One of my preferred areas to dive is the southern end of Molasses Reef. A main reason is we can cover a lot of area, and usually get about 90 minutes of bottom time on a typical dive.
We can also venture out to the edge of the SPA, where fishermen are usually popping bait and chum in the water. We regularly see schools of jacks, lots of barracuda, massive numbers of Creole wrasse, eagle rays, nurse sharks and reef sharks.
Another prime time player we see frequently is permit. Most of the time there are between three and five in a group around Fire Coral Cave, if they happen to be in the vicinity on that particular day. To me they are another iconic species and are important to the local economy for both diving and recreational fishing.
Permit are fun to see, a bit elusive most of the time, and a challenge to photograph. As with any silvery fish, adjusting the lighting to account for the reflectivity of the animal is the key to creating an acceptable image. Knowing where they hang out helps, too!
In the cave, a careful slide through from the large opening to the little gully in back is the best path. They like the crevice at the back of the cave, and I have never seen them in the larger part of the cave where the goliath groupers are usually found. Approaching this way I can get close in a non-threatening way, since coming in from the other end, through the crevice, entails descending on them from above. They do not seem to like that approach, and will scatter quickly.
Usually from there they circle around the nearby elkhorn coral and settle back into the crevice. My goal is to leave them hovering in the same space I found them, with minimal disturbance.
In open water, its more their choice than my approach that counts. There are a few places we always see cleaning activity, which is also a good spot to intercept permit. But in the open, unless they choose to come to me within my strobe range, I just enjoy watching them slide by, destination unknown.
Looking into the life cycle of permit, I found some interesting information. In a study by Aaron Adams of Mote Marine Lab, he examined juvenile permit in Belize and the Keys. You can see the paper here: http://timgimages.com/PDF/Adams_juv_permit.pdf. He looked at different habitat types used by juveniles and the timing of the settlement as they transition from larvae to juveniles.
The sampling took place in six distinct habitat types, and 99 percent of the juveniles used windward beaches. Florida Pompano, bonefish, and several species of jacks are also known to use this type of habitat as their primary rearing grounds.
He also reported year-round settlement, which indicates regional connectivity. The local spawning time in the Keys is primarily late spring to mid-summer (May to July). Cuba and Belize have spawning activity from March to September and February to October, respectively.
We get some of our permit from other places, but the majority of our permit are home-grown. A fair amount of settlement still comes in the non-Keys spawning times. He makes the case for future research for examining possible source locations and paths larvae take to settlement, as well as the exclusive use of windward sandy beaches as nursery habitats. Dr. Adams states these topics have important conservation and management implications.
Dr. Adams is spearheading a permit tagging program with the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. This important project is filling a research need for the species. According to the background and justification statement for the project, there is a lack of information on permit biology and fisheries, which is needed to support management decisions. There are also threats that include juvenile habitat loss and degradation, unknown impacts of harvest and catch and release fishing and a possible lack of protection for spawning grounds.
One of the concerns expressed on the website is the decline in stocks of groupers, snappers, and other species that overlap in habitat use with permit appears to have shifted recreational fishing effort toward permit in some locations, which may lead to serial overfishing (overfishing species one by one). See http://www.bonefishtarpontrust.org/permit-research/permit-research.html for the details.
Gathering the information from the tagged and re-caught fish will provide data on movement patterns between the shore and reefs, and direction. The fin samples taken during the tagging will catalogue genetic data to establish the population structure and assess if there is a single genetic stock or a diverse stock. The Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce website has a good description page for permit here: http://www.sms.si.edu/irlspec/Trachi_falcat.htm
What I really like the most about this effort is the proactive approach they are taking. Instead of waiting for the decline of the fishery and taking the usual tack of seeing management regulations imposed after the fact, these folks want to obtain data while the fishery is believed to be in relatively good health. Involving user groups in data collection enhances the value of the project. The importance of having the stakeholders as active and critical participants in the process cannot be overstated. In short, thank you Mote Marine and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. This is a positive, refreshing approach, and an opportunity to lead in valuable research.
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at www.timgimages.com.