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Gulf of Mexico Tagging Program Aided by Charter Boats

In the vast waters off the coast of Louisiana, a dynamic duo is making waves in the world of offshore pelagic fishing. They’re challenging the status quo by championing sustainable practices. Lakelynn and Blake Devine, the forces behind Intensity Offshore fishing charters, have been on a remarkable journey tagging yellowfin tuna and swordfish. They contribute valuable data to NOAA through our Cooperative Tagging Program. In fact, they tagged the most fish in the Gulf of Mexico in 2023.

The Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Cooperative Tagging Program is NOAA’s longest running citizen science program. Anglers have been tagging highly migratory fish species since 1954. The program invites recreational anglers to participate directly in data collection for highly migratory fish species like billfish and tunas. They mark released fish with tags so they can be tracked over time.

Sometimes fish are released due to being undersized, out of season, or over a bag limit. These releases present an opportunity to collect information about their range, distribution, growth, and migration patterns, as well as how they may be responding to climate change. Recreational anglers often spend a lot of time out at sea, so NOAA Fisheries values working with them to collect important data on these released fish. These data greatly aid us in our mission to sustainably manage and conserve these species so we can continue to fish them for generations to come.

Lakelynn and Blake began tagging in 2022. They have already tagged a combined total of 70 fish, including yellowfin tuna, swordfish, and even cobia. In their first year, they tagged five swordfish and 16 yellowfin tuna. In 2023 they intensified their efforts. They emerged as the Gulf of Mexico’s top taggers with an impressive 17 swordfish, 28 yellowfin tuna, and two cobia added to their tally. Even more remarkable is that not all tagged fish are undersized—some of their tagged and released yellowfin tuna have exceeded 70 pounds! (For comparison, a typical legal-sized yellowfin is around 12 pounds.)

Engaging clients in citizen science provides a rewarding experience. Cooperative research contributes crucial data for fisheries managers conducting stock assessments on highly migratory species. The sight of a fish strongly swimming away with a tag brings the team great joy—they’re doing their part to improve our knowledge on fish distributions.

“It feels really good to put them back in the water and watch them swim away,” said Blake. “We’ve even seen other charter boats catch a fish that we’ve tagged and released. It’s kind of cool to think that they wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.”

A key element of their charter operation is a commitment to sustainable fishing. They actively encourage customers interested in conservation to join them on tagging expeditions, promoting the retention of only what is needed and tagging the rest.

Not only are Blake and Lakelynn advocating that their clients get more involved in conservation, but they also serve as activists within the charter fishing community. The team reminds other businesses to report any tagged fish they catch, called “recaptures,” whether they let the fish go or decide to keep it. This provides important information to fish biologists. It also allows anglers to get to know the story of the fish they catch and feel more connected to this valuable resource. They encourage their colleagues to get involved in tagging, too.

“We want others to view the numbers of tagged fish as just as good, if not better, than the numbers of fish harvested by other charter businesses,” said Lakelynn. “We really like to bring customers who are interested in conservation and want to catch and tag, only harvesting what they need for dinner and releasing the rest.”

A yellowfin tuna on a fishing line with a spaghetti tag attached. This tagged fish was recaptured and reported thanks to recreational charter captains Blake and Lakelynn Devine. Photo courtesy of Blake and Lakelynn Devine.

Blake and Lakelynn were critical in reporting the recapture of three yellowfin tuna that may have otherwise not been reported. There were six recaptures reported from the Gulf of Mexico in 2023, so we may have not heard from half of them if it weren’t for the persistence of these two captains. This really highlights how important it is to work with citizen scientists to collect these valuable data points.

Having been in the charter business for years, Blake and Lakelynn have observed the evolving dynamics of this fishery. They have witnessed increasing pressure from the growing number of charters on the water. Thankfully, they haven’t seen diminishing fish numbers. However, increased fishing pressure presents challenges for anglers. The team has observed fish learning quickly, requiring new tactics to entice bites. Some fish exhibit long-term residency on specific rigs where they may see fishing vessels daily. Several of Intensity Offshore’s customer tags have been recaptured within days on the same site at which the fish was caught. This is encouraging for the scientists studying the fish, as it shows that captured fish are able to quickly return to feeding and normal behavior.

“We are able to learn so much valuable information about these fish like how fast they grow, where they move, how long they live, and how the population is doing—thanks to participants like Lakelynn and Blake. They really are our eyes on the water,” said Eric Orbesen, research fish biologist in the Oceanic and Coastal Pelagics Branch at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

Captain Lakelynn Devine holds a yellowfin tuna while Blake inserts a spaghetti tag prior to release. This experienced team minimizes handling time to ensure the fish are returned to the water quickly and efficiently. Photo courtesy of Lakelynn and Blake Devine.

Blake and Lakelynn share a positive vision for the future of the fishery. They hope to shift the emphasis of similar charter businesses from the number of harvested fish to promoting more tag and release.

“We’re saving fish for tomorrow,” Lakelynn summarized. “We don’t want to overfish our own source. We want to make sure our supplies are there for the future.”

The Cooperative Tagging Program has seen a steady increase in participation over the past few years. We hope that stories like these will encourage others to jump in and help NOAA Fisheries study and conserve these fish for years to come.

NOAA Fisheries greatly appreciates the many tagging teams all over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean who tag and release fish to support our science. If you would like to participate in citizen science through tagging and releasing billfish and tuna, you can request your free tagging kit by contacting Tagging@NOAA.gov.

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