Atlantic Sailfish Success

The role of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club in sailfish conservation

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Richard Gibson
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Richard Gibson
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Richard Gibson
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Richard Gibson

January 2012 marked a special anniversary in blue-water sport fishing. The West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s (WPBFC) marquee annual tournament, the Silver Sailfish Derby, turned 75. This club is one of the oldest of its kind in the United States, and the derby is the oldest billfish tournament in the world.

Due in large part to a unique combination of habitats and the proximity of the Gulf Stream to southeast Florida, Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) are concentrated in these waters. Not only do these sailfish seem more abundant in the peak weeks of the winter, they even seem abundant in the summer months, which is not traditionally the season for them. Veteran local sailfish captains and anglers, including WPBFC officers and members, have entertained the idea that Atlantic sailfish populations have increased as a result of technologies and release practices that are contributing to higher survival rates of released fish, and possibly due to bans on nets and surface longlines in state and federal waters. The fact that taxidermists no longer need dead fish to create mounts could also be contributing to possible population increases.

Several peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, a peer-reviewed stock assessment, and catch-and-release records kept by several long-running tournaments, including those kept by Silver Sailfish Derby organizers, support the anecdotal evidence offered by experienced fishermen. Since 1935, with the exception of the World War II years, the WPBFC has kept fastidious records of sailfish releases and tagged fish, as well as the number of participating boats. Though researchers are still working to tabulate these data, WPBFC records suggest that a combination of an increasing sailfish population, continually refined angling techniques, advanced technologies and experience may be contributing to record catch rates.

These and other data points offer a timeline indicating how several significant events have contributed to measurable stability and possible increases in the sailfish population along Florida’s east coast. Evidence supports the contention that ethical angling practices embraced by sailfish devotees protected the fishery from recreational overexploitation. These practices include catch-and-release fishing, the adoption of circle hooks, and efforts to release sailfish without mishandling them.

The club and larger recreational fishing community have also been instrumental in restricting large-scale, indiscriminate commercial fishing gear. The sailfish catch data and other existing research primarily offer a picture of sailfishing success levels over time, and catch rates have clearly increased since prohibitions have been put in place on purse-seining, gill-netting and surface longlining in Atlantic water off Florida. The cumulative impacts of these milestones likely contribute to today’s superb sailfishing. The following report highlights how the area’s recreational fishing community’s conservation ethic has protected and enhanced the region’s most celebrated fishery and the wider ecosystem while helping scientists understand sailfish population dynamics and the larger implications for this unique area of the Gulf Stream.

About the Derby
The West Palm Beach Fishing Club, and its 75-year-old brainchild, the Silver Sailfish Derby, emerged out of community pride and economic necessity. The club's first meeting took place Oct. 15, 1934, and boats departed the Lake Worth Inlet to fish the inaugural derby in 1935. It has been held every year since, except during the war effort, when the threat of German U-boats off Florida's coast loomed. Local anglers and businessmen created the club and its derby to showcase the area's tremendous blue-water angling opportunities, which had already attracted eminent sportsmen and women from across the country for three decades, including the legendary author Zane Gray. The club and its derby were part of marketing efforts to revitalize a community suffering terribly from a burst real-estate-development bubble and declines in tourism industries, especially charter boat fishing, which were casualties of the Great Depression. The derby succeeded in attracting sporting visitors and potential investors to the area, while giving the beleaguered local charter industry a shot in the arm. It would continue to achieve those marketing goals for decades. But the wholesale slaughter of sailfish was an unintended consequence of the first derbies.

In the 1936 derby, 545 sailfish were reportedly killed. In the 1937 derby, 488 were killed. In his book, The West Palm Beach Fishing Club: A 75-Year History, WPBFC historian Mike Rivkin reports that “So many sailfish came back to the dock in those early years that derby organizers were forced to make changes there as well.” It’s remarkable how quickly derby pioneers realized that ongoing community prosperity depended on the sustainable use of natural resources. In turning to this sailfish resource for economic assistance, they quickly recognized that their own use of the resource could pose a threat to it.

By 1938, club members were required to place a sign on their boats that read, “If your sailfish is not a prize fish or not wanted for a trophy or any special purpose, be a sportsman and release it!” At the same time, a powerful symbol representing the twin elements of sportsmanship and conservation quickly emerged from derby endeavors. California’s Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island, the nation’s oldest recreational fishing club, had a tradition of flying flags to celebrate the day’s catch — a practice that Florida charter boats had also adopted for marketing purposes. Borrowing from that tradition, in 1938 the WPBFC invented the red release pennant so that released fish were given the same recognition of angling success as fish brought back to the dock. As Rivkin notes, “Size and length remained the measure of victory, but a day of catching and releasing smaller sailfish could now be given proper due.”

