Tagging and tracking programs are a fairly common tool used by fisheries managers to learn more about fish in order to better manage the resource. However, in these tough economic times, it’s hard to get enough funding to gather enough data via inhouse resources. What’s a scientist to do? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came up with an innovative idea: Create a contest and empower recreational anglers to collect that data for them.

The program is called the Tarpon DNA Sampling Program and it’s in its 9th year of existence. In this article from Coastal Angler, find out what the collected data reveals about this most prized of gamefish.


Fish tagging and marking is a common tool in fishery science and is used to obtain important information about a fish species. Scientists can learn fish swimming speeds, spawning habitats, reproductive biology, survival rates, growth rates, stock identification, abundance and more. While tarpon are a popular sport fish, relatively little of this information is known about the species. Recent advances in science have allowed biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Mote Marine Laboratory to work together with anglers to track individual tarpon. The Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study (TGRS) uses each tarpon’s unique fingerprint found in its DNA as a biological tag. With the help of volunteer anglers who submit DNA samples, the study has catalogued DNA from more than 22,000 tarpon samples since the pilot study in 2005.

Each time a tarpon is sampled it’s considered an event, and a fish that has been sampled more than once is considered a recapture. To collect genetic samples from tarpon, volunteer anglers use a small piece of abrasive sponge (part of a free DNA kit provided to interested participants) to scrape some skin cells from the outer jaw of the tarpon. Anglers then submit these samples to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute with the accompanying catch information (time, date, location). Once researchers receive these samples, geneticists extract DNA from the skin cells. This DNA identification can determine recapture rates of tarpon in the fishery. These recaptures provide evidence of long-term survival from fishing events and insight into the seasonal and regional movements of individual fish.

Photos: Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (top); Coastal Angler (above)