Net Loss

With encouragement from a Broward foundation, scientists hope to restore the struggling billfish population

While South Florida was blooming as a billfishing capital in the '50s, Don de Sylva was locked in a lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, studying tuna. After receiving his master's degree in marine biology in 1953, he headed for warmer climes, enrolling in the University of Miami's Institute of Marine Science, a forerunner of the Rosenstiel school. Then he got hooked on billfish. "I was just fascinated at these things that weighed a ton," he says. "I still can't get over the fact that they go from a quarter-inch long to over a thousand pounds."

Little money was available to study billfish. Research funds were reserved mostly for species targeted by commercial fisheries, such as tuna. So de Sylva and other researchers turned to wealthy sport fishermen. "They would give us $5000 here and there," de Sylva remembers. Indeed, anglers formed groups like the Sailfish Conservation Club in West Palm Beach, one of the first such groups. De Sylva and other University of Miami researchers attended fishing tournaments, which provided ample specimens for study. Legions of recreational anglers also tagged the fish they caught, allowing researchers to gain an idea of their migratory and growth patterns.

De Sylva caught his first baby billfish in June 1956 in the Gulf Stream near the Bimini Islands, on an excursion financed by appliance scion and angler Robert Maytag. "We caught 13 sailfish in the first half-hour," de Sylva recounts with glee. The data he gleaned were added to a small but growing body of scientific knowledge about the early life of billfish. In 1961 de Sylva discovered a previously unknown species: the longbill spearfish. He named it Tetrapturus pfluegeri in homage to Al Pflueger, a local sport fisherman devoted to billfish research.

While de Sylva and other biologists were plucking babies from the Gulf Stream, commercial fishing fleets were bagging vast quantities of adults. Technological developments during the '50s and '60s allowed these fleets to grow in capacity and range. Some scientists helped fishermen by providing more precise knowledge of the fish's habits.

De Sylva and other researchers pressed on despite a shortage of money and repeated setbacks. A 1967 fire at Rosenstiel destroyed his office and laboratory, including almost his entire collection of billfish. In a jar that had been in a museum at the school, he keeps one remaining specimen: a baby sailfish caught in 1965 off the Ivory Coast. Some photographs and sketches of larvae also survived the blaze. In the late '60s, de Sylva assembled 25 kits for catching the infants, each composed of a waterproof lamp and two dip nets. He sent them to sport fishermen in the Caribbean, who were going to help collect samples, but the project fizzled. "They found they were good to collect shrimp and that's all they used them for," he recalls.

During the '70s and '80s, research proceeded at a snail's pace, still suffering from a lack of funding. But in 1994 the Rosenstiel school formed the billfish research team and received an infusion of money from the Ohio-based Hoover Foundation and two wealthy sport fishermen. De Sylva, the group's senior member, is planning to retire next year. One of his lamps, now 30 years old, lingers on as a vital piece of equipment and a symbol of how primitive the methods used to study these elusive fish still are.

Today billfish have a network of allies that stretches far beyond the scientific community. About 20 miles north and 10 miles west of the Gulf Stream research site lies another bastion of billfish boosters: the Billfish Foundation. Located on the top floor of a three-story First Union bank building in Fort Lauderdale, it is also a shrine to the creatures. Aqua-hued paintings of marlin and sailfish cover the walls, and life-size replicas jut from tabletops. Billfish T-shirts are displayed on three truncated plastic torsos on a desk in the reception area. Stacks of brochures, newsletters, bumper stickers, and other information abound.

The foundation, established in 1986 by a group of wealthy anglers, has a double mission: to conserve the fish and to protect the sport. On a recent afternoon, executive director Ellen Peel, clad in a fuchsia Billfish Foundation polo shirt, is at her desk trying to affect federal regulations. "We've been treated as a silent hobby and not as an industry for so long," she huffs. She's just been on the phone to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Washington expressing her displeasure over the dearth of conservation plans. A lawyer originally from Gulfport, Mississippi, Peel has been pressing the NMFS to prohibit commercial fishing in the Atlantic off Florida's southeast coast and in the north-central Gulf of Mexico. But the newest proposals do not include such bans.

The foundation argues that maintaining plentiful billfish populations is not only sound ecology but good business. "The economic benefit of the sport-fishing industry is staggering," Peel asserts. The foundation commissioned a 1990 study by Texas A&M University researchers, who found that U.S. billfishing tournaments in the western Atlantic pumped $180 million into local economies during 1989 and 1990. Peel says a "sea change" is already occurring on Capitol Hill, one that is giving the sport-fishing industry a higher profile.

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