Net Loss

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

On a cloudy, gusty July afternoon, the trawler Calanus is plowing eastward through a light chop in the Gulf Stream about five miles east of Key Biscayne. In shorts, white T-shirt, orange life jacket, and blue helmet, Jim Post stands astern, bare feet against the wooden planks of the deck. He and his fishing companions are hoping to catch sailfish and swordfish, maybe even a marlin. But they are not using rods and reels. Post tosses overboard a white, three-foot-wide, eighteen-foot-long, nylon-mesh net that resembles an airport windsock. The net is attached to a metal cable that unwinds from a large winch mounted behind the cabin of the 67-foot vessel.

After a few minutes, a crew member reverses the spool's direction and the net, streaming just under the surface, approaches the boat. "That's good!" yells Post. With the poise of a trapeze artist, he grabs the metal cable above his head, bends his knees, and scoops the net from the water. He ruffles through the nylon mesh. No fish. The procedure is repeated many times during the day; by nightfall the crew has brought in only a bunch of larvae and seaweed.

They fare a little better at night, seated on plastic chairs with hand-held dip nets and a 150-watt waterproof lamp hanging two feet below the surface. The light bulb attracts all kinds of aquatic life: A pulsing moon jellyfish floats by. A school of silvery minnows flashes and flits in unison. Minutes pass, then an hour, and the dipping continues. Still the fishermen are unable to locate their quarry.

After an eternity Post screams: "Yeaaarh!" He has caught a billfish. It might be a sailfish. Or maybe a marlin, a swordfish, or even an extremely rare spearfish. About an inch long, it's dropped into a bucket. After another dry spell, Post scores again. "Wow!" somebody yells. But the creature in the net looks like a silver worm with a needle for a nose. It's a needlefish, not a billfish. They dip on into the night, for hours.

This is how Post and 11 fishing partners spent seven tedious days and nights this past summer. They caught 100 sailfish and 20 swordfish, two of the species popularly known as billfish (which span two zoological families, Istiophoridae and Xiphiidae). Not one displayed the leaps, twists, and plunges that make anglers' spines tingle and knees shake. Most were larvae and already dead by the time they reached the deck. But 13 of them, most between three and six inches long, were very much alive.

Members of the billfish research team from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science were engaged in their most ambitious effort to collect young specimens: 12 researchers, seven days, $21,000 for the boat's operation. Despite the legendary status of these creatures in the world of sport fishing, biologists know precious little about them or their youthful habits. With scant financial resources, marine biologists are scrambling to learn.

A troubling fact is propelling the billfish research team's work: Since the '60s, Atlantic marlin, swordfish, and sailfish populations have declined radically. (Reliable statistics on Atlantic spearfish are not available because they are rarely caught.) Data compiled by international agencies monitoring commercial catches indicate that swordfish and marlin populations have fallen 75 percent below the critical biomass -- the level scientists say is necessary for a species to propagate. Sailfish are slightly better off, but their numbers are 50 percent below the threshold.

To study the fish, researchers must not only catch them, they must keep them alive. And that's the rub for the billfish research team. When fully grown these big-finned broncos of the sea possess legendary strength. But a baby is as delicate as a dragonfly. Scientists have not been able to keep them alive in captivity. Last summer's catch lived no more than three days. Tom Capo, manager of Rosenstiel's experimental fish hatchery, believes they died from stress. "The billfish did not relax," he concludes. After 30 fish deaths, Capo set his sights on arranging yet another expedition. "You can't protect these fish unless you understand what their early life requirements are."

Lovers of sport fishing recently started a campaign to save the fish, urging restaurateurs to remove them from their menus. "We're trying to educate people so they can make a conscious choice based on what's good for the ecosystem," explains Steve Rice, a spokesman for the Billfish Foundation, an advocacy group in Fort Lauderdale.

Though billfish have been cruising the world's oceans for hundreds of thousands of years, scientists began documenting their habits only in the late 1800s, in part because of the difficulty in catching them on the high seas. All four kinds are highly migratory; scientists dubbed them pelagic, or open-ocean fish. Marlins and swordfish can grow to well over 1000 pounds and 15 feet in length. Their spearlike bills can extend several feet. Sailfish, in contrast, rarely exceed 200 pounds and tend to circulate closer to land than marlins and swordfish. Spearfish are slightly smaller still.

The first billfish caught with rod and reel was a sailfish snagged in the Florida Keys in 1898, according to Edward Migdalski in his 1958 book Angler's Guide to the Saltwater Game Fishes. Early on, catching these javelin-nosed juggernauts for sport was mainly a pursuit of the wealthy. It grew more popular in the '20s and '30s, in part owing to Ernest Hemingway's popular stories about chasing marlin and sailfish in the Caribbean and to Zane Grey's tales of grappling with huge swordfish in the Pacific. After World War II the manufacture of better and more affordable fishing tackle as well as durable sport-fishing boats encouraged more people to try the sport. In places like Southern California and South Florida, dozens of charter-boat captains guided expert and neophyte anglers to fish-laden waters for less than 100 bucks a day.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The baby sailfish died after three days. "The fish made it until Sunday, which is nothing spectacular. It's what they normally have done."

Capo is now considering a new solution: studying the creatures in the wild. "Clearly you're going to have to go out there and get in the water and not handle the fish," he sighs.

Serafy is more optimistic. "It's just a question of going through the frustrating stage. It's going to happen. We're going to get them to feed. We're going to get them to chill out in a confined space.

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