Tarpon Genetics Program

Bonefish & Tarpon Trust is assisting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) and Mote Marine Lab in a tarpon genetic sampling program. This is a great opportunity for anglers to get involved in conservation.

Tarpon can be identified using DNA fingerprinting, or "fin printing," techniques. Tarpon that are genetically sampled by the angling public (like you) can be used to determine survival rates, health, migration, and movement of individual fish within the fishery. By evaluating these factors on recaptured fish over time, biologists (FWRI) and partners at Mote Marine Laboratory can assess the success of tarpon stocks and the connectivity of tarpon between different bodies of Florida waters.

In other words, we can use the tarpon recapture information to answer questions about a tarpon's movement, such as, "Will a tarpon that was caught and genetically sampled in the waters by Egmont Key in Tampa Bay get recaptured down in the Florida Keys? If so, could the tarpon then swim toward the Sebastian Inlet near Melbourne, or will the tarpon return to Tampa Bay?"

How do we genetically sample a tarpon? A small sample of skin cells is all we need. We no longer need to place an external plastic or wire tag onto the fish that can fall off, break, or get covered in algae beyond recognition. A tarpon's DNA provides a natural tag of sorts that lasts forever. Using a small abrasive sponge to scrape skin cells from the outer jaw of the tarpon provides enough DNA for researchers to determine if a particular fish has been caught and sampled before.

These skin cell samples are relatively easy to take and do not harm the fish . A tarpon can be left in the water while taking the sample right at the side of the boat, so no possession tag is required to participate in this program. Each sample is processed at the FWRI laboratory in St. Petersburg for less than $3 each to give a unique DNA “fingerprint” for an individual tarpon. The technology allows FWRI biologists to identify individual tarpon with the odds of an error at less than one in a billion (1:1,000,000,000). In fact, FWRI scientists have already verified that 23 tarpon were recaptured since the program went statewide in 2006.

We urge tarpon anglers from around the state to join the Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study. The program relies on tarpon anglers to obtain the samples in an effort to learn about tarpon. Over 3,000 samples have been collected thanks to public support and participation. To obtain a DNA sample kit and instructions, call 1-800-367-4461 or e-mail TarponGenetics@MyFWC.com. The kits have no expiration date and no refrigeration is required to store a sample. Just remember to fill out the data slip when a DNA sample is taken. A pencil is provided in the kit. Please consider becoming a volunteer today.