There you are in Boca Grande Pass, a world-renowned tarpon hotspot, and you’ve got a silver king on the end of your line right now. It’s already jumped a couple times, and those images are imprinted in your mind forever. Now you’re down to the hard part of the fight — muscling the fish to the boat. But you’re still pumping plenty of adrenaline, and you’re up for it.
Suddenly the fish surges, hard and fast. Then you see a huge gray dorsal fin come up out of the water, like the scythe of the grim reaper himself. The tarpon darts one way and another, but its movements are limited because there’s still a fishing line connected to his face. What do you do?
Too late. It takes only seconds for the 13-foot hammerhead shark to catch your fish, and you see the blood spreading in the water. It’s over — the shark has bitten out the tarpon’s belly, and with it the millions of eggs she was carrying.
Now, how do you feel about this? Is this a tragedy because a tarpon that might have been 50 years old has just died? Is it a Wild Kingdom moment, like seeing a lion take down a zebra? Are you awed to be in the presence of a magnificent predator? Do you want to kill that pestilential shark? Are you sad, angry, thrilled, shaken, or a mix of all of the above?
I know a lot of folks are not at all happy when scenes like this play out, and it’s been happening a lot lately. There has been much grumbling in the tackle shops about sharks eating tarpon that are being fought or have just been released. I can understand the sentiment, but let’s cut away the emotion and get down to some facts.
Big fish eat little fish. That’s basic, and none of us has an issue with it — unless we’re trying to catch the little fish. Then we regard it as theft, and often there’s a feeling that the thief needs punishment. It’s not just sharks and tarpon — it’s goliath grouper taking snapper and other reef fish, it’s barracuda cutting the back half off of amberjack, it’s blacktips chomping trout on the flats.
To the sharks, tarpon are not magnificent. They’re not sacred. They’re not anything except a source of calories that couldn’t come at a better time.
Most of you know the tarpon come here to spawn. So do the sharks. Charlotte Harbor is a fertile nursery — a great place for young sharks to grow up. And so pregnant bull sharks and great hammerheads show up to give birth to their offspring. Making babies takes a huge toll on their bodies, and naturally they need a lot of food to replenish themselves.
Tarpon are the source of that food, just as they have been for millions of years. Sharks didn’t start eating tarpon when we started fishing for them. Boca Grande Pass has run red with tarpon blood for as long it’s been in existence.
Now, we have made one change. Before sportfishing, sharks chose the individual tarpon they killed in the same way that all predators select a meal: The weak, the sick, the injured, and the just plain unlucky basically volunteered themselves into the food chain. Today, we have unnatural selection. The tarpon we hook are the ones that are likely to end up dinner.
So what should we do about it? I’m aware this is going to be an unpopular opinion with some of you, but — nothing. Nothing at all. The “predator control” some tarpon anglers advocate is a joke (or would be, if it were funny). Despite the fact that sharks seem to be highly abundant here, they’re just concentrated by their prey. Do you look at a salmon stream full of bears and think the grizzlies must be overpopulating? News flash: They’re not. Neither are the sharks.
Predators don’t overpopulate. Their numbers are directed by their prey. If the population of prey increases, so does the population of predators. Prey decreases, predators do too. And prey animals need their predators to remove the sick before they infect the rest, to take out the weak before they dilute the gene pool, to keep that whole “survival of the fittest” thing going.
But if we look with an unbiased eye, we can find a villain in the cast of this play — and he’s holding a fishing rod. If you really think this situation is a problem, there’s one quick and simple solution. It’s not cutting the tails off sharks or setting up a tarpon hatchery. All you have to do is stop fishing for tarpon, and then the sharks will have to go back to catching their own.
Here it is in a nutshell: To the sharks, tarpon are food they need to survive. To us, tarpon are a sportfish we need to amuse ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we intentionally feed fish to sharks, nor am I saying it’s a good thing to have predators taking fish off our lines — but we need to recognize reality. So, again: Why are you so upset about sharks eating a tarpon?
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.