Summertime is the beach’s busy season for humans and a fish known as the “silver king.” Adult Megalops atlanticus, the scientific name for Atlantic tarpon, gather in Florida’s shallow waters each summer. These predatory animals feed on other fish like mullet in addition to invertebrates like crab and shrimp. Their signature under bite allows their mouth to expand and swallow their prey. The large mouth also allows more oxygen-rich water to flow over its gills, feeding their high oxygen demand.
However, baby tarpon spend their time in low-oxygen environments devoid of top predators including sharks and other tarpon. The species has developed a special adaptation that allows them to survive in these hypoxic environments. Tarpon can gulp air from the surface. An internal organ called the swim bladder pulls oxygen out of thin air (literally!) and funnels it into the bloodstream. This surface-breaching behavior causes the tarpon to roll, exposing its shiny scales to human eyes and anglers eager to catch the fish.
Tarpon are prized trophy fish known for their acrobatic antics. They’ve been documented leaping 20 feet into the air. With some females reaching just over eight feet long, reeling one in is no small feat and anglers pay dearly for the chance. Tourists from all over the world spend millions of dollars per year during Florida’s open tarpon season. This study done in Southwest Florida estimated that these fish contribute over 108 million dollars to the local economy including travel expenses, fishing gear, and charter rental.
It can take up to ten years for a tarpon to be able to produce offspring. If overfishing occurs, the impacts would be felt for years, affecting the recreational fishery and natural history of tarpon habitat. Check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) tarpon fishing page for all the restrictions in place that keep these fish populations healthy.
Can’t get enough of these fish? Purchase a Tarpon License Plate from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program! Funds support conservation and education projects in Tampa Bay, and you can drive with a pretty FIN-tastic piece of art.