Boca Grande is the historical site of the tarpon fishery, center of tarpon reproduction and a way station for tarpon that make up the fishery for much of the region.
Charlotte Harbor, and specifically Cape Haze, is also Mote Marine Laboratory's historical home. When Mote opened in 1955 as the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, it was based in Placida.
In January, Mote will revitalize its regional presence with a new satellite office in Boca Grande to help with marine research undertaken by Mote in Charlotte Harbor and Southwest Florida. It will also highlight new research directions designed to support conservation of fisheries and habitat.
The office is being opened under the auspices of a community-wide grassroots committee to increase knowledge of and support for the region's important marine environment and the conservation of it.
The effort is being spearheaded by Boca Grande residents Andy Ireland, an honorary Mote trustee, and Capt. Philip O'Bannon, who will be executive director of the new Mote Office in Boca Grande.
Work is already under way to expand Mote's Beach Conditions Report, which provides information about whether beaches are affected by red tide and other environmental conditions to two sites on the island thanks to an anonymous donation.
"A lot of people think that scientific knowledge flows only one way: from scientists to the community," said Michael Crosby, senior vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory. "But over Mote's nearly 60-year history we've shown that isn't true. As an independent organization not tied to government or a university, we've always depended on strong ties to the communities that we work in. We've often found that we have as much to learn from local residents as we can share.
"This is an exciting partnership that we are embarking on - together."
The new Mote satellite office will be located in Railroad Plaza. It is will be a resource where residents and visitors can learn more about tarpon, snook, shark and red tide research programs under way now as well as all the research programs Mote undertakes in Sarasota and other areas in Florida and around the world. With it will come a series of regular lectures on marine science topics and updates on Mote's worldwide activities.
O'Bannon, a 40-year Island fishing guide, said he is excited to be leading the way.
"I've spent my life on the water and now this is my opportunity to give something back - to help make sure we have healthy fisheries for future generations."
Charlotte Harbor is one of the nation's few remaining healthy estuaries. While there has been degradation over time with increased habitat destruction and other environmental changes, strong science-based conservation programs will play a critical role in keeping the fisheries healthy.
"This is the world's tarpon fishing capital and it's also a pretty important place for snook and other gamefish," said Boca Grande resident and former U.S. Rep. Andy Ireland, an honorary Mote Marine Laboratory trustee. "This fishery alone is worth millions of dollars to the region's economy, but more importantly, it's an invaluable part of the fabric of our community."
The privilege of living in the Tarpon Capital of the World also comes with a responsibility, he said.
"We need to be good stewards of our marine environment. To have good stewardship of a resource, you need to have the participation of knowledgeable residents. We hope the creation of this new satellite office will help bring that about."
The following are summaries of Mote research under way in the Harbor and possible areas of expansion:
The magnificent tarpon fishery of Boca Grande is possible because tarpon use Boca Grande Pass and Charlotte Harbor as a gathering place during spawning season. Tens of thousands of tarpon gather in the Pass annually as part of a pre-spawning aggregation.
Near the full and new moons of late May through early July, groups of tarpon leave the Pass and migrate offshore to spawn. Mote is already working with the state to track tarpon in the wild using DNA samples collected by anglers. Studies also include tagging tarpon with satellite transmitters to determine movement patterns.
Now, Mote is proposing the first large-scale acoustic tagging project of adult tarpon. This groundbreaking initiative, including partnership with fishing guides and anglers, will determine the movements of tarpon.
An array of 100 receivers will be placed in multiple habitats around Charlotte Harbor, including the passes, along beaches, rivers and within the estuary to record movements of each fish. The information will be used to understand tarpon habitat use and how tarpon respond to changes in fishing pressure and river flow. The receivers will also tell us whether tarpon return to Boca Grande Pass after spawning offshore and whether they return year after year.
The tagging approach will also reveal how tarpon respond to stressors.
Studies have shown snook return to the same beaches to spawn annually and individual juvenile snook find a single mangrove creek and live out the first year of their lives in it. This level of fidelity to single locations creates challenges for conservation if a specific juvenile or spawning habitat location is damaged. This suggests successful management of snook in Charlotte Harbor must come from managing the estuary's snook population, rather than addressing management on a wider, regional scale.
Not enough is known about the Boca Grande-Charlotte Harbor snook population to make informed decisions on the best management plan for the long-term sustainability of the Charlotte Harbor population yet.
Snook studies will include: acoustic tagging, genetic tracking, otolith chemistry and stock enhancement of snook and tarpon
Florida saltwater fishing brings in $5.1 billion annually. Florida anglers know fishing here now is not what it once was.
Because snook and tarpon have similar life histories as juveniles, a two-pronged initiative has been proposed that combines aquaculture-based stock enhancement of wild populations and the restoration of critical habitats to ensure the long-term viability of species in the Boca Grande-Charlotte Harbor region.
Mass production of snook through aquaculture is "shovel ready" at Mote Aquaculture Park and could be the source for a significant stock enhancement initiative. For tarpon, however, much better understanding and development of larval foods is required and is likely many years away.
Mote proposes to survey the Charlotte Harbor region to identify critical habitats for juvenile tarpon and snook, determine which of these locations are protected, which need protection and which require restoration and then design and conduct the restoration projects.
Mote scientists will work with recreational anglers and resource management agencies to identify and map these areas and, once identified, locations will be sampled to estimate abundance, growth and survival. Locations identified as healthy habitats will be targeted for protection.
Florida red tides are caused by a single-celled organism called a dinoflagellate. Its species name is Karenia brevis and it occurs naturally throughout the Gulf, but causes problems when the population of cells increases dramatically - what's known as a red tide bloom, which can produce potent toxins that affect humans and animals.
Mote has created the Sarasota Operations of the Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratories as part of a nationwide network of ocean observatories that provide real-time information about coastal marine conditions to a variety of stakeholders. SO COOL in Boca Grande will give residents and tourists web-based daily updates on environmental conditions, including red tide and any respiratory irritation it is causing, as well as fish kills and other impacts on the beaches.
The Mote Beach Conditions Report System (www.mote.org/beaches) covers 26 beaches along Florida's Gulf Coast from the Panhandle south to Lee County. Reports are provided by specially trained and equipped volunteer observers and updated twice daily (at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.), 365 days a year.
Mote has also designed a special scientific instrument that can continuously monitor water for red tide. These special instruments are placed in underwater robots that are then sent to patrol the Gulf for red tide.
Beach Conditions Reports will be added from the north and south ends of Boca Grande with five missions of three weeks each for Mote's underwater robots to patrol Boca Grande's coastal waters.
Mote proposes an intensive new research initiative on the sharks of Boca Grande. Conventional, acoustic and satellite tagging of bull sharks and great hammerheads in Boca Grande Pass will help understand their short and long-term movements and behavior.
Abundance surveys of keystone species of sharks in the Pass and adjacent areas will quantify the number, size, sex and seasonality of the large shark population.
Studies of the fine-scale behavior of the sharks of the Pass, using advanced technology called data loggers that are temporarily attached to the sharks, will use accelerometers to record the exact movements of the sharks millisecond-by-millisecond. It will reveal how they move inside the Pass, how they hunt for tarpon and other prey, their energy requirements and even behaviors as mating and courtship. It also will reveal how sharks behave after they are caught and released, which provides vital data for managing shark populations.