Catching a permit on fly is arguably the most challenging and rewarding endeavor in fishing. Though these fish are found throughout the Caribbean, the Florida Keys is the epicenter for catching trophy permit. With 33 of the 36 fly-caught world records occurring in Florida Keys waters, the Florida Keys permit fishery is truly special and iconic. In partnership with Costa Del Mar, the Lower Keys Guides Association, and the March Merkin, Project Permit seeks to conserve and restore the Keys’ permit fishery. This critical work is done by protecting the habitats that support permit and by providing data necessary to improve fisheries regulations and water quality.

A PATHWAY FOR PERMIT tells the story of the collaborative efforts of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, COSTA, and fishing guides to conserve and protect the Florida Keys’ iconic permit fishery, and provide the information resource managers need to better manage the fishery.

When Project Permit began in 2011, little was known about the elusive species, revered and coveted by flats guides and anglers. The initial goal of the project was to attain a basic understanding of permit movements in Florida waters, to answer the question: Are the permit in the Florida Keys the same fish that anglers pursue in other parts of the state? The project began as a dart-tagging study in Florida, relying on scientists and guides to tag fish and record recaptures, providing initial data on movement and habitat use. Dart-tagging for Project Permit was also done in Belize and Mexico. In 2015, the Florida portion of the project expanded to include the use of acoustic telemetry, allowing further insight into permit movements and providing new information on spawning behavior.

Now, more than a decade later, more than 1,000 permit have been tagged with dart tags, and 150 permit have been tagged with acoustic transmitters. The acoustic tracking portion of the study, originally designed as a three-year study but extended to five years, concluded its tagging phase in 2019.

Not only has the research contributed greatly to our knowledge of permit, it has ensured the conservation and protection of the species. In 2011, based on the series of public meetings that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff held and BTT’s input, FWC decided to create the Special Permit Zone (SPZ) and split permit from pompano in terms of management. This was the beginning of Project Permit, with dart tagging beginning at the same time to determine if the SPZ was large enough to protect the flats fishery. Data from Project Permit were later instrumental in Florida FWC’s 2018 expansion of the SPZ’s permit spawning season closure to include the month of April.

Three years later, a depredation study funded by BTT helped inform FWC’s decision in February 2021 to establish the seasonal no-fishing closure at Western Dry Rocks (WDR) to protect vulnerable permit and other species during spawning. The study showed that an average of 39 percent of hooked permit are lost to sharks at Western Dry Rocks. This high mortality rate makes the Western Dry Rocks fishery unsustainable and impacts the population of permit that live on Lower Keys flats.

FWC is requiring updates on regulation effectiveness at three, five, and seven years, with a sunset clause at seven years if the seasonal no-fishing closure is not meeting expectations. To ensure that FWC has sufficient data for evaluating the effectiveness of the closure, BTT launched in 2022 a monitoring program at WDR and three other critical permit spawning sites in the Lower Florida Keys over the next three years. BTT scientists expect that the spawning season closure will have positive impacts on the behavior of permit at WDR, resulting in more relaxed schooling behaviors and enabling spawning fish to remain at the site longer. BTT will work with collaborators from previous permit research projects to test these predictions by comparing data collected at WDR with data from three other known permit spawning locations where fishing is still allowed.

The three-year monitoring program will utilize acoustic telemetry, sonar technology and laser-mount underwater cameras to monitor permit spawning behaviors, estimate permit abundance, and estimate permit size. The program will also employ methods previously used at WDR to determine rates of depredation at spawning locations that are still fished. BTT will determine at the end of three years if additional monitoring will be conducted.

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