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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 Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI), is seeking to discover the methods of spawning and rearing bonefish in captivity as one of many possible tools in future restoration efforts. Bonefish are integral to Florida’s travel and tourism industry, with the flats fishery in the Keys contributing an estimated $465 million to the state’s economy Following years of decline, today’s bonefish population may be too small to be self-sustaining. As BTT works to identify and address the causes of decline over the years, we may also find that the population requires a boost to recover to self-sustaining levels. 
BTT 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 conduct a five-year research program, focusing solely on bonefish reproductive biology. It does not fund the construction or operation of a hatchery or the production of cultured bonefish, which is not in the purview of BTT’s mission.


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. In addition, preliminary research of the bonefish spawning process in The Bahamas suggests that bonefish require high numbers to successfully spawn.

Our Response

Researchers at the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and Harbor Branch are seeking to bring adult fish to a reproductive condition in laboratory settings and learn how to rear their unusual larvae and small juveniles. Success in this endeavor will allow us to learn more about the reproductive biology of these fish, which will help inform future conservation efforts.

Learn More and Donate

Please contact Mark Rehbein, BTT’s Director of Development, at 786-618-9479 or 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. 

As BTT and collaborators learn the causes of the bonefish population decline, we will formulate and implement strategies to correct the problems. Once this is accomplished, however, we fear that the bonefish population might still be too small to sustain itself. If this is the case, having the ability for partners to use stocking in a limited and prescribed manner to boost the Keys bonefish population could prove valuable to the fishery. Similarly, if the Keys are ever struck by a catastrophic event further reducing or even decimating the bonefish population, we want to have ready the means for our partners to respond. 

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 is not a stocking program and not a hatchery. This is a research project to understand bonefish reproductive biology, to learn about the “leptocephalus” larval stage, and to learn about juvenile bonefish biology. This knowledge will increase BTT’s ability to focus conservation efforts in the Florida Keys and elsewhere – for example, by prioritizing habitat protection locations. This project is not intended to create a hatchery. It does not fund the construction or operation of a hatchery, and BTT will never operate such a hatchery. Ultimately, that would be the responsibility of our public partners. It is intended to provide an additional tool in the restoration toolbox. In other work, BTT and collaborators are conducting research to determine the causes of the bonefish population in the Florida Keys. Likely culprits are water quality, habitat loss, chemical contamination. As these causes are determined, BTT will work with collaborators and management agencies to devise restoration strategies.

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

A:  With restoration, bonefish populations should rebound. If, however, they do not rebound, we want to have the ability to provide a short-term, limited population boost that helps the population get to a self-sustaining level. If more than a short-term boost is needed, then the causes of the population decline have not all be identified or have not been adequately addressed, and the restoration effort would refocus on fixing these problems, not putting more fish in the water by stocking. There is no sense stocking bonefish into an ecosystem that is unable to support them.

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 few 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 the 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 the survival of larvae and juveniles. We’ll also learn a lot about what habitats juveniles use in the Florida Keys, and how they use these 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.