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The Atlantic tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) is a ray-finned fish that inhabits coastal waters, estuaries, lagoons, and rivers. It is also known as the silver king. It is found in the Atlantic Ocean, typically in tropical and subtropical regions, though it has been reported as far north as Nova Scotia and the Atlantic coast of southern France, and as far south as Argentina. As with all Elopiformes, it spawns at sea. Its diet includes small fish and crustaceans. It has been recorded at up to 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in) in length and weighing up to 161 kg (355 lb).
A tarpon is capable of filling its swim bladder with air, like a primitive lung. This gives it a predatory advantage when oxygen levels in the water are low. In appearance, it is greenish or bluish on top and silver on the sides. The large mouth is turned upwards and the lower jaw contains an elongated, bony plate. The last ray of the dorsal fin is much longer than the others, reaching nearly to the tail. The tarpon is the official state saltwater fish of Alabama. It is poorly received as food, but valued as a game fish.
The tarpon has a reputation for great aerobatics and has been the subject of media attention, including the TV miniseries Chasing Silver, released in 2004.
Tarpons are considered one of the great saltwater game fishes, not only because of their size and their accessible haunts, but also because of their fighting spirit when hooked; they are very strong, making spectacular leaps into the air. The flesh is undesirable, commonly described as being smelly and bony. In Florida and Alabama, a special permit is required to kill and keep a tarpon, so most tarpon fishing there is catch and release.
Despite its name, the Atlantic tarpon is not limited to one body of water or exclusive to the East Coast. In their northern migration, they range through the Florida Keys and gradually make their way up the west coast of Florida and on to the Texas coast. The International Sábalo (tarpon) Fishing Tournament is held every May in Tecolutla on Mexico's Costa Esmeralda.
Geographical distribution and migration
Since tarpons are not commercially valuable as a food fish, very little has been documented concerning their geographical distribution and migrations. They inhabit both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Their range in the eastern Atlantic has been reliably established from Senegal to the Congo. Tarpons inhabiting the western Atlantic are principally found to populate warmer coastal waters primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and the West Indies. Nonetheless, they are regularly caught by anglers at Cape Hatteras and as far as Nova Scotia, Bermuda, and south to Argentina. Scientific studies indicate schools have routinely migrated through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back for over 80 years. They have not been shown to breed in the Pacific Ocean, but anecdotal evidence by tarpon fishing guides and anglers indicates it is possible, as over the last 60 years, many small juveniles and some mature giants have been caught and documented, principally on the Pacific side of Panama at the Bayano River, in the Gulf of San Miguel and its tributaries, Coiba Island in the Gulf of Chiriquí, and at Piñas Bay in the Gulf of Panama. Since tarpons tolerate a wide range of salinity and are opportunistic feeders, their migrations are limited only by water temperatures. They prefer water temperatures of 22 to 28 °C (72 to 82 °F); below 16 °C (61 °F) they become inactive, and temperatures under 4 °C (39 °F) can be lethal. A large non-migrant tarpon community is found in the Rio San Juan and Lake Nicaragua.
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- Castellanos-Galindo, Gustavo A.; et al. (2019). "Atlantic Tarpon in the Tropical Eastern Pacific 80 years after it first crossed the Panama Canal". Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. 29: 401–416. doi:10.1007/s11160-019-09565-z.
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