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THE BEST SAILFISH FISHING IN 75 YEARS
How one conservation-minded club helped create a world-class fishery
The western wall of the Gulf Stream wanders surprisingly close to Palm Beach - bending five to seven miles from the Jupiter Inlet, 10 miles off Stuart, 18 miles off Fort Pierce, and 25 miles off Sebastian Inlet, following a contour that roughly parallels the edge of the continental shelf. In a 2001 issue of Marlin Magazine, Stuart FL author/angler Jan Fogt described this area as “Sailfish Alley”. Indeed, because of a unique combination inshore and offshore habitats, and the proximity of the Gulf Stream to southeast Florida the area has historically been a sailfish hotspot. Though in recent years it’s gotten better… A lot better. In fact it’s nothing short of amazing. Atlantic sails are now targeted and caught by flyrodders with some frequency. For the last 12 years Capt. Sandy Moret has run a successful flyfishing tournament, releasing as many as 15 sails one year.
This January the West Palm Beach Fishing Club hosted its 75th annual Silver Sailfish Derby. Forty-six boats released more than 1100 sailfish in a single day. Through its conservation, education and advocacy efforts, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club (WPBFC), perhaps the oldest club of its kind, is in part responsible for nurturing the extraordinary fishery found off Palm Beach today.
Promoting then requiring catch and release
In the first two years of the Club’s Silver Sailfish Derby, over one thousand sailfish were killed for no reason other than to weight them in. In those days, few anglers understood that marine resources were finite, end even fewer admitted that recreational fishing could be having an impact, but WPBFC was way before it’s time. So many sailfish came back to the dock in those early years that, in 1938, Derby organizers attempting to address the issue, required WPBFC members to place a sign on their boats stating, “If your sailfish is not a prize fish or not wanted for a trophy or any special purpose, be a sportsman and release it!” That same year WPBFC pioneered the release flag so that released fish could be given due recognition. Those pennants caught on throughout the entire offshore fishing community, quickly becoming universal. They are widely used to this day, and not just during tournaments. Anglers fly them simply for bragging rights. After subsequent years WPBFC awarded release trophies to Derby anglers who caught the longest fish or released the most fish during the course of the event. In the mid-1980s the Derby became strictly a release tournament and its evolution was complete.
WPBFC’s early conservation measures foreshadowed the eventual voluntary, offshore-fishing community-wide culture of releasing nearly all sailfish caught, not just in Florida and the US but in just about every part of the world where angling for billfish thrives. “The Derby has arguably served as the most far-reaching messenger of the conservation benefits of catch-and-release fishing in salt water” notes Terry Gibson, author of a recently released report on the Club (available at www.northswellmedia.com) “The influence of release flags as a symbol has changed mentalities around the world.”)
In the late 1990’s, once the benefits of circle hooks became apparent, the club began advocating their use by offering a circle hook award. In 2004 they made circle hooks a requirement. In 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service followed suit, requiring that all tournament anglers targeting billfish, who use bait or bait-and-lure combinations, must use circle-hooks. While there has been much debate on release mortality rates, in the context of sailfish, research suggests very high survival when circle hooks are used. If such fish are released quickly, and never removed from the water, it’s possible that just about all of them will survive.
Contributing to Science
WPBFC has kept fastidious records of fish landed, fish released, fish tagged, as well as the number of boats participating, for each Derby held during the past 75 years. This data was actually used in the 2009 ICCAT Atlantic sailfish stock assessment. Since the advent of tagging fish to track their movement, population trends and release survivability, WPBFC has been an active participant in the process. In 1962 the club implemented a Derby rule change giving a greater point value to tagged fish vs. merely released fish. That rule modification was a harbinger of a historic commitment to cooperative research efforts between anglers and the scientific community. Without such tagging data, there would be little understanding of the species’ maximum age, migratory patterns and survival after release, all of which contribute to its sustainable management. One WPBFC tag was returned after 17 years at sea, proving that Atlantic sailfish can live at least that long, and, possibly longer.
Data from tagging and other sources also demonstrate that the population of sailfish found off eastern Florida does not mix with other sailfish populations in the eastern and south Atlantic. Thus, the 2009 ICCAT stock assessment concluded that, “No trans-Atlantic or trans-equatorial movements were registered, suggesting that sailfish in the western Atlantic have a rather coastal distribution with no evident movement to the eastern Atlantic and south Atlantic Ocean.” That said, the fish off of Florida are likely the same fish caught readily by fly anglers in Caribbean Mexico. Without the information provided by volunteer tagging and reporting efforts first spearheaded by WPBFC, experts could not say with any certainty that this regional fishery is relatively healthy, unlike other Atlantic sailfish fisheries which are indeed overfished.
Fishing for many species other than sailfish would probably also be much less productive today, had the WPBFC and its allies not conducted their conservation campaigns, which include a perpetual education campaign about best practices in conservation-minded fishing, habitat restoration and protection, and water quality battles. Important victories were also won against commercial interests vying to introduce or continue the use of indiscriminant gear, including large purse seines, gillnets, fish traps and surface longlines.
In 2001, prodded by Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), The Billfish Foundation (TBF), the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and of course WPBFC, NMFS closed off 133,000 square miles of coastal waters off the southeast US coast to commercial surface longline fishing. This critical step has undoubtedly brought swordfish back from the brink, but it also greatly reduced if not eliminated longline sailfish discards in the area. As a result, sailfish catch data and other existing research, which offer a picture of catch rates over time, show that sailfish abundance has clearly increased since prohibitions on surface longlining and gillnetting in the waters of and off Florida have been implemented.
For 77 years the West Palm Beach Fishing Club played a large role in educating local anglers about conservation-minded practices. While reproductive cycles and varying recruitment success play a critical for any oceanic fish species that broadcasts fertilized eggs into the open ocean, WPBFC records and other data strongly suggest that encouraging an almost purely catch-and-release fishery also helped conserve a strong spawning sailfish biomass over the 75-year history of the Silver Sailfish Derby. This ethic prevented the removal of too many of these animals in areas, including Sailfish Alley, where they are highly concentrated, accessible and exploitable.
In the broader picture, such a conservation ethic, demonstrated by a single club, is a good example of how anglers can actually create not only sustainable, but extraordinary fisheries which benefit not only themselves but entire communities. WPBFC’s conservation minded vision has certainly contributed to what billfish biologist, billfish angler and 30-year West Palm Beach Fishing Club President John Jolley calls “some of the best sailfish fishing in 75 years.”