Marine - Species

Tarpon - Click to enlarge photo

SC Species Regulations for Tarpon

Saltwater Fishing License required.

Limit: 1 per person per day; no size limits. May be taken using only rod & reel. Designated State Gamefish: fish caught in South Carolina waters may not be sold.

SC Marine Gamefish Tagging

Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus)

General Description
Silvery, scales large, eyes large; lower jaw projects forward of fish. Dorsal fin originates near mid-point of body; last ray on dorsal fin filamentous and very long.

Average Size
40 – 60 inches, 40 – 60 pounds;
South Carolina State Record: 154 pounds 10 ounces (1987);
maximum age: approx. 50 years – possibly up to 70 years.


Juveniles and adults inhabit temperate and tropical waters and are capable of tolerating wide salinity ranges. Larger fish are primarily marine but may enter brackish estuaries and fresh water rivers.

Adults: Typically inhabit nearshore waters including bays, sounds, or estuaries; also enter rivers.

Juveniles: Prefer salt marsh and estuarine habitats; may move into fresh water impoundments and upper reaches of coastal rivers; older juveniles move to deeper canals, bays, and coastal waters.

Reproductive Cycle

  • Both sexes mature by approximately 10 years of age; approx. size at maturity: males – 35 inches, females – 49 inches.
  • Spawning most likely occurs offshore after migration from inshore aggregation areas. In South Carolina, spawning occurs May – August.
  • Larvae proceed through a leptocephalus larva stage lasting 2 – 3 months. These transparent, leaf-like larvae require high-salinity, oceanic water and metamorphose offshore prior to moving to inshore nursery habitats.

Foraging Habits

  • Adults and older juveniles are mostly piscivorous (fish-eating) and consume mid-water prey. Prey species include: striped mullet, silversides, salt water catfishes, pinfish, menhaden, and ribbonfish. May also consume blue crab and penaeid shrimp.
  • Young juveniles consume small fishes, crabs, grass shrimp, and zooplankton; may also capture insects.

Availability/Vulnerability to Harvest

  • In South Carolina from April to peak in July/August. Distribution is temperature regulated. Tarpon inhabit temperate to tropical waters and may be cold stunned and die in water less than 50degF. Probably overwinter in Florida waters, migrating north in spring, south in fall.
  • Tarpon may form schools of a few to more than a hundred fish, especially in preparation for spawning.
  • Adults and older juveniles tolerate low-quality habitats such as shallow, muddy, and anoxic water due to their ability to breathe air through a modified swimbladder.
  • Conservation concerns: Degradation of estuarine nursery grounds; inshore and nearshore water quality; location of spawning areas unknown; lack of biological data for this species in South Carolina waters.

Abundance of Species


Graphs of abundance show relative annual abundance in South Carolina waters based on surveys conducted by the SC Department of Natural Resources.

Abundance is presented relative to the average of the 10 most recent years. Unlike graphs of the recreational and commercial fisheries catch, the abundance graphs use survey data that have been standardized to allow direct comparison among years.

The horizontal dotted lines above or below the "10 year average" represent one "standard deviation" unit, which is a measure of how variable the annual data are around the 10-year average. In general, the area between one standard deviation above the mean and one standard deviation below the average includes approximately 68% of the values. Approximately 95% percent of observations in the data set are found within two standard deviations of the average.

Fishery Status

Tarpon Recreational Fishery Graph - Select image to view larger graph

South Carolina is at the northern end of the distributional range for tarpon and this is reflected in the highly cyclical nature of recreational catches. Peak year alternate with years of no reported catch and there are periods as long as 5 years without any reported recreational catch. Most tarpon caught in South Carolina are released alive with the only record of harvested fish occurring in 1987. There have only been three years (2002, 2004, 2010) with any reported catch since 2000.

There are no reported commercial landings for tarpon in South Carolina.
More Information.

Literature Cited

Ault JS. 2008. Biology and management of the world tarpon and bonefish fisheries. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 441 pp.

Fischer W. 1978. FAO identification sheets for fisheries purposes: western central Atlantic (fishing area 31) volume 1 – 7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

Hammond DL. 2005. Tarpon. In: Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Columbia, SC. Available: Accessed: August, 2009.

Moore CJ. 1996. A field guide to the identification of marine species regulated in South Carolina coastal waters. Office of Fisheries Management, Marine Resources Division, South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, Charleston, SC. 105 pp.

Moore CJ, M Barkley. 2005. South Carolina's guide to saltwater fishes. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Special Publication. Columbia, SC. 132 pp.

Zale AV, and SG Merrifield. 1989. Species profiles: life histories and environmental requirements of coastal fishes and invertebrates (South Florida) – tarpon. U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv. Biol. Rep. 82(11.104). U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TR EL-82-4. 17pp. Accessed: September, 2009.