Going Under

As the world's most-coveted sport fish swim toward extinction, Miami researchers strive to save them

On a cloudy, gusty July afternoon the trawler Calanus is plowing eastward through a light chop in the Gulf Stream about five miles east of Key Biscayne. In shorts, white T-shirt, orange life jacket, and blue helmet, Jim Post stands astern, bare feet against the wooden planks of the deck. Post and his fishing companions are hoping to catch sailfish and swordfish, maybe even a marlin. But they are not using rods and reels. Post tosses overboard a white, three-foot-wide, eighteen-foot-long nylon-mesh net that resembles an airport wind sock. The net is attached to a metal cable that unwinds from a large winch mounted behind the cabin of the 67-foot vessel.

After a few minutes a crew member reverses the spool's direction and the net, streaming just under the surface, approaches the boat. "That's good!" yells Post. With the poise of a trapeze artist, he grabs the metal cable above his head, bends his knees, and scoops the net from the water. He ruffles through the nylon mesh. No fish. The procedure is repeated many times during the day; by nightfall the crew has brought in only a bunch of larvae and seaweed.

They fare a little better at night, seated on plastic chairs with hand-held dip nets and a 150-watt waterproof lamp hanging two feet below the surface. The light bulb attracts all kinds of aquatic life: A pulsing moon jellyfish floats by. A school of silvery minnows flashes and flits in unison. Minutes pass, then an hour, and the dipping continues. Still the fishermen are unable to locate their quarry.

After an eternity Post screams: "Yeaaarh!" He has caught a billfish. It might be a sailfish. Or maybe a marlin, a swordfish, or even an extremely rare spearfish. About an inch long, it's dropped into a bucket. After another dry spell, Post scores again. "Wow!" somebody yells. But the creature in the net looks like a silver worm with a needle for a nose. It's a needlefish, not a billfish. They dip on into the night, for hours.

This is how Post and eleven fishing partners spent seven tedious days and nights this past summer. They caught 100 sailfish and twenty swordfish, two of the species popularly known as billfish (which span two zoological families, Istiophoridae and Xiphiidae). Not one displayed the leaps, twists, and plunges that make anglers' spines tingle and knees shake. Most were larvae and already dead by the time they reached the deck. But thirteen of them, between three and six inches long, were very much alive.

Members of the billfish research team from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science were engaged in their most ambitious effort to collect young specimens: twelve researchers, seven days, $21,000 for the boat's operation. Despite the legendary status of these creatures in the world of sport fishing, biologists know precious little about them or their youthful habits. With scant financial resources, marine biologists are scrambling to learn.

A troubling fact is propelling the billfish research team's work: Since the Sixties, Atlantic marlin, swordfish, and sailfish populations have declined radically. (Reliable statistics on Atlantic spearfish are not available because they are rarely caught). Data compiled by international agencies monitoring commercial catches indicate that swordfish and marlin populations have fallen 75 percent below the critical biomass -- the level scientists say is necessary for a species to propagate. Sailfish are slightly better off, but their numbers are 50 percent below the threshold.

To study the fish, researchers must not only catch them, they must keep them alive. And that's the rub for the billfish research team. When fully grown, these big-finned broncos of the sea possess legendary strength. But a baby is as delicate as a dragonfly. Scientists have not been able to keep them alive in captivity. Last summer's catch lived no more than three days. Tom Capo, manager of Rosenstiel's experimental fish hatchery, believes they died from stress. "The billfish did not relax," he concludes. After the deaths, Capo set his sights on arranging yet another expedition. "You can't protect these fish unless you understand what their early life requirements are."

Lovers of sport fishing recently started a campaign to save the fish, urging restaurateurs to remove them from the menu. "We're trying to educate people so they can make a conscious choice based on what's good for the ecosystem," explains Steve Rice, a spokesman for the Billfish Foundation, an advocacy group in Fort Lauderdale.

Though billfish have been cruising the world's oceans for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists began documenting their habits only in the late 1800s, in part because of the difficulty in catching them on the high seas. All four kinds are highly migratory; scientists dubbed them pelagic, or open-ocean fish. Marlins and swordfish can grow to well over 1000 pounds and fifteen feet in length. Their spearlike bills can extend several feet. Sailfish, in contrast, rarely exceed 200 pounds and tend to circulate closer to land than marlins and swordfish. Spearfish are slightly smaller still.

The first billfish caught with rod and reel was a sailfish snagged in the Florida Keys in 1898, according to Edward Migdalski in his 1958 book Angler's Guide to the Saltwater Game Fishes. Early on, catching these javelin-nosed juggernauts for sport was mainly a pursuit of the wealthy. It grew more popular in the Twenties and Thirties, in part owing to Ernest Hemingway's popular stories about chasing marlin and sailfish in the Caribbean, and to Zane Grey's tales of grappling with huge swordfish in the Pacific. After World War II the manufacture of better and more affordable fishing tackle as well as durable sport-fishing boats encouraged more people to try the sport. In places like Southern California and South Florida, dozens of charter boat captains guided expert and neophyte anglers to fish-laden waters for less than a 100 bucks a day.

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