Fish Tagging: What Is It and How Can You Help?
Apr 8, 2019 | 5 minute read
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Fish tagging has been gaining popularity for decades. Every year, people tag and release thousands of fish. They can be anything from freshwater gamefish like Bass and Trout to bluewater pelagics like Marlin and Sharks. What do they have in common? When they swim off, we want to know where they go!

Most of what we know about fish migrations comes from tagging programs. We’ve seen species travel farther and faster than we ever thought possible. Other fish have been caught, tagged, and caught again within minutes. We’ve still got a lot to learn, though, and you can help. Here’s a brief look at why and how you should start tagging fish, and what you can use to do it.

What is Fish Tagging and Why Should I Care?

The first part’s pretty simple: It’s when you attach a tag to a fish and release it. What happens after the fish swims off depends on the type of tag you’re using (more on that later). The point of tagging fish is to learn more about them. Traditionally, we were looking for information about where fish ended up. These days, we can also gather all kinds of data about what they do along the way.

Mangrove Snapper being released into the water after fish tagging

A tagged Mangrove Snapper being safely released

Why should you get involved? Well, governments rely on these data to properly protect fish populations. If you want your kids to enjoy the same awesome angling you grew up with, helping out with a tagging program might make all the difference.

There are plenty more reasons to do it. Firstly, curiosity. Ever wondered what happened that lunker Largemouth you released last summer? If you’d tagged it, you might know. Secondly, money! A lot of programs offer cash rewards for reporting one of their tags. You don’t even have to tag the fish yourself to help out.

Fish Tagging Equipment

We’ve come a long way since the days of tying ribbons onto Salmon. Advances in fish tagging and marking technology have given us some serious tech. The main types out there are spaghetti tags, archival tags, PSATs, and SPOTs. Here’s a rundown of what makes them special.

What Are Spaghetti Tags?

“Conventional” spaghetti tags are a piece of tough plastic that you attach to the fish. They have an ID code on them which you register online after you release the fish. Once someone else catches it, they report the tag and you find out where your fish ended up. They’re cheap and easy to attach, as long as you read the instructions. Anyone can buy and use them.

The problem with these entry-level kits is that they rely on an angler reporting the tag. You also have no idea what happened between point A and point B. Because of this, they’re mainly used for inshore or freshwater species. They work really well when enough people use them, though, and they still make up the lion’s share of tags out there.

The dorsal fin of a Salmon with a conventional fish tag attached

A newly-applied spaghetti tag (Wikimedia, Des Colhoun / CC BY-SA 2.0)

What Are Archival Tags?

These are a high-tech version of the standard spaghetti tag. They tell you where a fish ended up, but they also gather info along the way. Archival tags can record location, water temperature, and depth as the fish travels. They’re not too expensive and they’re just as easy to attach. The downside? Just like conventional tags, you need someone to hand it in to get the data.

Bull Shark on a boat with a man inserting an archival fish tag

A Bull Shark receiving an archival tag ahead of its safe release (Flikr, Doug Adams / CC BY-ND 2.0)

What Are PSATs?

Recapture tags are great if fish don’t travel too far. But what about big game pelagics that roam the whole planet? Can we expect an angler in England or India to mail a tag back? Of course not. In fact, barely 3% of conventional Billfish tags ever show up again. Enter the PSAT.

“Pop-up Satellite Archival Tags” were specially designed for Billfish, Shark, and Tuna tagging. They record everything a standard archival tag does and more. After a specific amount of time, they break off from the fish and transmit the data to a satellite. You don’t need anyone to hand it in. That’s good news, because PSATs can cost thousands of dollars.

Man in red shirt releasing a Ray into the water with a PSAT fish tag attached

A Ray swimming off after getting tagged with a PSAT (Virginia Sea Grant / CC BY-ND 2.0)

What Are SPOT tags?

“Smart Positioning or Temperature” tags capture a range of data every few minutes and transmit it whenever the fish comes to the surface. This is the cutting edge of tagging technology. SPOT tags are great because they’re not a complete bust if they get destroyed. They’re also more accurate than pop-up tags.

The most common use for SPOTs is Shark tagging. As any Hollywood fan can tell you, Sharks spend a lot of time with their fins poking out of the water. This makes it easier for a SPOT to transmit the data.

This Shark has been given some real space-age tagging tech (Flikr, OCEARCH / CC BY 2.0)

Fish Tagging Programs

So you know what tags are for and you know the different equipment out there. Now it’s time to start tagging! Here are a few of the organizations you can support.

IGFA

The International Game Fishing Association is a strong supporter of tag-and-release fishing. Their most successful initiative is the Great Marlin Race. This is an ongoing event where Marlin released at fishing tournaments “race” around the world. Whichever one gets farthest wins. They use PSATs for accurate data and invite people to sponsor these expensive tags.

The Billfish Foundation

The Billfish Foundation is probably the most important organization when it comes to big game tagging. They work with tournaments and charter operators, tagging Marlin, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Spearfish. They’re responsible for almost a quarter of a million tagged Billfish. You can help TBF by tagging your next Marlin or donating to their efforts.

Gray FishTag Research

Focusing on “bridging the gap between professional fishermen and science,” Gray FishTag Research works with 10,000 charter captains around the US and beyond. They provide the charters with free tagging kits to encourage tag and release. If you want to get involved, you can donate, or join the program and release your own tagged fish!

Man and woman holding a Cero Mackerel which has been tagged

A crew tagging fish in collaboration with Gray FishTag Research

American Littoral Society

These guys have been at it since the ‘60s. During that time, their members have tagged a staggering 640,000 fish. These days, American Littoral Society focuses on Striped Bass, Bluefish, and Summer Flounder. Interested? All you need to do is sign up, buy a fish tagging kit, and get out there.

And More!

In Florida, the FWC tags Snook, Cobia, Goliath Grouper, Sturgeon, and Largemouth Bass. If you find a tagged fish, report it! You can also get involved yourself by tagging Permit. It’s not just Florida, though. Most states are at it. Check with your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife for specific information.

Do you practice tag and release? What programs or organizations do you work with? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear your stories!

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