OCEANOGRAPHY AND GENETICS
The dawn of the nineteenth century was an exciting era. Science and geographic exploration were hand in hand discovering the nature of our world and for the first time organizing those discoveries of flora and fauna with the binomial nomenclature system of Linnaeus (the Latin derivation of Carl von Linne). Although familiar to the people of Oceana, the western Atlantic sailfish had first been observed by Europeans leaping off the coast of Brazil and was subsequently recorded in Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brazilia in 1648. However, it was in 1786 that Sir James Banks deposited a 7-foot 6-inch specimen from the Indian Ocean in the British Museum. Scomber gladius was the first name used to describe the new species. Although various naturalistic writers attributed a multitude of different names to this novel animal, it was eventually illustrated in the wonderful assemblage of the Naturalist’s Miscellany, No. 28 by Shaw and Nodder in 1792. Thus it was christened, lstiopliorus platypterus, its final scientific name. The first sailfish captured in America was off Rhode Island in 1872. The first Florida sail was caught in Key West in 1873. The fish was transported to New York where a mold was made of it and was regarded as a great curiosity.
Debate over whether sailfish from the different oceans constitute different species still dwells today in popular literature, but not among geneticists. It is currently accepted that despite numerous differences in the genetic material of the sailfish populations of the Atlantic, Pacific and the Indian Oceans, that these variances are too small to describe the fishes as separate species. Thus they are monotypic and the single scientific name applies to all sailfish of the world. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA). record keeper for the entirety of game fish, attributes honors separately for Indio-Pacific and Atlantic sailfish but uses the same scientific name for both records. Therefore, other names such as I. albicans, suggested by the French zoologist Latreille in 1804, I. orientalis, I. gladius, I. japonicas, and I. indicus should be disregarded as invalid.
During the Pleistocene glacial era, approximately 1.8 million years ago, the waters cooled dramatically around the southern tip of Africa. Subsequent rare and singular events of warmer current flow created a one-way filter of migration for sailfish from the Indian Ocean around Cape Horn into the genetic stock of the Atlantic. Reviewing genetic mapping of the species from the oceans of the world, chat specific gene pool shows greater variation then the world’s ocher sailfish stocks as a result.
The Atlantic sails are divided into distinct eastern and western populations near Africa and the West Indies. Under Article 64 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, sailfish along with marlin, swordfish, tuna, pomfret, saury, some sharks, dolphins, and cetaceans are regarded as highly migratory species. Yet the migratory patterns of sails, compared to other billfish, is quite limited. It seems clear that the East and West Atlantic populations never mix. The U.N. ought to give the Eastern sailfish a ticket for loitering. Few go as far as the Mediterranean.
In the West, Florida’s state fish has been studied by The Billfish Foundation in the largest private tagging program in the world. Hundreds of thousands of tags have been deployed showing north and south migration mostly produced by water temperature, ocean currents, and weather. Most fish were discovered within 50 miles of where they were initially tagged. Longer treks by individuals of over 250 miles were more rarely recorded, such as from Isla Mujeres to South Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. The Yucatan current flows northward as a conduit for migration but is relatively weak and its influence is largely overcome by weather from the north as the season progresses. In spring, gravid females move in and out of the Gulfstream, usually accompanied by one or more males, spawning in depths of 100 fathoms or more. They return to the Yucatan region and islands of the Caribbean, but never cross the Atlantic or migrate across the equator.
Since 1954, billfish have been tagged in the Pacific. The program flourished as large numbers of fish could be tagged economically in areas of intense sport fishing. In the early 1960s, the Japanese longline fleet moved into the waters of North, Central, and South America and became the best source for recovery of tags. Other species, such as the marlin, migrate vigorously for thousands of miles. The Northern Equatorial Countercurrent is a primary reason for the richness of nutrients, oxygenation and presence of pelagic species encountered by fishermen off the western coasts of Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. It is a food chain conveyor belt from the far Pacific to the coast of Central America. Sailfish do not migrate along its path like other species. Pacific sailfish, similar to their Atlantic brethren, spawn locally then move north and south with the season, but not out across the expanse of ocean to the west. Pop-up Satellite Archival Tag [PSAT] programs are now underway, but are more expensive.
In 1998, the United States National Marine Fisheries Service added sailfish to the list of overfished species. Their meat is poorly regarded as food although it is eaten, often when smoked, in some more primitive cultures. They are commonly discarded as bycatch by longliners and other commercial fishermen. Some data suggests that by utilizing circle hooks, 88 percent of sailfish could survive longline capture if released. In the eastern Atlantic, stocks have decreased significantly. In the west, it’s generally believed that the population has remained stable since the 1980s.
