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The Fish That Breathes Air

A fisherman filets groupers and red fish at a cleaning station along Kings Bay in Crystal River Florida. He tosses the heads, tails and fish bones into the water where several cormorants gather feast on the scraps as gulls attempt to pluck the scraps from the water. Nothing goes to waste. A large shadowy fish appears in the shallow water, comes to the surface to eat what the cormorants miss. It is a 5 foot long, 70 pound tarpon.

Tarpon are fish of shallow bays and mangrove swamps. The tarpon’s success is partly due to its ability to thrive in brackish water, waters of varying ph and water with low oxygen levels. Its ability to breath air when the oxygen level in the water decreases makes it a highly adaptable fish of oxygen poor waters. The tarpon is able to absorb atmospheric oxygen by gulping air that comes into contact with a specialized swim bladder in the back of its throat. Oxygen is absorbed by the bladder’s spongy alveolar tissue. It can be seen rolling at the surface to swallow air.

Although a saltwater game fish due to its fight and large size, it is not a desirable fish to eat and is released after caught. The commercial sale of tarpon is prohibited in Florida. Despite this protection, there are some tarpon losses when they are caught and released.

The fisherman packs the fish filets in the cooler and leaves. The cormorants fly out into the bay and the tarpon lazily swims away from the shore. This gave me a glimpse of how Kings Bay is full of life and how it supports people, birds and all the life that calls this place home.

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