Smooth Sailing

Examining The World’s Most Influential Billfish

Capt. Steve Dougherty March 17, 2015

Among the big game sport fishing community, most anglers are introduced to billfishing by way of the majestic sailfish. While they are targeted intentionally with great success, they are often even incidental catches and without a shadow of doubt the most commonly encountered billfish throughout tropical seas worldwide. Sailfish are also a great example of successful fishery management and anglers would be hard pressed to find a more perfect offshore game fish.

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Photo: Scott Kerrigan

Incredible aerialists capable of amazing bursts of speed, sailfish drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy through tourism, boat and tackle sales, tournament participation and more. It all began in the early 1900s when sport fishing was in its infancy in South Florida. Boat builders began developing specialized craft to create easier and more comfortable access to fertile offshore waters. Clearly they were on to something, because as the pioneers of recreational sport fishing perfected their tactics and techniques aboard these wooden dream machines it became common to see dead sailfish littering the docks from Stuart to Miami and beyond. The West Palm Beach Fishing Club was introduced in 1934 and in their 1936 Silver Sailfish Derby it is reported that 545 sailfish were captured and harvested. However, the killing spree wouldn’t last long.

The heaviest concentrations of sailfish in the Atlantic occur along the Gulf of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula, East Coast of Florida, off the coast of Brazil and western Africa.

Soon after, club leaders realized that sailfish were a poor food source and that the great game fish were critical to the continued prosperity of the local fishing fleet. As a result, in 1938 the West Palm Beach Fishing Club ingeniously introduced the red release pennant. One of the first fishing clubs to promote the catch and release of any sport fish, the historic club developed the red release pennant as a way to credit anglers for each of their successful releases while competing in the Silver Sailfish Derby. The catch and release theme has since spread throughout fisheries across the world. If you believe in karma, it certainly paid off for the West Palm Beach Fishing Club. The 2012 Silver Sailfish Derby shattered the records with 46 boats releasing 659 sails on the first day of fishing alone! A total of 1,174 sailfish were caught in the three days of competition, and the top boat accumulated an impressive 58 releases!

To say the fishery in the North Atlantic is thriving is an understatement. Thanks in part to the NMFS legislation in 2007 requiring the use of non-offset circle-hooks in all Atlantic sailfish tournaments, during prime seasonal migrations South Florida sailfishing goes absolutely wild with boats posting dozens of releases on any given day, rivaling that of nearly any tropical destination on earth.

The heaviest concentrations of sailfish in the Atlantic occur along the Gulf of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula, East Coast of Florida, off the coast of Brazil and western Africa. In the much larger Pacific Ocean, sailfish can be found off the Philippines, Indonesia, and from Tahiti to Hawaii. There are also immense populations of sailfish off the coast of Central America. Travel to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico or nearly any tropical locale in the Pacific and you’ll likely encounter giant sailfish upwards of 200 pounds. Growing much larger than sailfish encountered in Florida waters, Pacific sailfish are also the basis for a thriving economy supported by traveling anglers looking to rack up impressive release numbers. In fact, The Billfish Foundation reports that sport fishing tourism in Costa Rica alone accounts for more than $400 million annually to the local economy.

However, with a species of such significance to anglers and economies around the world it’s interesting that there’s still a lot we don’t know about sailfish. What we do know is that populations of Atlantic and Pacific sailfish represent the same species, whereas Atlantic and Pacific blue marlin display clear genetic differences. And while there’s no definitive evidence as to why sailfish grow larger in certain regions of the world, scientists have been diligently studying sailfish tag and recapture data in an effort to paint a clearer picture.

John Jolley, a former senior marine research scientist at the Florida Department of Natural Resources Marine Research Laboratory, has spent extensive time studying Atlantic sailfish and believes the size difference between Atlantic and Pacific sailfish could be largely influenced by the availability of forage.

“In the eastern Atlantic off the west coast of Africa, sailfish are much larger than those captured in Florida. And of course all throughout the Pacific and Indian Ocean sailfish grow upwards of 200 pounds. It may have something to do with more food being available, because they might not have to waste as much energy to feed compared to fish in the western North Atlantic. Part of this behavior could be related to extensive oxygen depletion zones off the eastern Pacific, Baja, Central and South America, and also to some extent off the coast of Africa. These areas of hypoxic water force baitfish and predators to the surface in large concentrations as they search for ideal water conditions. In the North Atlantic throughout the Caribbean and Eastern Seaboard we don’t have extensive oxygen depleted zones, so our sailfish just might have to do a lot more swimming to find adequate food sources. It is logical that if you expend more energy you may not grow as fast or get as large.”

