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July 30, 2013

Tagging Sailfish in Guatemala

University of Miami Researchers deploy a series of pop-up satellite tags in order to learn more about sailfish.

(To see the full tagging adventure, click through all the photos in the gallery above.)

Most people would be surprised
 to learn how little is known about billfish. For example, how fast can they swim? There are some wild numbers thrown around, mostly based on anecdotal information, estimates and convoluted calculations rooted in sometimes very weak so-called science. Consult Google and you will find that most people believe sailfish are the fastest of the billfish, but there are some who disagree.  The real question is, how fast are they really? When an opportunity to find out arose, I seized it.

The whole adventure began when I met Mark Fitchett, a marine biologist working on his Ph.D. at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. I met with Fitchett, his professor Nelson Ehrhardt and another Ph.D. student, Bruce Pohlot. We instantly bonded over animated and passionate discussions regarding the life and behaviors of billfish, my point of view coming from my experience behind the camera and theirs from scientific study of billfish behavior and data — lots of data. As part of Fitchett’s and Pohlot’s doctoral dissertations, they were about to deploy a series of pop-up satellite tags (PSATs). Fitchett was interested in the oceanography and population dynamics of sailfish in the ecosystem, and Pohlot’s research centered on measuring short-term behaviors in sailfish. Pohlot intended to get a look at a thin, yet highly detailed, segment of a sailfish’s life using revolutionary short-term high-resolution PSATs. This method differs from the more wide-view approach that uses the longer-term satellite tags common in marine pelagic research today.

Off to the Field

After several months of emails and phone calls, I received an invitation to join the pair in the field or, more accurately, in the sailfish-rich waters off the Pacific coast of Guatemala. I landed in Guatemala City and was met by the Casa Vieja Lodge’s driver, who whisked me away post-customs with incredible efficiency.

As the giant doors of Casa Vieja opened, we were suddenly transported to a faraway place. Inside the Spanish-style courtyard, there was perfect calm. A sailfish fountain babbled in the background as I was welcomed by a row of smiling faces and handed a refreshing margarita. Late-afternoon sun bathed the bar’s wooden interior in an ethereal yellow glow, stretching long, lazy shadows across the floor and sparkling off its shiny varnish. Looking up at the wooden-beamed ceiling, I was made very aware of the pedigree of Casa Vieja Lodge and, by extension, the sail fishery in this part of the world. On display were photos and memorabilia from some of sport fishing’s greatest names. The building is a veritable shrine to the pursuit of sailfish, specifically on fly. The same thing that drew me — a constant, abundant supply of large Pacific sailfish — had drawn the scientists, and they would try to gain insight about these fish, using specially designed PSAT tags.

We were all up early the next morning, and I soon found Fitchett and Pohlot preparing the satellite tags on a small patch of grass near the office. They brought 20 tags in total, each costing almost $4,000. With a receiver and laptop, Fitchett confirmed that each tag was working as he communicated with the Argos satellite whizzing past miles overhead. The duo had spent the previous night mixing the explosive material that formed the link between the anchor and the business end of each tag. When triggered on a specific date, this link would separate the tag from the test fish. If all goes well, the tag pops up to the ocean’s surface, makes contact with the Argos satellite and uploads its precious data package. The University of Miami’s computers would then download the data, which are then interpolated and analyzed by the group, and turned into data for peer review. Eventually the data are used to develop strategies to help preserve and protect these fish. But before any of this can happen, the scientists had to catch the sails and insert the tags in the fish, via a surgical steel anchor, under their skin. The tricky part is doing this without fighting the fish to the point of no return.