The Florida Keys is the birthplace of flats fishing. Since the sport’s inception dating back to the 1940s, more world records for tarpon, bonefish and permit have been caught in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys than everywhere else in the world combined. When the fishery was at its best, the shallow waters of the Florida Keys attracted anglers from all over the world to chase trophy flats fish. Unfortunately, habitat loss and deteriorating water quality in the Keys, and harvest of flats species in areas outside of the Keys that are connected to our Keys fishery, have caused fishery declines.
The overarching goal of the Florida Keys Initiative is to restore the Florida Keys flats fishery to its world-class status. To achieve this goal, we follow a step-wise and science-based approach to obtain information necessary to create a recovery plan: we identify the special places and habitats that support our flats fishery; prioritize the threats those fish and habitats face; and lastly we work through advocacy, education and stewardship to alleviate those threats on the fish and the habitats that support them.
Our science-based approach is multi-faceted; this includes genetics studies that show a percentage of our Keys bonefish are spawned internationally in places like Belize and Mexico. Motivated by this discovery, we established a long-term conservation hub in the Yucatán to reduce commercial harvest and protect the habitats that support the international parents of our Keys bonefish. We also rely on animal tracking: our Tarpon Acoustic Tagging Project has successfully tagged and tracked nearly 200 tarpon. We learned that our Florida Keys tarpon repeatedly migrate to areas like North Carolina, where we have worked to make tarpon catch and release only, and improve catch and release regulations there. And Costa Del Mar’s Project Permit showed that permit are spawning in April, a month before the closed harvest spawning protection season for the species began. Empowered by BTT science, our state fisheries management agency, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, extended the closed harvest season for permit to include the month of April.
Angler partnerships are central to the Florida Keys Initiative. We work with both the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association and the Lower Keys Guides Association for shallow water habitat protection through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and to advocate for clean water and improving our water quality in the Florida Keys. Importantly, we work with the fishing community to continually advocate for best catch and release practices, ensuring released fish survive to be caught again.