Net Loss

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

With two cans of Yoo-Hoo and a Twix bar in his belly and 200 gallons of gas in the Sir Martin's tank, a barefoot Myers steers the craft slowly eastward over the shallows of Biscayne Bay. Destination: the same stretch of Gulf Stream the team visited in summer. Once there they plan to conduct a series of tows with the 18-foot net to collect larva samples. Then after sunset they will try to net the fish. Capo has a couple new ideas he hopes will help the catch survive.

Inside the cabin Capo is explaining the plan to Myers, who is at a luxurious helm with a radar screen and two-way radio. The ship will cross the Gulf Stream traveling east, then at night will drift north with the current. "All we want to do is five or six plankton tows, then nightlight until everyone is exhausted," Capo tells Myers.

After an hour of bearing east, Myers throttles down as the Sir Martin approaches the coordinates Capo designated for the first tow. Off the stern the Miami skyline is still in hazy view, about four miles away. To starboard the Fowey Rocks lighthouse stands about a half-mile distant. Schmitz and Luthy toss the net overboard and watch it drift away, still bunched up. "Net's overboard," yells Capo from the seating area on the rear deck. The 60-foot rope soon tightens as water fills the net. The fishing has commenced. Serafy notes the time.

Five minutes later, at Serafy's command, the students haul in the net. Schmitz, gangly and almost always smiling, and Luthy, soft-spoken but confident, unscrew a six-inch-long white cylinder at the end of the net and empty the contents into a clear plastic bucket full of seawater. They are looking at a soup of sea grasses, weeds, and fish larvae. No billfish.

Luthy and Schmitz transfer the catch into another bucket of alcohol to preserve it, a process the researchers have dubbed "pickling." They wash down the net and cylinder with a garden hose to prepare for the next tow. On deck Capo, Idrisi, and Serafy are lounging on cushioned benches. "The first ones always suck," Idrisi declares. Capo agrees: "Especially with an unfamiliar boat." Serafy jots down water temperature and salinity.

About a half-hour later, the green water changes to deep blue. They've entered the Gulf Stream. Three dolphins soon tag along, leaping through the boat's wake 20 yards off the stern. A little after 5 p.m., the boat slows as it approaches the next collection site. Luthy and Schmitz repeat the routine, and again there is no billfish larva. Capo is jovially observing the work. "Hey, Colin, this is pretty glamorous if you ask me," he taunts. Schmitz just grins.

A half-hour later: same routine, same results.
On the way to the next site, a debate breaks out. Billfish biology is so new that scientists still can't distinguish between white marlin larvae and swordfish larvae. Researchers have yet to map their DNA. "There's got to be something different between swordfish and white marlin larvae," Capo says. He is wondering why Rosenstiel geneticist Pat Walsh hasn't been able to take DNA samples. "We have 13 frozen larvae!" Capo says. Idrisi responds calmly: "He needs more than that." Serafy adds: "That's why when they took a hair sample from Bill [Clinton] they didn't take just one hair, they took a whole bunch." Capo laughs and makes a crack about a stained dress.

The conversation drifts to plans for the rest of the evening. Serafy: "What's your gut tell you, Tom? Think we'll catch some billfish nightlighting?" Capo says, "Yep. Don predicted we'd catch some swordfish."

The sun is growing yellow off the Sir Martin's starboard aft; a half-moon hangs in the blue sky off the port bow as the vessel slows again. This will be the last tow. The researchers return to their posts. Schmitz tosses in the net.

A little later the two grad students haul it in. Once more they dump the contents into a bucket, and Luthy puts her face inside to scrutinize them. "We got one!" Luthy yells. "It's a swordfish." A quarter-inch swordfish, whose tiny bill and eyeballs dwarf its wormlike body. After four hours they have scored.

By evening the expedition is beginning to seem like a metaphor for the state of the team's research. The haul from a full day's fishing was only one swordfish larva, which perished soon after it was caught. Perhaps the night would produce some larger and lively specimens. Perhaps not.

As Myers pilots the Sir Martin into the Gulf Stream, Capo is below deck in the kitchen frying steaks and boiling potatoes. Expectations for a successful nightlighting session are not great. "We'll be competing with the moon," observes Idrisi from a corner booth. He reckons they won't catch much until the moon sets. "What time does it set?" asks Capo. "I think about one," Idrisi guesses. Capo groans.

The researchers eat, two at a time. Capo serves himself last. He has just slapped a steak onto his plate when Myers pops down to inform him they are at the point from which they are to begin drifting north. "Well, I guess it's time for them to start," Capo quips, still holding his plate. He sits down to eat.

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