Net Loss

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

The group also wades into the scientific arena by funding research and managing one of the biggest tagging programs in existence. One angler tagged a blue marlin off Puerto Rico last year; this past June another fisherman caught the same fish off the southern coast of Spain. About 57,000 billfish have been tagged under the program.

Conservation efforts have spread inland to dining establishments. The foundation, along with environmental groups such as SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are promoting "No Marlin on the Menu" and "Give Swordfish a Break" campaigns to get the troubled species off menus. Foundation spokesman Steve Rice proudly relates that he recently persuaded United Airlines to remove swordfish from its daily fare. The general manager of a Holiday Inn in Midland, Michigan, agreed to do the same after Rice sent him a letter. "He called and said, 'Hey, what's going on? I gotta know about this. I'm a conservationist,'" Rice recounts. "After a ten-minute phone call, he took it off the menu."

Scientific research usually moves more slowly than boycotts. Billfish science is like a tiny egg that Tom Capo and the research team are struggling to hatch. "If we could keep them alive for 60, 90, 100 days, I would consider that the initial success. Because that means we are in control," Capo ventures. "We'll be able to feed them. Which means people will be able to do physiological experiments. We'll be able to better understand what these animals require."

Capo has prevailed before. A native of Yonkers, New York, he moved to Miami from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1989. In the '70s and '80s, while at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he helped pioneer the raising of aplysia, a tiny sea snail used in medical research. Though aplysia and billfish are vastly different, they have something in common: They are both extremely difficult to keep alive in the lab. By varying light, water temperature, and other factors, Capo imitated natural conditions. "Once you get the parameters in place, then, bingo, everything falls into place," Capo explains. Besides aplysia, he recently raised several spotted sea trout, which are so content they are spawning every two to four days.

Capo and his colleagues have been able to learn little more than the rudiments about baby billfish. Their most striking discovery is that even a one-incher has a sail and a bill remarkably like an adult. And the tiny creatures are light: "A six-inch sailfish weighs about three grams. That's about three paper clips," notes Joe Serafy, a Rosenstiel microbiologist. And then there's this troubling fact: When baby billfish are caught and put in a plastic bucket, they repeatedly ram their bills against the bottom like a tiny jackhammer. Capo calls that "nosin' down," and so far it has been an antecedent to death. Two years ago Rosenstiel graduate students managed to relax a baby so that it ate brine shrimp, a feat the researchers have been unable to repeat. The longest survival time in captivity: four and a half days.

"You look at them the wrong way, and they die," laments de Sylva. "We're still just trying to get basic knowledge. What they eat, when they feed, how much oxygen they need," he explains. The most mysterious of all are juveniles, those between a few weeks and a year old. "These little billfish six to twelve inches long, we don't know where they are. The only ones who know where they are are the fish who prey on them," de Sylva frets.

If sea trout can be raised in tanks, why not billfish? Researchers suspect one reason is that sea trout are coastal fish; billfish roam the ocean. "You're talking about an animal that knows no boundaries," observes Serafy. "It knows infinity."

On a late September day with the spawning season drawing to a close, Capo and de Sylva are scrambling to find a boat. They want to make one more attempt before hanging up their nets until next year, and the school's money has run out. They need a vessel that is big, stable, and preferably cheap. Few funds are left after the one-week Calanus expedition, which two sport fishermen financed. After a flurry of phone calls and a trip to Fort Lauderdale, they find the Sir Martin, courtesy of the Institute For Marine Science, a nonprofit group that supports researchers.

The next day Capo and four colleagues drive to Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne, where they meet the Sir Martin's captain, Gale Myers, and first mate Mike Richards. In addition to Capo, the research team for this cruise includes Serafy, age 39, an American who grew up in Boston and Egypt; Nasseer Idrisi, a 36-year-old fish ecologist from Basra, Iraq; and two graduate students, 22-year-old Colin Schmitz from Texas and Stacy Luthy, a 23-year-old from Louisiana.

The Sir Martin was an ordinary 60-foot trawler until its previous owner built a cockpit on top of the main cabin. The visibility it affords makes it an attractive research vessel. The researchers load their equipment, much of it contained in several long ice chests, into a covered open-air seating area behind the main cabin. At the stern, down a seven-foot ladder, is a minideck originally designed for divers to use while suiting up. But on this expedition, it has become a perch for aquatic research.

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