Hawaii Bonefish Conservation
Hawaii Bonefish Conservation | Since big bonefish are near and dear to our hearts here at Bonefish Hawaii, we’re doing everything we can to support Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s efforts to understand more about bonefish worldwide. This article appeared in the Spring 2009 BTT Journal
Piecing Together the Puzzle | Bonefish research is much the same as fishing for them: Just when you think you’ve got them all figured out, they humble you. Even so, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s scientists remain focused and persistent – and it’s paying off.
It wasn’t very long ago that everyone believed the Caribbean-Western Atlantic population of bonefish targeted by anglers was only one species – Albula vulpes. All that changed in 2001 when another species of bonefish was identified known as Albula species B, more popularly called Albula Garcia. In late 2008, BTT-supported scientists using fin clips learned of a third species of bonefish on the flats of the Caribbean.
When you consider that the three species appear to be identical in physical appearance, the long-term confusion becomes understandable. Only by using genetics can we differentiate them and begin to understand which species is most important to the recreational fishery.We’ve been collaborating with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by sending fin tissues to their Fish and Wildlife Research Institute lab. Liz Wallace, the geneticist working on the project, has found that more than 90 percent of the bonefish tested are Albula vulpes. The other two species have also been caught during the study, and amazingly on three occasions Albula vulpes and one of the other species were caught by the same angler – in one case from the same school of fish. Those incidents make research and conservation even more challenging, because it’s easier to manage one species in a fishery rather than three.
More genetic samples are needed in additional locations, so please help out if you can. We’ve received fin clippings from the Florida Keys, The Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Belize, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Turks & Caicos. Samples from new areas will give us a better determination of how often each of these species is caught by recreational anglers. We can also begin to learn how bonefish populations throughout the Caribbean are related, which is essential information for bonefish conservation and management.
As if trying to figure out which bonefish species support the fishery isn’t difficult enough, recent research threw another wrench into the mix. In order to determine habitats used by juvenile bonefish, we caught a lot of the youngsters along sandy beaches in the Florida Keys and Belize. But when we tested them genetically, we discovered that over 95 percent were the second species – Albula species B.
If we still believed only one species of shallow-water bonefish inhabited the Caribbean, our discovery of juveniles would have seemingly solved the puzzle. But going down that road would’ve focused conservation efforts on sandy beaches as important juvenile bonefish habitats. In so doing, the actual habitats of juvenile Albula vulpes may never have been discovered. Thanks to the genetic work, we’re instead moving in the right direction.
In 2009 we’re resuming our search for juvenile Albula vulpes. We’re especially concerned about finding juvenile bonefish habitats because the young ones usually take the brunt of coastal habitat degradation that threatens coastal gamefish. Our research will take place in the Florida Keys, The Bahamas and Belize. Hopefully we can find juvenile Albula vulpes this time around and get to work on protecting their habitats.
Side note- We are also fortunate to have a Bonefish specie unique to the Hawaiian Islands, Albula virgata, or Sharp Jaw Bonefish. Some of you have been lucky enough to catch and release this endemic specie while fishing with Bonefish Hawaii. We look forward to working with the BTT in future efforts to preserve these stocks in the Hawaiian Islands.