Many offshore recreational anglers will not catch 3,000 dolphin in their lifetime, let alone tag and release that number for conservation and science. On August 9, 2018, Don Gates and his crew, which includes Allen Lewis and Darryl Williams, aboard the Killin Time II did just that. They tagged and released their 3,000th dolphin for the Dolphinfish Research Program (DRP). Since the DRP began in 2002, Don and his team are the only fishermen who have tagged fish in every year of the program. They are the first privately owned boat to reach the milestone of tagging and releasing 3,000 dolphin, and over the years have involved 40 of their friends and family in their efforts. Don began tagging dolphin when he lived outside of Orlando, Florida, in 2002. He now resides in Conroe, Texas, and spends at least four weeks each year on the water off Cudjoe Key, Florida. Over the years, Don and his team have witnessed changes in his dolphin catch, which is why he started participating in the DRP. Don said,
“Since I began fishing for dolphin in the Keys in the 90s, we would catch larger dolphin more often than today. This concerns me because if there weren’t dolphin I would not be an offshore fisherman. So, we got involved in the Dolphinfish Research Program to help conserve and improve our understanding of the species for future generations.”
It took Don and his crew 165 outings, averaging 18 fish released per outing, to amass 3,000 releases. They have tagged more than 70 dolphin in one day 8 times, and in one outing in 2007, they tagged 101 dolphin. They tag an average of 166 dolphin each year and have tagged 300 or more fish in three separate years. Last year was their best year ever when they tagged 424 fish, surpassing the all-time record of 415 dolphin tagged in one year set by Don Brown’s crew aboard his boat, Draggin Dreams, in 2005. The crew of the Killin Time II is very careful to handle the fish gently and get them back in the water as quickly as possible. Their attention and care in tagging the fish has resulted in 135 of their fish being reported recovered. As many as 29 of their tagged fish have been recovered in a single year. Their overall recovery rate is 4.43 percent, which is almost twice the overall recovery rate for the program. One hundred of their tagged fish have been recovered off Florida and 20 off the Carolinas. In 2010, one of their fish was recovered off St. Kitts and Nevis, and over their years in the program, 5 have been recaptured in the Bahamas. Tagging and releasing dolphin has become very important to Don and his team. Don commented that,
“In 2002, when we started tagging for the DRP we had no idea about their movements, seasonality, and schooling dynamics, so when we learned about the program at a Central Florida Offshore Anglers meeting, we wanted to help change that. We figured since we were fishing anyway we would give tagging a try and it turned about to be a lot of fun and enabled us to make a significant impact on better understanding the life history of this amazing gamefish.”
Their tagging efforts have also showed that some dolphin released off the Florida Keys will return to the Florida coast in less than six months. This is important information that supports having a regulation that requires fish under 20 inches to be returned to the water. This suggests that Florida fishermen could realize benefits from this conservation measure in as little as six months with the opportunity of having more and larger fish to catch. This demonstrates that it benefits East Coast anglers to reinvest in the small dolphin they catch by releasing them in order to provide the fish the opportunity to return the following year as gaffer-size dolphin.
Don Gates and his team are not the only fishing team that has taken their tagging activity to another level in the DRP. Captain Jimbo Thomas and his brother, Rick, who operate the Miami, Florida, based charter boat Thomas Flyer became the second crew to tag 2,500 dolphin for the DRP in July. Captain Thomas tagged his first fish for the DRP in 2005. It took 319 outings with an average of 8 fish released per outing to amass 2,500 releases. Each year, the Thomas Flyer averages 185 dolphin tagged for the program. Their best year was in 2007 when they tagged 344 dolphin. Since they have participated in the program, they have earned the DRP top charter boat award and received a custom handmade Star Rod with Shimano TLD 30 reel in all but one year. The average size fish they release is 18.44”, but 10% are actually larger than Florida’s legal limit with some dolphin tagged and released as large as 30”. This shows their dedication to the conservation of this species. Thanks to their dolphin tagging efforts, we have been able to track fish from Palm Beach, Florida, to New Jersey, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. The efforts of the Thomas Flyer have also led to numerous return migrant examples. Just this past April, an 18” peanut they released on August 22nd, 2017, was recaptured after 260 days off Jacksonville, FL. This fish was likely in its second lap along the U.S. East Coast, and while we still have not been able to confirm the size of the fish when it was recaught, the time at liberty suggests the fish had grown from a 1 lb. peanut to a >20 lb. adult. Don Gates, the Killin’ Time II crew, Captain Thomas, and Rick Thomas of the Thomas Flyer are to be commended for their contributions to the scientific understanding of dolphinfish in the western central Atlantic Ocean.
The Dolphinfish Research Program is conducted by Beyond Our Shores, Inc., a 501(c)(3) dedicated to support and expand the program. To date, 1,533 fish have been tagged and released throughout the western central Atlantic and in parts of the eastern tropical Pacific. The DRP offers free dolphin tagging kits, and as an added incentive, a Year-End Awards program made possible by the dedicated support of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Star Rods, Costa Del Mar, AFTCO, and YETI. Top taggers in 7 categories win a custom handcrafted Star Rod and runner-ups receive a Costa Del Mar prize pack. Other awards including signed lithographs from Guy Harvey as well as products from YETI and AFTCO. The Dolphinfish Research Program is made possible through a grant from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. Additional support comes from key sponsors including Grady White Boats, AFTCO, SC DNR, PR DNER, and Perry and Neblett PA, To receive a free tagging kit, visit beyondourshores.org/tagdolphinfish
Check out the new film entitled “Killin’ Time II Hits 3000” highlighting this amazing milestone below.