Atlantic Sailfish – Ocean’s Ambassadors
The Atlantic sailfish off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula deserve much better than to be caught for sport, say Pete Oxford and Reneé Bish
“Don’t end up as a kebab!” my friend Pete Atkinson Skyped me after I’d told him about my upcoming adventure.
It was March, in Mexico, off the Yucatan Peninsula on Isla Mujeres, and it was six o’clock in the morning. I was on the dock, ready to board one of the fleet of a dozen high-tech, game-fishing boats, each bristling with fishing poles, out-riggers and antennas. Clients and crews were cocky with anticipation. Fishing was good – the annual migration of sailfish was in full swing.
Sailfish are one of the most highly prized gamefish in the world. The sport fishing industry sells them as “providing thrilling leaps and a powerful and acrobatic fight”. Personally, I have to admit that I just don’t get it. I fail to understand how the terror of a magnificent, hooked fish, in its desperate attempts to evade death can be entertaining, whether it leaps out of the water or not. Nor do I understand how we view the fish as “providing” such a show as if it were doing it obligingly to please a human audience.
Nevertheless my three compañeros and I were no exception, we were also there to get amongst the sailfish. Our intentions however were different. We wanted to peel back the barrier and witness one of the world’s most incredible fish in its natural environment – from underwater.
Sailfish are members of the billfishes, Istiophoridae, family (which includes all the marlin, the spearfish and sailfish). They are a designated Highly Migratory Species (HMS) and will swim an average of 200,000 miles, through international waters, in their 16 year lifetime. They can grow quickly in their first year reaching up to five foot in length but from then on their growth slows considerably. They are one of the most inshore ranging of the billfish feeding on flying fish, halfbeaks, sardines, small tuna, squid and octopi.
The problem of course is how do you find a few sailfish in a vast expanse of open water. Despite their size of up to nine feet in length and in excess of 120lb, they remain elusive. Except that is when they gather to feed.
We slipped away from the dock, scanning the surface out to the horizon in earnest as we motored into blue water. We were not in fact looking for the sailfish themselves - but frigatebirds. With a 6-7 foot wingspan and only a 2-3lb body weight these aerial masters dotted the sky, lazily cruising on outstretched wings. They were hungry and they too were, indirectly, looking for sailfish.
Then, a mere hour into our day, on the horizon we spotted what we were looking for – more frigates. This time, the birds were flying in a concentrated funnel, swooping down to the surface to snatch sardines from the water. We were already kitted up in wetsuits, weightbelts, long fins, masks and cameras and excitement levels were high. By the time the skipper had reached the meleé and turned our stern into the action, we were lined up on the back rail, filled with anticipation ready to jump. ‘Délé, Go, Go!” shouted the skipper and we launched ourselves in to the water. The difference between what we had seen in air, watching the frenzy of the frigatebirds, coupled with the occasional, tantalizing glimpse of action below, to what we witnessed as we passed through the invisibly thin surface, was, quite literally a world apart.
A large, living, silver ball of polarized sardines was being kept pressed against the surface by as many as 50 swift, dark shapes criss-crossing below and to the side. Sailfish! We kicked frantically, cameras at arms length aiming at the action and firing away with super wide lenses. We were lucky so far but this could well be our only encounter of these elusive fish. The sardines were trapped and the frigates were maximizing on the bonanza held within their reach by the hunting sailfish. As we sped forward, the closer our approach, the more awesome the spectacle became. The whole group was working like a pack of wolves, they were cooperating in the hunt in the typical manner of other apex predators. Lions cooperate, wolves do and so do wild dogs and hyenas, yet for some reason we don’t normally associate fish with any character or individuality but merely within the limitations of ‘tasty’, ‘tonnage’ or ‘something to hook’ – let me tell you, now is the time to take another look.
Indeed, humans largely view fish as a resource. We continue to pull them out of the ocean as if the old adage were really true “That there are plenty more fish in the sea.” That may have been true a century ago when fishing pressure was low and the playing field was more level, when we did not totally outcompete the fish with advanced technological capabilities to find and catch them by the hundreds of thousands of tons, and, also, in a time when there were only 2 billion not 7 billion people on the planet. Today however all the billfish populations are at an all time low, several species may already be close to a non-viable population number and may not recover sufficiently once the present long-lived adult population begins to die off while the current kill rate is maintained.