From the earliest research on sailfish it was believed that they only lived two to four years, however recent studies have since proven otherwise, with the longest at large tagged sailfish swimming for 7,368 days—more than 20 years—between tagging in Stuart and recapture in Big Pine Key. However, Jolley believed this has always been the case long before tagging data revealed such conclusive evidence.

“The cooperative game fish tagging program, which started at Woods Hole, moved to NMFS and is now handled by The Billfish Foundation, had been tagging thousands of sailfish for decades, but rarely got a recapture that was longer than four years at large. Having extensive studies of other scombroids like mackerel and tuna, I knew this didn’t fit the bill. Since accessing the otilith bone in billfish is a challenge, I started aging sailfish by analyzing their dorsal fin spines. Through evidence in the dorsal spines I believed they were living 10, 12, 14 or more years, and it was comforting to see the tagging data reinforce my findings. We also learned that female sailfish, in both the Pacific and Atlantic, reach sexual maturity in three to four years and males in two to three years. In addition, the size and gender disparity seen in swordfish and marlin also occurs with sailfish, with the largest fish always females, but it’s not as obvious because sailfish don’t reach extreme sizes.”

By the Years

1938 – Introduction of the red release pennant.

1954 – Cooperative Tagging Center begins tagging study at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

1962 – During the Silver Sailfish Derby tagged fish were awarded an additional point over non-tagged fish.

1975 – Florida adopted the Atlantic sailfish as the state’s official saltwater game fish.

2007 – National Marine Fisheries Service requires anglers use non-offset circle-hooks in Atlantic billfish tournaments.

2008 – In an effort to protect sailfish populations, Costa Rica banned the export of sailfish and also prohibited the use of live bait within local longline fleets.

2011 – The Central Bank of the Seychelles updated Rupees notes to feature holographic sailfish on the currency.

2013 – Aboard Rum Line in Iztapa, Guatemala, Captain Chris Sheeder of Casa Vieja Lodge released his 20,000th sailfish.

While sailfish are incredibly capable hunters, and evidence proves that at times they must travel great distances to feed their insatiable appetite, tagging data reveals they may be more localized hunters than previously believed. We know through catch data of pelagic longline fleets worldwide that sailfish aren’t captured as bycatch anywhere near as often as marlin and tuna, and prefer to stick to coastal regions generally off limits to surface longlines. Furthermore, more than 31,000 Atlantic sailfish have been tagged and through all the recaptures not a single fish has made a transatlantic movement. Compared to bluefin tuna and marlin that have been recorded crossing the pond, sailfish clearly aren’t keen on the idea of traversing the expansive Atlantic Ocean.

“The fact there has never been a single sailfish tracked crossing the Atlantic further details the significance of their regional size disparity. The world record Atlantic sailfish was caught in Africa and weighed approximately 220 pounds, with Florida’s state record only 120 pounds. There are obviously geographic differences that make a significant contribution to the size. It’s the same species, but if you isolate populations of fish in different parts of the world they can have distinct characteristics, and size is one of them,” continued Jolley.

Florida’s winter season means sailfish—and lots of them—but you’ll be happy to know that captains across tropical latitudes worldwide report the fishing is better than ever, with a noticeable absence in fishing seasons. Whether you’re chasing triple digit trophies on light tackle, pulling a dredge or flying a kite, hoist the laundry after a day of double digit releases with pride, tag your fish, release with care, and enjoy the amazing action knowing you’re helping advance billfish science and management policies to ensure the continued success of the world’s most influential game fish.

Fish for Life

Although circle-hooks are proven to eliminate gut hooking, anglers must understand that not all circle-hooks are created equal. And even though NMFS requires circle-hooks when participating in billfish tournaments in the Atlantic, anglers should always exercise sound conservation practices whether competing or simply fun fishing. When choosing circle-hooks you’ll want to select hooks that are non offset. They should also have a hook point that angles 90 degrees to the shank.

Living Local

The Billfish Foundation is a leader in fisheries research and has provided tags and recorded data for over 300,000 game fish. Of the fish tagged, data shows that black marlin cover an average distance of 1,004 miles between recaptures, compared to sailfish, tagged in both the Atlantic and Pacific, which only average 235 miles between recaptures. While the data is a susceptible to numerous variables, it is clear that sailfish populations generally stick to their home waters.

Tournament Time

Leg 1:
Operation Sailfish
Singer Island, FL
December 10-14, 2014

Leg 2:
The Sailfish 400
Miami, FL
January 14-18, 2015

Leg 3:
Sailfish Challenge
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
February 5-8, 2015

Leg 4:
Final Sail
Key West, FL
April 15-19, 2015

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