As one of the world's foremost experts on black marlin, Aussie biologist Dr. Julian Pepperell has worked for decades, studying the movements and habits of big black marlin. As part of the research for the article that appeared in the Dec/Jan issue of Marlin, we conducted a question-and-answer interview with the good doctor. Here are his responses:
1) How did you feel about becoming the first Marine Angling Biologist for NSW Fisheries? What was the first order of business?
"That was a dream first job. It was the first such position in Australia (i.e., dealing specifically with marine recreational fish species). Emphasis around the country before that had been on commercial fisheries and freshwater. The first thing I focused on was the commercial/recreational conflict over estuarine fish resources. This led me to the first studies of the biology of some iconic Aussie angling species, like dusky flathead and yellowfin bream. It wasn't until a few years later that I developed an interest in the offshore recreationally important species, especially billfish."
2) Why did you feel tagging studies were so important?
"It was clear from tagging programs on many fish species that if these were carried out with some rigor, important information could be derived, in particular, movements, growth rates, stock structure and partitioning of the catch. In the case of the game fish tagging program, I could see that, in order to begin to get these sorts of results, we would need to increase the numbers of fish being tagged dramatically. That's when we began to be involved in the program at the grass roots level, attending tournaments, fishing alongside the capture boats, and competing for the tagging trophies (which were regarded as lesser prizes in those early days). It was really a matter of trying to change the culture, and this was achieved, if not entirely by pushing tag and release, then at least in part."
3) When was the game-fish tagging program instituted?
"The Australian Game Fish Tagging Program, which has always been run by the New South Wales Fisheries Department (now NSW Dept of Primary Industries) was launched in late 1973. It has always been an Australia-wide program, extending to neighboring countries, even though it is run (and funded) from one state."
4) How many species are included in the tagging program? How many did it first include?
"Initially, and for many years, all of the species which are recognized as game fish species by the Game Fishing Association of Australia (GFAA) were eligible for tagging, around 40 species. In reality though, only about 10 species represent more than 80% of all fish tagged. Over time, the full list has been reviewed and some of the smaller species have been taken off the list (such as tailor or bluefish, and some of the smaller tunas)."
6) How was the program funded?
"Since its origin in 1973 until four years ago, the program has been continuously funded from the core budget of the New South Wales Fisheries Dept (i.e., treasury derived from state taxes). Then, a salt-water fishing license was introduced into New South Wales (the most populous state) and the funding for the tagging program has since been derived from that welcome source. Tags and tag applicators have always been distributed free of charge to all anglers. The program costs around $160,000 AUS ($100,000 US) per year to run."
7) How important was it to the tagging studies to get recreational anglers onboard? Did you forge many friendships?
"It was absolutely vital. As mentioned, I took the view that getting out into the field and showing the anglers that the scientists could also fish, and could speak 'fishing' was crucial to them gaining acceptance of tagging. Remember that virtually all fish were killed at that time and tagging was viewed with some suspicion and skepticism. Regarding friendships, I can safely say that I formed close friendships from those early days amongst the angling fraternity that still are strong today. And those friends are from all walks of life. From the businessmen and professionals who own the boats, to the charter captains to professional deckhands to the average club angler. In fact, that part of my career has been easily as rewarding as the scientific side."
8) Please tell me about the first time you saw a black marlin. Did this change you?
"It sure did. I was fishing with a commercial fishing mate in a 15-foot tinny (an aluminum boat) near Montague Island, New South Wales. He had put out a live mackerel bait, and we had a run. 'Bloody hammerhead!' the commercial fisherman said as he struck the hook, and 5 seconds later, a 100-kg black marlin came out of the water like a missile. I'm sure I just stood there with my mouth open for a full minute. The following year, I went to Cairns to do the first study on whether or not the black marlin were coming to the Great Barrier Reef to spawn. On my first day out off the reef I saw my first 'grander' captured, which was even more awesome. During the next ten days, I witnessed an incredibly hot bite on really big fish, and was able to dissect, if you can use that word for such giants, 12 fish over 1,000 pounds. And yes, they do come there to spawn."