The result should be a better understanding of "silver kings" and, ultimately, more tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico, according to UNO's Will Stein, who organized the workshop.
"This is the first consortium that has involved scientists from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas," he said. "We will be conducting collaborative research."
That's crucial because tarpon stocks aren't what they once were. Although tarpon appear to be recovering from 1970s-era lows, they still face significant challenges, Stein said.
"One of the things that's really hurting us is not getting young-of-the-year tarpon because we're losing so much of our coastal marshes. That's where tarpon grow up," he said.
There's not a South Louisiana resident who's unaware of that problem, but it's not limited to the Bayou State. The rest of the Gulf Coast has seen tarpon-stunting habitat declines.
"We've lost 50 percent of the mangrove marshes in Florida," Stein said. "There's been a loss of nursery habitat in all of the states. In Mississippi, there's a seawall now from Waveland past Gulfport. That all used to be marsh. In Texas, they've cut off a lot of the entrances to their coastal marshes."
Up until recently, none of the habitat alterations along the northern Gulf seemed to be a big deal to tarpon stocks. But research conducted by Stein and his team at UNO concluded that tarpon spawn off the Louisiana coast, and their offspring mature in our state's marshes.
Since they published their ground-breaking research, they've begun to look harder for juvenile tarpon and have located plenty within the coastline.
"You just need to know where to look," Stein said. "People aren't going to be fishing where we find young-of-the-year tarpon.
"Every once in a while, someone will find them. A guy called me from the Myrtle Grove Marina; he had caught a couple down there, but really, they're in places fishermen don't go -- shallow, stinky-water ponds."
The water in these areas is frequently hypoxic, which means it holds oxygen levels that are too low to support most fish. Tarpon, however, are able to gulp air to get oxygen, Stein said.
Tarpon love warm water, and Louisiana's climate is subtropical, but every now and then, we'll get a hard freeze like the area saw last week. Stein was eager to see how the juvenile fish fared in such harsh conditions.
"One of the biggest questions we had was whether the fish could overwinter here because when the water temperature gets to 50 degrees, if they don't find a place to hunker down, they die," he said. "In this last freeze, we had some folks looking down in Grand Isle because we had some tarpon down there; we know where they are. They lived through the freeze. The water temperature at the bottom where they were didn't get down to 50 degrees."
Most nearshore South Louisiana anglers have seen tarpon schools rolling off the coast of Grand Isle or near the mouth of the Mississippi River during the late summer and early fall months. Many anglers pine all year for that season when they can slow-troll their Coon Pops and other tarpon lures and watch the fish go absolutely bananas after they're hooked.
That action typically dies off after the first significant cool front of fall. At that point, the fish retreat to deeper, warmer offshore waters where they're difficult to target recreationally.
Still, though, some of the offshore fish are caught as bycatch by commercial fishers, particularly long-liners, Stein said.
Another concern is with the profound efficiency of the menhaden fleet, Stein said.
"The single biggest fish harvest commercially in the Gulf of Mexico is menhaden," he said. "We harvest approximately 900 million pounds a year. Menhaden are one of the prey items of tarpon, so we think that may be part of the issue also. They don't have enough to eat."
Recent research has begun to paint in the gaps of the tarpon portrait, but there's still much to learn about one of the most-fascinating and storied fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Stein is expecting the newly formed consortium to find answers that will lead to even more questions.
"It's very exciting what's going on," he said. "It's a great time to study tarpon."
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