Until the mid-1980s, when the derby became strictly a “release tournament,” trophies were awarded to the angler returning to the dock with the longest and heaviest sailfish, respectively. Along with the advent of the release pennant came the release trophy. Meanwhile, the release pennant, or “flag,” quickly became a universally recognized symbol and foreshadowed the eventual voluntary, almost community-wide ethos of releasing all sailfish caught off Florida and most other parts of the world where sport fishing 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. The influence of release flags as a symbol has changed the mentalities of fishing communities around the world. WPBFC was also at the vanguard of cooperation between anglers and marine researchers.

“No other club has worked so steadfastly with scientific institutions,” says John Jolley, marine biologist and present science advisor to the WPBFC board, which he chaired for three decades. Sailfish tagging efforts increased in the years leading up to the 1961 derby. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had developed “striking irons” that made tagging sailfish more effective. Immediately, the Sailfish Conservation Club — an offshoot of the WPBFC — began awarding Zippo lighters to anglers who tagged and released sailfish. These changes were incorporated into the 1962 annual derby, its silver anniversary. Tagged fish became worth one point more than nontagged released fish.

These rule modifications formalized a historic commitment to cooperative research efforts between anglers and the scientific community that continues to this day. Recreational anglers have tagged more than 92,000 Atlantic sailfish.

The WPBFC awarded anglers gold pins for landing sailfish of 8 feet or longer. In the 1960s, the number of “gold button” fish seemed to decline, raising conservation concerns. Researchers examined catch records. Meanwhile, building on early tagging efforts, anglers and taxidermists donated boat time and specimens to scientists studying the species’ fundamental biological makeup and behavior. Derby organizers realized that the practice of bringing many sailfish home dead had the potential to damage the population. In 1938, they developed the red release pennant so that released fish counted toward derby awards. It was a development that changed the nature of big-game fishing. Without these efforts, there would be little understanding of three key aspects of this species to help manage it sustainably. These are maximum age, migratory patterns and release survivability ratios. One tag that had been deployed 17 years earlier was returned, suggesting that Atlantic sailfish can live at least 14 to 16 years, and possibly longer.

Data from tagging and recapture efforts and other sources also demonstrate that this population of sailfish is partitioned off from other sailfish populations in the eastern and southern Atlantic. In 2009, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) conducted a stock assessment and stated, “No transatlantic or transequatorial 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.”

Conservation Battles
Fishing for not only sailfish but many species would most likely be much less productive today without the benefits of the conservation campaigns successfully spearheaded by the WPBFC. (See the timeline on page 64.) These include perpetual education campaigns about best practices in conservation-minded fishing, habitat restoration and protection efforts, and water-quality battles — especially closing the sewage outfalls into the Lake Worth Lagoon. Now, increasing catch rates recorded in the derby and other tournaments' catch records support the theory that most important victories also took place against commercial interests vying to introduce or continue the use of indiscriminant gear, including large purse seines, gill nets, fish traps and surface longlines. In 1990, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) banned drift nets in federal waters.

In 1991, club members joined FCA and other groups in persuading the SAFMC to ban fish traps from Florida’s east coast federal waters. On Nov. 8, 1994, voters passed Amendment Three of the Florida Constitution, which banned the use of gill nets in state waters. The club supported efforts driven by FCA, the Florida Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups.

On Feb. 1, 2001, surface longline fishing was outlawed year-round in water along Florida’s east coast out to 200 miles and in the De Soto Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico. A seasonal closure was also applied to an area off South Carolina and Georgia.

The net bans are believed by recreational anglers to have been overwhelmingly positive. It is difficult to measure such changes, positive or negative, when such gear affects many species across many trophic levels. In some cases, recreational fishing pressure may have masked the benefits as the Florida population grew, along with recreational fishing participation and advances in boats and gear. However, there is ample anecdotal evidence that banning netting led to an increase in certain fish populations.

It’s clear that fish stocks of spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) are now well above target levels, and banning the use of nets could have played a role in rebuilding that population. There’s been a decline in the harvest of mullet — a forage fish favored by sailfish. And Spanish mackerel, another forage source for billfish, is no longer overfished in the Gulf or Atlantic regions. Surface longlines were also removed from this rich zone. By 1990, it was clear that longlining for swordfish (Xiphias gladius) had taken a heavy toll on that species, with the average size of fish landed falling well below the size at which female swords begin spawning (about 150 pounds). There was a tremendous problem with surface longline bycatch mortality of swordfish below the legal minimum size. Too few lived long enough to reproduce. Prodded by conservation groups, including the WPBFC, Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), The Billfish Foundation (TBF) and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally protected what has been recognized as an important nursery ground for swordfish and a narrow migratory alley for swordfish and other species, including marlin that are too easily overharvested by industrial gear. This critical step may have brought this swordfish fishery back from the brink. And increased success in sailfishing closely follows these landmark conservation victories. Though it is possible that positive reproduction and recruitment cycles may also play a role, it seems likely, given the timeline and spike in numbers, that these management decisions influenced the sailfish fishery.

