. We are then able to calculate the distance between the locations the fish was tagged and recaptured, and growth rates based on the length of the fish when it was tagged and recaptured.”
For permit, this program is a first. Prior to 2010, nobody had attempted a tagging program, nor a stock assessment. This same type of program has worked well and yielded valuable data for both bonefish and tarpon. Without data, it is very hard to develop and pass protection regulations. But just like on the water, one of the biggest challenges to this conservation project is the fact that permit are hard to catch. They are apparently much harder to catch twice. ■
>How you can help: Anglers and guides can request permit tags and kits by visiting the BTT Web site at www.tarbone.org. If you visit Belize or Mexico, ask your guide if they have a tagging kit.
by Will Rice