Texas Tarpon: The Mighty Silver King
Article by Russell A. Graves
The sun was just peeking over the water when we launched from the boat ramp near Rockport. Beautiful and calm, Aransas Bay behind the expansive San Jose Island is isolated from the enormous Gulf of Mexico by the protective barrier islands. To the west, the gulf’s water is decidedly briny with a salinity of about 36 parts per thousand. Further east, the Aransas River flows fresh water into Copano Bay which then empties into Aransas Bay creating a brackish estuary flush with fish and wildlife.
The rich waters of the Texas bays fed by freshwater nutrients from Texas rivers mix with equally rich gulf water to create a natural nursery. Here, numerous fish species lay eggs where the fry will grow and return to the gulf. The rich and protective estuaries are habitats for a number of fish species including the mystical Atlantic tarpon.
As my guide and I cruise the deep waters on the inland side of San Jose Island, I keep my eyes peeled for the rolling color flash that signals a surfacing tarpon. I see porpoises breech and jellyfish float away but never spot a tarpon because it’s May and the water is still too cool.
The best time for seeing and catching tarpon is right now when the water is warm along the Texas coast—and I’m planning another trip soon.
The tarpon is a member of the Megalops genus which includes all of the world’s tarpons. The species that inhabits the waters off the Texas coast is the Atlantic tarpon which has a range from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Africa and down the eastern coastal areas of North and South America. The fish has even been documented as far north as Nova Scotia. While it lives most of its life in the open water, the tarpon is also found in rivers and estuaries that border open waters.
An ancient species, the tarpon has swum the earth’s waters for over 100 million years. This prehistoric looking fish, which can live to be 80 years old, has bright silver scales, a strong angular jaw and can grow up to 350 pounds and to more than eight feet long. Given the nickname The Silver King by anglers, the tarpon’s long, slender shape allows it to swim quickly and easily over great distances. They feed on crustaceans and small fish.
After reaching sexual maturity at about four years, the females lay their eggs in the open water near the coasts. Currents then carry the larvae inshore to the estuaries where they brood and mature. Spawning takes place usually in the summer when the fish swim in schools that can include more than 200 individuals.
One unusual thing about tarpon is their ability to breathe surface air. They possess an adaptation where they can gulp air when they come to the surface, store the oxygen in their air bladder and use it in order to respirate in waters where oxygen levels may be low.
The tarpon is not a commercially fished species, but it is a favorite among sport anglers because tarpon fight hard and often going airborne.
The History of Texas Tarpon
Once the species were so common along the Texas coast that Port Aransas, originally named Ropesville, changed its name to Tarpon Tarpon in 1896 to celebrate the local fishery. The town’s name was permanently changed to Port Aransas 15 years later
According to the Port Aransas Museum of History, “The reputation of Tarpon, Texas spread. Soon, a Mr. Ned Green came to fish the local waters. The tarpon so awed this wealthy New Yorker, that by 1899 he had built a palatial structure on the tip of San José Island, just across the Aransas Pass from Tarpon. Green dubbed his creation the Tarpon Club, a membership venue where the standard was set by culinary dishes to satisfy even the keenest gourmet. Of course, members hired islanders as fishing and hunting (waterfowl) guides. The New York Times published articles about the Tarpon Club that brought even international attention to Mustang Island and its little community of Tarpon….”
Texas’ first saltwater fishing tournament, known as the Tarpon Rodeo, was held in the area, From 1932 until 1958, this annual event lured anglers to local bays. In the 1950s the decline in tarpon numbers became noticeable.
David Sikes with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported in a June 2011 Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine article that although tarpon harvest is regulated in the U.S. that is not the case everywhere. In fact, scientists suspect that over harvest of tarpon off of Mexico helped cause the species’ demise.
“Kill tournaments are big in Mexico, particularly near Veracruz,” wrote Sikes. “The rise in these activities coincided with the decline of Texas tarpon in the mid-20th century.”