By the Numbers
In 1935, 33 boats landed 56 sailfish during the inaugural 13-day Silver Sailfish Derby, resulting in a catch per unit of effort (CPUE) of a little more than one fish per boat per day. In 1936, 57 boats landed 545 sailfish over 21 days, resulting in a rate of about one fish per day as well. In 2011, 34 boats released 677 fish over three days, resulting in a record CPUE of 6.45 fish per boat per day. These are the catch numbers that bookend the history of the Silver Sailfish Derby, and an evaluation of CPUE during these events illustrates how widely it can vary. Yet so much has changed with respect to the derby rules, level of participation and derby lengths — not to mention tackle, skill and boats — that it is difficult to assign significance to these numbers divided by many years.

An analysis of the derby catch data, catch data from other tournaments, and other information included in the 2009 ICCAT Atlantic Sailfish Stock Assessment, along with population age structure information, shows that the rates have fluctuated over time. Weather has played a major role in annual angler success. However, the aggregate evidence suggests that population and catch rates are on the rise relative to previous decades. CPUE from 1935 to 1970 averaged 1.3 fish per boat per day. Between 1992 and 2011, CPUE averaged 2.05 fish. Atlantic sailfish is managed in two parts, eastern and western, and possibly should be further subdivided with a western North Atlantic component, because of the “partitioning” described earlier. This new information points to a major management success story and underscores the importance of protecting this stock from bycatch mortality, commercial exploitation, and recreational overharvesting. Conservation concerns in the 1960s, and an increase in tournament points awarded for fish tagged and released over fish that were simply released incentivized anglers and increased tagging efforts.

These concerns spurred the research published in 1972 that found that, while catch rates had decreased, so had effort. Looking at catch rates through derby history, the numbers were lower on average during a four-week tournament period than during recent three-day tournaments. For example, between 1961 and 1991, when the tournament ran for 21 days, fewer than 100 sailfish were released in six derbies. Between 1996 and 2011, CPUE escalated significantly, and all fish were released. These increases follow a timeline consistent with the notion that an expanding release ethic and commercial fishing restrictions contributed to conservation in the western North Atlantic. Population age structure information and other data sets support the hypothesis that populations are improving. When compared to populations in the southern and eastern Atlantic, which are likely overfished, and given how concentrated sailfish in the easily accessed habitats along southeast Florida are, there is no other better explanation than improved management and angler behavior for the apparent relative health of this population.

Experts with The Billfish Foundation (TBF) and International Game Fish Association (IGFA) tout the catch-and-release ethic and absence of indiscriminant gear, such as gill nets and surface longlines, in and off Florida waters for keeping the western Atlantic stock from teetering left of the overfishing hash mark. Ellen Peel, executive director of TBF, testified before ICCAT and stated, “The long-practiced catch-and-release ethic by U.S. anglers and the coastal nature of the species are likely why the species has not plummeted over the years. The additional conservation benefits that have resulted from the pelagic longline closure off Florida no doubt strengthen the status of this stock.” Implying harvest numbers, and citing significant uncertainties in the assessment, the ICCAT 2009 stock assessment team said, “West Atlantic sailfish catches should not exceed current levels.” They noted that the recreational fishery in this region is almost completely catch-and-release, and that technologies ensuring low levels of release mortality have been voluntarily and legally adopted. For social, ecological and economic reasons related to the health of this fishery, it will be important to prevent additional reopenings of areas closed to surface longlining and netting; continue to promote catch-and-release; and protect prey species and the larger ecosystems.

Conclusion
Club records and other data strongly suggest that encouraging an almost purely catch-and-release fishery 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 by recreational anglers in certain areas, including Sailfish Alley, where they are highly concentrated, accessible and exploitable. Club members and allied organizations were also instrumental in driving decisions to abandon the use of indiscriminate commercial fishing gear in Florida waters and in large areas of the South Atlantic. Derby catch rates and catch rates in a number of other southeast Florida tournaments have increased dramatically since the abolition of large nets and surface longlines. Eliminating those fishing gears provided a viable tool when combined with successful fishery management strategies, including recreational angling conservation practices and technological improvements, such as nonoffset circle hooks. This fishery management model could be exported to encourage and create sustainable fisheries in other regions. It has contributed to what billfish biologist, billfish angler and 30-year WPBFC president John Jolley calls "some of the best sailfish fishing in 75 years."