The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is under scrutiny after DNA results indicate at least one tarpon was slaughtered by a PTTS "revival team."
The latest chapter involves a tarpon caught by Capt. T.J. Stewart of Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats, a PTTS competitor who won the June 17 PTTS Tarpon Cup and the keys to a new ZX-22 "Bay" with a Yamaha SHO engine.
Stewart, also a contributor to the Mote Marine/Florida Wildlife Commission DNA study, is recognized as one of Florida's top 10 DNA samplers (anglers swab tarpon and send samples to St. Petersburg).
A 124-pound tarpon gutted and found floating in the Gulf of Mexico June 4 had been cut open in what now is seen as an illegal attempt to sink the fish.
An out-of-town guide who asked her name not to be used later found a 124-pound tarpon gutted and floating in the Gulf of Mexico June 4. It was cut open in what now is seen as an attempt to sink the fish so it couldn't be DNA tested and traced back to the PTTS.
This fish, belly intact, had been sampled the previous day at the PTTS scales.
This is a social and cultural problem. It is not a legal problem," said Capt. Tom McLaughlin of the Save the Tarpon organization in Boca Grande.
PTS boats, gaffs, drags, hoists and weighs tarpon, a stress blamed for the deaths of thousands by McLaughlin's count. But little can be done.
"There's nothing illegal about anything they are doing with a tag," he said. "But they are unethical and misleading the public with their TV show. That tag is a kill tag. When you buy that tag you've killed the fish as far as the state is concerned. They view every tag as a tarpon was killed whether it's dead or not.
Stewart's tarpon was DNA sampled by the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. Matching DNA samples confirmed it was the same fish found gutted and floating near Boca Grande Pass in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last seen being hauled away from the scales behind the Sea Hunt-sponsored, "Tires Plus Release Team" boat, the fish had been gutted from tip to tail. A second DNA sample was taken and sent to St. Pete.
FWRI assistant research scientist Kathy Guindon said there's no question the gutted fish photographed and swabbed June 4 was the same fish caught, swabbed and given to the PTTS "Tires Plus Release Team" June 3 by Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats.
Six fish DNA sampled during the PTTS 2012 season were later found. Four were dead including the one gutted. Guindon characterized a fifth fish as "suspicious."
Guindon told Save The Tarpon that "research results did show the weighed-in fish are more physiologically stressed. One can presume mortality rates are higher in these weighed-in, longer-handled fish."
"I think it's time something is done about this," Lew Hastings of the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce in a post to Linked-In. "Agreed?"
The fish-gutting revealed by the DNA samples in FWRI possession likely took place virtually under the noses of the same researchers PTTS claims to support, according to Save the Tarpon officials. In September, PTTS television host and spokesman Joe Mercurio stood in front of the seven FWC commissioners and said: "The PTTS has worked closely with biologists from (the) Fish and Wildlife Institute to make sure we all benefit from the best science available."
"We have definitive proof via that Joe Mercurio is lying," McLaughlin said. "I'd like to see the PTTS go to a leader-release format. The bigger problem is they have used their TV show to defend gaff and drag."