South Florida taxidermist launches fish-tagging program to collect data, engage anglers

A sailfish is tagged with an external streamer off Miami.
A sailfish is tagged with an external streamer off Miami. Herald file photo

With more and more fisheries being closed or restricted worldwide in the name of conservation, Bill Dobbelaer, general manager of Gray Taxidermy in Pompano Beach, saw a negative impact on his business and on the charter boats that sell his company’s fish mounts to their customers.

“When you keep releasing fish, the customers don’t feel a connection to that fish,” Dobbelaer said. “The people don’t tip, don’t mount, don’t return and don’t tell their friends to go. We need something to link these people to the fish they are letting go.”

So, after two years of consultations with charter captains, marina owners and fisheries scientists, Gray Taxidermy is preparing a January launch of a nonprofit, worldwide, interactive fish-tagging program involving some 10,000 charter-boat crews, their customers and the scientific community.

With money raised from corporate sponsors, Dobbelaer just received a shipment of 10,000 external streamer tags, plus tagging sticks and data cards, to be distributed free to charter boats starting next month. Participating crews will log their fish tag/releases at GrayFishTagResearch.org with anglers naming their own fish. Top taggers will be rewarded with prizes, as well as those who recapture and report tagged fish. Participating marinas would become satellite research centers.

The program’s scientific advisors, professors David Kerstetter of Nova Southeastern University and Arthur Mariano of the University of Miami, will determine what species need to be tagged, then crunch the data and report their findings on the website.

“The premise of the program is all the data is available for free,” Mariano said.

Initially, the program will focus on tagging sailfish and sharks in South Florida and Costa Rica, and may extend to barracuda, which, some guides and anglers (especially in the Keys) say are on the decline.

Mariano said there are some shortcomings to conventional tags: They don’t provide fine details of fish movements and historically have had only a 0.5 percent to 2 percent return rate, depending on the species. But he said recapture data do show how long the fish live and how fast they grow. Satellite tags, which are implanted permanently or programmed to pop off after a certain interval, track fish minute-to-minute and provide a treasure trove of data. But they are pricey at about $4,000 apiece.

Dobbelaer says current tagging programs have had limited success because they are targeted to wealthy recreational fishermen who buy tagging kits but only use them occasionally. Supplying the most successful charter boats with free tags, he said, is expected to yield much more information because those vessels run upwards of 250 trips per year.

“It’s a way to get the guys who are fishing most involved in producing data for scientists,” Dobbelaer said. “It’s a way of releasing fish and making it cool. Tag it, name it, and tell ’em that their grandkids can catch it when they grow up.”