According to a 2013 Texas Monthly article by Stephen Harrigan, many point to the drought in the 1950s as one of the culprits of the tarpon decline. He wrote, “To protect itself against a future drought of that magnitude, Texas went on a dam-building spree, trapping in reservoirs much of the freshwater that used to flow into the bays. The resulting increase in salinity affected the populations of crab and shrimp and other food sources that had made the inland waters such a hospitable place for tarpon to linger. The dredging of ship channels, the surge in oil and gas production along the coast, and the pollutant-rich runoff from cascading development further damaged the quality of the water.”
In the article, Harrigan also cited the increase in boat traffic caused the wary tarpon to spook and leave the area.
The majestic fish was all but extirpated in Texas waters.
The Case for a Healthy Water System
In Texas, 11 river systems drain into the Gulf of Mexico. Only two rivers, the Red and the Canadian, end by emptying their contents into river systems that flow into the Gulf of Mexico outside of Texas.
Billions of gallons of water flow from Texas upstream sources into the gulf estuaries. Historically, the estuaries formed as rainfall and springs dumped fresh water into streams, creeks and then rivers as they flowed unimpeded to the gulf. The fresh water flowed into the bays, while tides and hurricanes forced saltwater beyond the barrier islands to the large estuaries where the fresh and saltwater mixed into a rich, briny solution.
While river and creek water was impounded for municipal and agricultural use in the aftermath of the 1950s drought, water flow was slowed. As the state increasingly urbanized, the need for water increased. When the in-stream flows diminished , so did the bays’ salinity increased..
In addition, manufacturing and petrochemical wastes, sewage and agricultural runoff all affected the productivity of the bays and brackish marshes. In addition to tarpon, oyster beds, shrimp production and a host of other wildlife species declined because of the change in water chemistry.
These declines in the quantity and quality of freshwater flow affect a large portion of the Texas coastal economy, which benefits from the productivity of Texas bays and estuaries each year.
In 2016, commercial and sport fishing added $2.4 billion into the state’s economy. The total impact of the fishing industry to include all economic impact associated with commercial and recreational fishing is estimated by some to be over $5.7 billion in 2017.
The Texas tarpon, it seems, is making a comeback. Because tarpon are not typically viewed today as an edible fish, their overharvest in American waters is in check and people are actually paying attention to the remarkable fish.
The Tarpon and Bonefish Center at the University of Miami is conducting an ambitious project fitting tarpon with satellite tags that help track their movement through the gulf and Atlantic waters.
While the center has several tarpons to track on their website, the fish tagged 67A shows its tag originated near Veracruz, Mexico on July 5, 2007. As the fish traveled north during the summer, it hugged the coast as it moved through the warm waters and next to the estuarial breeding grounds.
Around Aransas Pass, the fish ceased its northern migration and spent about a month off the Texas coast before proceeding up the Mississippi River Delta. A trip that took about two months in all before the tag was retrieved.
Analysis of other tarpon show the same general trend: tarpons prefer the gulf waters off the Texas coast.
The pause in their travel corresponds with their breeding season, which is the reason health of tarpon in Texas waters ultimately depends on Texas’ inland and offshore waters.
The Tarpon and Bonefish Center’s data corresponds with eyewitness data that’s been compiled by the Texas Tarpon Observation Network (TTON), a citizen-scientist effort organized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to gather data from the public. . The department hopes that these observations will give some insight on juvenile tarpons’ use of estuaries and how adults maneuver around introduced habitat features like jetties, oil platforms or artificial reefs.
According to TTON data, Texas tarpon sightings spike in August and September, taper sharply after November and stay relatively stagnant until the next summer.
Since the TTON program began in 1974, the number of total tarpon sightings has been trending upward. In 2009 and 2010, the numbers spiked drastically but leveled off the next year. As a result of the TTON program, The TPWD has roughly doubled the amount of tarpon sighting data they’ve collected.
It’s too early to tell but maybe the increased interest in the species combined witha cadre of citizen scientists and attention to the quality and quantity of in-stream flows will bring the tarpon back to the levels they were when the coast off of Aransas Pass was the premier place in North America for silver king fishing.