Studying tarpon with … balloons?

May 22, 2015
By Boca Beacon

tarpon jump with balloonBY JACK SHORT – Scientists from the Florida Institute of Technology hope everyone fishing the pass next week won’t be alarmed by the presence of an eight foot balloon floating 150 feet in the air, tethered to the back of a research vessel.
They’re working out a concept for tracking tarpon schools, perhaps as far as 80 or 90 miles offshore to the edge of the western shelf in the gulf of Mexico.
That’s where lead scientist Dr. Jon Shenker thinks tarpon from areas around Boca Grande may be going to spawn. The other location is near the Mississippi river mouth delta, he said, very close to where the Deepwater Horizon oil rig discharged record amounts of oil into the gulf after an explosion in 2010.
He’d like to know the spawning behavior of tarpon so that, ultimately, informed decisions can be made about projects such as drilling on the same part of the western shelf, 90 miles off Boca Grande’s shoreline, where he and researchers sampled tarpon larvae with plankton nets. Some of those larvae were barely a quarter inch long.
For that excursion they went aboard the Bellows, an 80-foot research vessel provided by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which is the same they’ll be using for their upcoming project. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust has also contributed several thousand dollars, Shenker said, to pay for cameras and other equipment, and FIT is providing support.
The task at hand, he said, is to see if the balloon will provide them with enough visual data to track the movement of tarpon schools. Shenker was inspired by a ride in Mark Futch’s plane last year, he said. After that, his team tried using drones, but the batteries only allowed them keep the small devices in the air for about 25 minutes.
So, next week for two days between May 30 and June 2, depending on weather, they will fly the balloon from the back of the Bellows, just offshore. It is eight feet wide with an FIT logo on one side and a BTT logo on the other. Flying 100 to 150 feet in the air, it will provide a 500- to 800-foot wide path of visibility.
“ … and we’ll see if we can see the tarpon,” he said. “This is a proof of concept study.”
He wants to assure the fishermen, he said, that nothing they do is meant to target or interfere with their activities.
After that two-day phase, he said, they’ll return to the site 90 miles offshore with plankton nets for more sampling.
Data gathered about tarpon spawning habits will be used in conjunction with data being gathered over the long term from inshore sampling efforts to find out about the effect of human activities, like offshore drilling, on one of Southwest Florida’s most prized gamefish.
“My big worry is that there’s a lot of interest in drilling off the western shelf and that seems to be where the tarpon are doing their spawning,” Shenker said.
This tarpon spawning study, he hopes, will yield meaningful results in three to five years, while building an index of the abundance of tarpon gathered from inshore studies may take as long as five years.