The $75,000 fish

ISLAMORADA, Fla. — How much is that bonefish worth in the Florida Keys? Would you believe $75,000?

No, this is not some tagged single bonefish that's part of a fishing contest. That's the value of every single bonefish larger than 14 inches swimming in these Florida saltwater flats.

That monetary value came from studies conducted by Dr. Jerry Ault of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. The $75,000 figure was recently published in the Oct./Nov. edition of In-Fisherman magazine.

Mike Larkin, who is working on a doctorate degree under Ault, recently participated in the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Redbone Key West S.L.A.M. Larkin and his fishing partner that weekend, former NFL offensive lineman Mark Cooper, managed to land three bonefish one day. And Larkin added a small tag just behind the dorsal fin of each bonefish before it was released. Funded by Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited, Larkin's tagging study is just another example of adding to the database for Florida's valuable bonefish.

The $75,000 figure is based on a combination of population studies and tourism dollars generated through the pursuit of one of The Keys most sought-after species.

Ault's 2007 population work indicated there are approximately 350,000 bonefish in the Florida area.

"Bonefish bring in about $1 billion annually in tourism to the Florida economy," Ault said in the In-Fisherman story. "That's about $75,000 per fish over its lifetime."

Larkin, like several guides along the Florida coast, is trying to tag as many fish as possible after they are caught and before they're released. The tagged fish add data to that Ault has accumulated over the years and help give further indication of the overall health of the species here, and the health of the entire ecosystem.

Bonefish are a "canary in the coal mine"; when they thrive, it can be assumed the entire environmental system is in good shape, assuring good fishing for all the fish species using these waters.

Larkin admits that 350,000 figure is a baseline number. It doesn't have near the accuracy of the omnipresent pre-Presidential election polls over the past year in the U.S.

But by sampling the data annually, it's a good baseline to work with. The goal now, with the help of more and more tagged bonefish, is to increase the accuracy of that number.

The tourism figure of $1 billion per year to the Florida economy is less open to questioning, though there's no doubt bonefish are one of The Keys' most sought-after species.

Catching the saltwater "slam" of a bonefish, a permit and a tarpon can be the quest of a lifetime for dedicated Florida flats anglers. And in many cases, the wary bonefish, also known as the gray ghost, can prove the most elusive.

Brooke Denkert is a 23-year-old student majoring in estuary ecology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Her mother and father, Linda and Dave, are frequent Redbone Series competitors and Linda is a multiple-time Ladies Champion.

When Brooke had the opportunity to dissect a fish during a college class, she chose a bonefish. And it proved to be an exercise that made her a better angler, in addition to developing a new appreciation for the species.

"Their eyes are huge, and they are a lot better positioned for looking up than down," Brooke said. "Their eye-size in proportion to their body size is really high.

"There's no doubt they can see us (when we're fishing for them)," she said. "If you're wearing a red shirt on a clear day, you might as well give up."

It was partly strategy — seeking redfish on Day One of Saturday's Redbone event at Islamorada. The anglers will concentrate on bonefish Sunday in attempting to achieve the two species "slam" required here.

You couldn't also help but see the wariness of gray ghosts on the results board Saturday: redfish caught and released by the 51 two-angler teams — 109; bonefish caught and released — five.

Those are figures that only further support that $75,000 value placed on every adult Florida bonefish.

For more information on how to support the continued health of the bonefish population, see the Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited Web site at www.tarbone.org.