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Bonefish Restoration Research Project

Bonefish Restoration Research Project

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, in collaboration with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is seeking to pioneer the methods of spawning and rearing bonefish and tarpon in captivity as a means of restoring the valuable recreational fishery in the Florida Keys and adding an important tool to the conservation and restoration toolbox for fisheries worldwide. Bonefish are integral to Florida’s travel and tourism industry. It is estimated that bonefish, tarpon and other species in the ‘flats fishery’ contribute more than $465 million to the economy in the Florida Keys.

The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is initiating this innovative research project with a $1.5 million grant from NFWF. To receive this support, BTT must raise a required 1:1 match from other sources. The $3 million total will be used to equip laboratories at FAU’s Harbor Branch Institute as well as cover the expenses of a five-year research program to be conducted by FAU faculty and students.

The Challenge

Worldwide, overharvest and habitat loss are the top threats to our fisheries. Species that have low rates of population increase, such as bonefish and tarpon, are especially vulnerable. A recent assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified bonefish as “Near Threatened.” It is estimated that bonefish in the Florida Keys have declined by approximately 90% over the past 25 years. Small juvenile fish necessary for the population to replenish itself have not been found in sufficient numbers despite intensive field surveys.

Our Response

Researchers at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and Harbor Branch are seeking to bring adult fish to reproductive condition in laboratory settings, learn how to rear their unusual larvae, and develop methods for successful release—all for the purpose of aiding the recovery of bonefish in the Florida Keys through stock enhancement. Given recent advances in our knowledge of the reproductive biology of these species, we feel confident that this program is now technically feasible and can help restore the tremendously valuable fisheries. The proposed work will occur in three stages:

  • Determine how to spawn and raise bonefish in captivity.
  • Determine when, where, and how to release bonefish to maximize survival. Using juveniles reared at the experimental facility, we will conduct intensive field experiments in the Florida Keys.
  • Implement controlled stock enhancement from a grow-out facility in the Florida Keys.

Lessons learned can be applied to tarpon in a later phase of the project as well as be of benefit to restoration efforts on a broader scale, including applications to other species of local, national and international concern.

Learn More and Donate

Please contact Mark Rehbein, BTT’s Director of Development, at 786-618-9479 or mark@bonefishtarpontrust.org to learn more and donate today.

Below are some commonly asked questions about BTT’s Bonefish Restoration Research Project.

Q: Why did BTT decide to undertake this restoration project?

A: We fear that the Florida Keys bonefish population has declined to the point that it may not be able to naturally reproduce enough to sustain itself in the future. This project will expand our knowledge of aquaculture as a restoration tool, teach us how to spawn and raise bonefish in captivity, and will provide a valuable tool for future restoration efforts. The intent is to use stocking in a limited and prescribed manner to boost the Keys bonefish population to a self-sustaining level.

Q: This has never been done with bonefish, a species with very particular spawning requirements. How do you ensure success of the program?

A: Our recent research of spawning bonefish in the Bahamas has taught us a lot about their spawning behavior, spawning needs, and how to work with bonefish when they are in spawning mode. In addition, much progress has been made by researchers working on other species with this same “leptocephalus” larval stage, which will be extremely helpful. Finally, our collaborators at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute are the best in the world.

Q: Some past and ongoing “hatchery” projects have been controversial and some consider them unsuccessful. How is this project different?

A: This project is different in that it is not intended as a continuous stocking program. Many “hatchery” programs have come to support “put and take” fisheries, or have become a long-term part of fisheries management. This bonefish project is one of many restoration tools, which include habitat and water quality restoration, so is not an end in itself like “put and take” fisheries. In addition, this program is designed to be short-term – enough to boost the bonefish population to a level at which it can sustain itself.

Q: What needs to happen before bonefish stocking can take place in the Keys?

A: Not only do we need to learn how to successfully spawn and raise bonefish in a captive setting, but water quality issues in the Keys need to be addressed before stocking can be used as an effective tool. This project is being done in conjunction with water quality and contaminant studies. Once those concerns are addressed, we can use temporary stocking as a restoration tool. There is no sense stocking bonefish into an ecosystem that is unable to support them. We have to address these issues before we can use stocking as a restoration tool.

Q: How will you ensure genetic diversity in the captive spawning program?

A: Great care will be taken to maximize genetic diversity of the adult broodstock collected from the Florida Keys to ensure that the juveniles being released are best suited for the wild population. Broodstock bonefish will be collected from throughout the Keys to ensure that maximum diversity is achieved. Ongoing genetics research of bonefish will help us to identify areas to collect broodstock that will ensure maximum diversity.

Q: The Keys bonefish fishery has suffered a serious decline. Approximately how many fish will be taken for the project and will that have an impact on the current wild bonefish population?

A: We won’t collect so many bonefish that it will have an impact on the current wild population. We plan to collect a couple dozen broodstock in the first year of the project. But it’s worth remembering that the whole reason that we’re doing this is to ensure that there is a self-sustaining bonefish population in the Florida Keys. We don’t take collection of bonefish broodstock lightly.

Q: Once you’ve learned to spawn and raise juvenile bonefish in captivity, how do you ensure they are prepared for the wild and how do you maximize the chances they survive?

A: A considerable amount of research on maximizing survival of juveniles at release has been done on other species. Snook, for example, had higher survival when they were kept in large enclosures in the juvenile habitats before they were released. This allowed them to become acclimated to the new conditions. We will conduct this and similar research as part of the process to ensure maximum survival of juvenile bonefish that are released.

Q: How else will findings from the study be applied, outside of a temporary boost to the Keys bonefish population?

A: We will learn a lot about the processes that influence bonefish spawning, as well as survival of larvae and juveniles. We’ll also learn a lot about how juveniles use habitats. This will allow us to estimate impacts of things like oil spills on larvae, habitat degradation on juveniles. In addition, we will be able to use bonefish reared at the facility to conduct research on the effects of various contaminants, light levels (preliminary research suggests that lights at night, such as street lights near flats, might interrupt juvenile bonefish behavior), and other factors that might be impacting the bonefish population.

Q: Who is supporting this project?

A: The National Fish & Wildlife Foundation has pledged $1.5 million in matching funds, which will cover half of the total costs. In order to receive the NFWF matching funds, BTT must raise an equal sum over the next five years. The impact of your contribution will be doubled by this 1:1 match.