Distance bonefish swims is a record
Experts were surprised that a Florida fish was caught in the Bahamas.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
MIAMI -- A Fort Myers dermatologist wade-fishing last December on Andros Island in the Bahamas inadvertently has turned the state of current bonefish research on its head.
Dr. Brian Harris cast a fly to a bonefish tailing at Russell Creek on South Bight on Dec. 29 and caught it -- only mildly surprised to see that the fish bore an external tag. Using his fly rod as a gauge, Harris estimated its length at 281/2 inches and its weight at 8 pounds. Trying to clean algae off the tag, he accidentally removed it and decided to call the number printed on it.
Harris figured the fish probably would turn out to be one of those tagged at nearby Mangrove Cay.
Boy, did he turn out to be wrong!
The fish had been tagged Feb. 11, 2005, off Key Biscayne by noted Miami flats guide Joe Gonzalez. During its 10 months at large, it had gained an inch in length and traveled 186 miles across the Gulf Stream -- the longest bonefish movement ever recorded. The previous record-holder was a fish tagged off Key Largo that swam 75 miles to the waters off Big Pine Key.
What was learned
The fact that we've got a Florida fish in the Bahamas causes some consternation," said Jerry Ault, assistant professor at University of Miami's Rosenstiel School who launched the South Florida tagging program in 1998. "It opens a Pandora's box of scientific research. Suddenly, east has met west."
Previously, Florida bonefish were not believed to be mixing with those in the Bahamas.
Since 1998, Ault, his researcher colleagues, and 95 guides have tagged 3,855 bonefish from Key Biscayne to Key West, with 111 recaptures. In most cases, the fish had traveled under 12 miles.
But Ault notes that the bones that travel the greatest distances are sexually mature, leading to the theory that they might spawn offshore and then return home to their favorite flats. But nobody knows for sure what fish do while at large, since tagging data simply shows where they were at two points in time.
"We don't know if [Harris' fish] shares its genes in the Bahamas or is it just an anomalous situation," Ault said. "It makes sense to tag fish in the Bahamas to see if they come here."
One bit of anecdotal information that always has intrigued bonefishermen and researchers is that Keys bones tend to be large, while the Bahamas has greater numbers. Andros, a large, sparsely populated island, long has been known for both large-size and numbers of bonefish. Harris' inadvertent discovery leads to all sorts of questions, such as: What is the size of the breeding stock and which group is breeding where; what are the impacts of exploitation and loss of nursery habitats; and what is the magnitude of interaction between eastern and western bonefish?
"It brings up all levels of connection," Ault said. "Suddenly, a bonefish's life is a lot tougher than we ever thought it was. It's not just a little jaunt across the straits; it's a hell ride."
A ride in which marlin, sailfish and heaven-knows-what-else try to feed on the fast-moving silver torpedoes as they struggle against Gulf Stream currents. Those bonefish lucky enough to survive the crossing are then sought for food by handline and net fishermen in the Bahamas, where they are used for food as well as sport.
Harris is a bit bemused by the hoopla surrounding his discovery.
"I'm still a little bit surprised," he said. "I think it's so cool that the fish did what it did, and I'm surprised we didn't know that."