Recently, the sailfish population in the Arabian Gulf has been almost eradicated. This is associated with the use of gillnets for commercial kingfish production beginning around 2002. There have been very few sightings of sails since 2006. DNA tests demonstrate this sailfish group to be isolated genetically and thereby unable to withstand this kind of pressure or rebound.
Exotic, acrobatic, and physically gorgeous, they are a big-time staple of the sport fishing business around the world. They are very popular now with fly fishermen. Surprises have come when casting a Rapala, or when a bait lowered to the bottom for reef species comes rocketing to the surface and the “snapper” goes airborne. Sight fishing for visible sails causing showers of bait and attracting birds to feed on their wounded prey makes many fishing endeavors more like hunting. Two fishing trips in consecutive months, one to Costa Rica and the other to the Florida Keys, illustrates certain local techniques.
Eastern Pacific sails have long been recognized as a unique population for their more pronounced nuchal ridge, larger spinous dorsal fin in relationship to body width, and markedly larger body size. From December until April they are present in such sufficient numbers that double-digit days are common. Unlike Guatemala, the sailfish “Mecca,” a day on the water is actually targeting a mixed bag offshore with encounters with marlin, dorado, and tuna largely expected. Because of their numbers, sailfish are often the go-to target of the day. The Good Day Team headed by Felipe Fernandez out of Los Suenos resort at Jaco Beach, provided multiple boats with experienced captains. The group had just finished a striped marlin tournament, but now were keying on concentrations of sailfish about 20 miles offshore, which were following schools of sardines.
This is the land of a technique known as the “bait and switch.” This is seldom practiced in Florida, but ironically, was developed there. During the glory days of the Long Key Fishing Club, beginning about 1910, Zane Gray and other pioneers of fishing worked out new techniques and tackle. In 1925 Gray, along with a New Jersey guide named D. B. Hatch, aboard the Patsy, caught 113 sailfish in a single season, while 12 other captains accounted for a combined total of 106. This was attributed to the application of the bait and switch. The club was ultimately destroyed by a hurricane in 1935.
The Costa Rican captains tend to use a seven-line spread with two inner flat lines trolling an artificial head and skirt. Outriggers sport dead ballyhoo and other lures. The larger, better fish tend to come into the spread keying on the artificials on the flats. A mate pulls the lure away from the “turned on” fish, while the angler simultaneously lets back a ballyhoo, which is kept at the ready in a bucket in the transom. As the fish switches its attention to the new offering, the fisherman lets him swallow it, free spooling for a six count and then lets the circle hook (required here) do its work.
I always look forward to this on my trips to Costa Rica and Guatemala. Set some newcomer gringos to work on this and soon they’re as juiced as a bunch of Grateful Dead fans at a medical marijuana conference. I was surprised on the latter days of the trip when some of the captains were divorcing themselves from the technique in favor of putting out nine lines with the extra ballyhoo already positioned by fiat line lure. Perhaps the bait and switch will at last lose its popularity.
Here are some essential points: Although there are numerous undersea mounts off the coast which are fish magnets, many days involve trolling over larger areas keying on bait schools. In some regions, such as Golfo Dulce, live bail is readily available most days but not along this coast. The ballyhoo we were using was actually shipped in from the United States.
Fishing out of Ocean Reef in Key Largo, Florida with Capt. Frank Navarro on the Mr. Nice just weeks earlier, demonstrates another technique that is currently extremely popular in South Florida. Instead of trolling, live baits such as goggle eye, pilchard, or ballyhoo are suspended from multiple lines supported by large kites. This keeps all other line and terminal tackle out of the water. This can be done while anchored as part of a multi-strategy while bottom fishing or yellow tailing.
This “dangling angling” stems from the tradition begun in China by Mo Zi in 478 BC. Probably a millennium before Benjamin Franklin sent an iron key up his kite string into a lightning storm, fishermen of the South Pacific were using kites made of palm for fishing. The modern method is attributed to New Zealanders for fishing from the beach.
Essential points here include that South Florida sailfish tend to congregate in groups at the edge of the prominent reef. Therefore, the captains are fishing a “spot,” not a large area. Additionally, live bait is always available.
Love, Riley. “Sails of a Sailfish Primer.” GAFF. October/November 2014