Miami professor promotes new electronic eye for sports fish

Commercial longlining ships like this Panamanian vessel pictured off Panama have been barred by a presidential order. The hundreds of baited hooks attract billfish, turtles and other prized species. The edict covers ships over six tons.

A fish whisperer from Miami came to tell Costa Ricans about a new tracking device for that darling of the sport fishing world, the billfish.

Marine biologist Nelson Ehrhardt demonstrated the new, hand-held device which acts like an electronic satellite sensor
taker for migrating sailfish and marlin at precise points in the tropical eastern Pacific.

The device is about the size of a cell phone and provides the captain of a sport fishing boat with a touch screen to record key data on the fish. Each time one is spotted or caught or when signs of the controversial longlines are detected, the captain taps the screen.

The information goes immediately to a University of Miami database, said Ehrhardt, a professor there.

“Here we are, instantaneously, in real time, looking at what is happening in our screens in Miami. It!s huge,” he said, adding the data will help scientists develop forecasting tools for billfish behavior.

The goal is to combine migration data from the captains with what scientists already know of oceanography to study habitat use of the billfish, whose numbers are a serious source of concern, he said.

The benefit to the sport angler is that the device helps locate the fish. This new device is a smaller version of one installed and tested on Guatemalan sport fishing boats in the past year. Those boats reported higher catches and lower fuel costs, he said. The billfish migrate from Mexico to Ecuador, so billfish issues are important all along the tropical eastern Pacific.

The colorful sailfish, with its massive dorsal fin and long needle nose, and its fellow billfish, the enormous marlin, are stars for Costa Rica!s lucrative sport fishing tourism.

“These are the exotics of the sea, very rare, extremely beautiful,” he said. Sailfish are coveted for their beauty and seemingly indomitable spirit. Once hooked, they fight vigorously, diving, leaping, twisting, and tail walking to make the angler labor to bring them to the boat, where, the moment it touches, it counts as a catch.

“It!s simply an extraordinary experience,” Ehrhardt said.

He met Monday with officials from Costa Rican fisheries and tourism, and sport fishing representatives to explain the device and the critical need for conservation. Costa Rica has a interest in protecting billfish because sport fishing is big money, he said.

In 2008 North Americans visited to sport fish and brought in $599 million in tourism revenue – 2 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, a study found. That year, 283,790 anglers visited Costa Rica, and 22 per cent of them were here just to fish. Research was by The Billfish Foundation, Southwick Associates and the University of Costa Rica.

In the past sport anglers mounted their catch as trophy, but these days anglers use catch and release, a camera to record success, and a taxidermist to make a replica.

Sailfish live four years on average, and the largest recorded was 222 pounds caught off the coast of Ecuador. As the fastest fish in the ocean, it has been clocked at 68 mph (110 kph) when leaping out of the water, according to

Ehrhardt stressed that billfish are at serious risk from the plethora of hooks of the controversial longlines of commercial vessels. Longline is a practice whereby large vessels use monofilament fishing lines that can stretch for 40 miles and dangle thousands of individually baited hooks. This results in bycatch, the incidental catch of unintended species, from sailfish to sea turtles.

Costa Rica has a large fleet of commercial longliners, which makes the issue even more pressing, he said. “Here there are a huge number of hooks, thousands of hooks.” In Guatemala there are markedly fewer commercial longliners and there are markedly more sailfish, he noted. Ehrhardt said that when sold for food, a single sailfish is worth $60. But a study estimates it generates $2,200 in tourism revenue when left free for catch and release sport anglers.

He questioned why people want to kill and eat creatures like the billfish. “When you contract a tour in the Republic of South Africa to see a giraffe you do not eat the giraffe.” In December 2008 Costa Rica fisheries authority, the Instituto Costarricense de Pesca y Acuicultura, put a 15 per cent limit on commercial fishing bycatch and a ban on the use of live bait by the commercial longliners. It also put a ban on sailfish meat export.

This year news broke that Costa Rican authorities intercepted more than 7,000 kilos of whole sailfish carcasses being transported by a seafood exporter to Perú. The cargo was falsely labelled as striped marlin, which is legal to export.

Ehrhardt also noted the longliner problem is compounded by ocean changes. Scientists are increasingly concerned about the spread of dead zones, where water is so low in oxygen that sailfish leave them and swim to shallower, more oxygen- rich water,. But once there, they are swimming into the area frequented by the commercial longliners.

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