Net Loss

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

Myers goes back on deck and climbs onto the roof above the stern's seating area. He attaches a small black lamp -- the one de Sylva made in the '60s -- to the metal cable of a hydraulic boom and swings it into place over the stern. At 9:30 p.m. the lamp is lowered into the water about three feet under the wavy surface, then turned on. Schmitz and Luthy are each armed with a dip net. The light immediately attracts dozens of tiny fish. Schmitz starts scooping and soon lands a one-incher, but it's just a mahi mahi (also known as a dolphin fish). "We'll have dolphin for breakfast!" shouts Idrisi.

Schmitz continues to net little fish and toss them into the bucket, but still no billfish. Luthy is taking a more patient, studied approach. Capo warns, "Hey, Colin. They come in not like you'd think. They come in lying on their side." Adds Serafy, "Like they're pretending they're a leaf." Capo climbs down to the stern to take a temperature and salinity reading. "They usually start hitting after eleven o'clock," he advises.

Schmitz continues to catch tiny fish of the wrong kind. "Colin, let's not catch everything under the sun. You'll just end up scaring the hell out of everything," Capo jokes.

About a quarter past ten, Luthy sees something and sweeps her net across the water. She empties her catch into the bucket: a three-quarter-inch sailfish. The researchers are ecstatic. "At 10:12 p.m. we caught it," notes Serafy. "None of this eleven o'clock bullshit." Capo grins. "Another theory down the tubes."

Capo swings into action, frantically assembling several oxygen tanks, plastic tubing, and buckets. "What are we going to do?" asks Serafy. "I'm going to run air and water through the suckers," Capo responds. He plans to put the sailfish into another bucket of water saturated with oxygen. It's just a hypothesis, but he hopes that will calm the fish.

After Capo fumbles around for ten minutes, Luthy looks into the bucket. "The fish are acting funny," she observes. The sailfish is poking repeatedly against the bottom. The researchers grow concerned. "They are running out of oxygen," Luthy augurs.

Capo finally gets the oxygen moving. Bubbles rise in a container he has placed in a four-foot-long ice chest, and he pours in the sailfish. He closes the cooler top to block the light. "He's nosin' down," Capo reports.

A little stressed himself, Capo begins preparing another bucket. This one will contain diluted seawater, another method for helping the fish relax in confinement. If the salinity is lower, the fish won't have to expend as much energy keeping salt out of its system. At least that's worked with other species.

After a half-hour it seems the oxygen has succeeded. "He's up, swimming around," Capo reports. "Heh, heh, heh." He sits down, leans back, and smiles.

At 11:15 p.m. Luthy nets a monster: a four-inch sailfish. "Eleven o'clock syndrome!" Capo yells gleefully. He's been having trouble with one of the oxygen tanks, so he is not ready to transfer the new catch. About ten minutes later, a concerned Idrisi is next to Luthy, looking at it. "He's nosin' down," he says nervously. "You want to get this guy out of here. He's looking pretty skittish." Finally the four-incher goes into the bucket with the diluted water, which also has oxygen pumping through it.

Fifteen minutes later Schmitz nets the big one. "That's about a two-pounder," he jests. In reality the sailfish is five inches long and a few grams. "That's a big fish," exclaims Tom. He is completely serious. Capo puts Schmitz's trophy into a third bubbling bucket in the white ice cooler.

A little after midnight Capo decides to head back to Miami and dock for the night. Myers turns the Sir Martin westward.

"This was an excellent night!" remarks Capo, jubilant. "You couldn't expect to do any better than we did tonight." On the way back, one of the oxygen tanks runs out and Capo scrambles for another. The four-incher and the five-incher are not doing well. They are butting their bills against the bottoms of their buckets. But the quarter-incher is swimming around. "The little one looks very nice," he says.

Unfamiliar with the waters off Miami, a cautious Myers takes a circuitous route. It is past 3 a.m. when the Sir Martin enters Government Cut. Most of those onboard are asleep when he swings the vessel into the Miami Beach Marina and eases it next to a long dock.

The research team settles in for a few hours of sleep. They will wake up at 7 a.m. to sail back out and do a dozen more tows with the net. But Capo, who has been up for nearly 24 hours, is not yet done for the night. At 4 a.m. he walks to Fifth Street and Alton Road to catch a cab to the Rosenstiel fish hatchery. He will return with his pickup truck for the three billfish and deliver them to the hatchery.

"This really was an excellent night," he repeats as the cab heads across the MacArthur Causeway.

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