As we moved in yet closer to the hunting pack we began to make sense of the apparent chaos. The prey were being herded into a tight bait-ball. Sailfish would swim close and flick up the huge sail-like dorsal fin like a fence to consolidate the sardines, another would work the opposite side while others stayed below. Colour patterns instantaneously flashed on the bodies of the hunters from a purple-with-blue-spots, to a dramatic silver-and-blue-striping, to a stunning coppery-bronze colour; the revelation was that they were actually communicating. Reminiscent of squid or cuttlefish (mere mollusks), they appeared to be using a kind of chromatic semaphore. The meaning was lost on us except that as they turned in, one at a time, to the bait ball to feed, they most often lit up with a metallic bronze as if signaling “It’s my turn, I’m going in!” Their sails would erect explosively with the whooshing sound of a zip fastener and they would swim until their bill was inside the bait ball.
I had been told that they would slash at the sardines with their rough-edged bill and stun a few fish to pick up later. The truth was so much more elegant as, with an almost imperceptible sidewise motion, (virtually only a vibration) it was enough to knock a sardine senseless which was scooped up there and then on the fly. The satisfied sailfish pulled out, the sardines baled up tighter and then another hungry hunter would flash bronze and move in effortlessly to the bait ball to grab itself a bite to eat. Through close observation one could see that the whole process was in fact ordered, refined – gentlemanly almost.
In all my travels and close encounters with nature, to be in the intimate company of 50 Atlantic sailfish, in blue, oceanic water was already, after 45 minutes, a major wildlife highlight in my life. Part of the beauty of the experience was the fact that these top predators, who knew exactly that we were there, accepted us completely and let us simply observe.
Yet, these ambassadors of the high seas are threatened, like so much else in the oceans of the world. Even before humans have learned enough about their basic biology, from the moment we have been able we have rapidly and very effectively, been systematically ridding the planet of sailfish. Nor do we understand the consequences. We do know that apex predators in general are the keystone species of ecosystems and without sailfish being present in their pivotal role anything could happen. Maybe no billfish would mean that baitfish numbers exploded, just as no lions results in too many grazers and bush turning to desert so, an explosion of baitfish might eat all the plankton. But, guess what, 50 per cent of the planet’s oxygen comes from oceanic plankton. Who knows what will happen? Whatever happens, if the trend continues, it will not be good.
Why are they threatened? Throughout their range sailfish regularly encounter 30-40 mile long lengths of monofilament nylon, laced with tens of thousands of baited hooks. Easy prey, the sailfish take the bait and drown on the line. The cruel irony is that these highly NON-selective fishing methods are actually targeting tuna and swordfish, yet alongside the dead sailfish may hang a drowned turtle or albatross. Sailfish have a rather tough, undesirable meat and are not even allowed to be landed commercially in the USA. When the fisherman comes to haul in the longline he berates the catch of “trash” fish, turtles and birds as a waste of hook space and they get tossed overboard to pile up on the sea floor. Unbelievably these incredible fish are caught for no other reason than to be thrown away as “by-catch” – a politically correct euphemism meaning carnage and waste.
I could no more imagine killing one of these animals as I could a lion. Of course there are people who would like to do both and I would say to those people “What’s the point? Haven’t we done enough damage to the planet, our home, already?” “Why not just trash your bedroom, your living room or your back yard – surely it’s the same?”
As the bait ball was being eaten smaller and smaller, the desperate sardines became individually more and more vulnerable. Occasionally one would break out from the ball and try to take sanctuary in our wetsuits or use us as a shield. An alert sailfish would soon swerve in perilously close to catch the errant sardine and, as thin as a knife would flex its body and shy away at the last instant in a supreme show of athleticism, the long, pointed bill missing my face by a foot or less. It was then I remembered Pete Atkinson’s comments and knew that if a sailfish had the will it could pierce my body with it’s sword, like a hot knife through butter. Malice was absent however and I felt guilty on behalf of those of my species whose only thought was to wrangle a hooked one.
‘Tag and release’ is the cry from all the would-be conservationists amongst the anglers. Yes, of course, it is better than bringing ashore a dead sailfish just to have it weighed and I applaud the goodwill and common sense of the initiative. We even spotted a tagged animal swimming happily with the crowd and joining in the hunt. I also witnessed however, underwater, from a few feet, the effort, stress and damage (as the taut monofilament continually raked the animals flank) of a sailfish with a hook in its mouth at the end of a line while the oblivious topside crew waited for it to provide the “thrilling leap”. It was not an easy thing to watch.
The fastest fish in the sea, not to mention one of the most beautiful, sailfish are a supreme blend of wolf, cheetah and chameleon. The time has come that they deserve our respect and understanding. Time too that we ban all indiscriminate long-line fishing and gill netting giving the sailfish, indeed all billfish, a chance to recover.
I give them “honorary mammal” status.