The sailfish is the most common of the ten billfish species, and are distributed world-wide in tropical waters. The average size of the Atlantic sailfish is 40-60 pounds and they are one of the smaller billfish species. In the Eastern Pacific they grow twice that size reaching 200 pounds. The outstanding characteristic of the species is the enormous dorsal fin which is much higher than the greatest depth of the body. This fin is used to make the sailfish look three times the size it really is and is particularly used when corralling bait schools. When working in tandem with other sailfish in what I describe as cooperative feeding, the sail is raised and used to keep the bait in a tight school which is then easily managed by predators. In addition, they change color frequently, with dark blue backs and bronze flanks cut by vivid stripes when excited. They are marvelous animals to paint, which is why diving with them is so important to capture the anatomy, color, movement and the thrill of the chase.
In the western Atlantic, sailfish spawn in spring and summer. The tiny fertilized eggs hatch and grow very rapidly, just as all oceanic fish species do. The sailfish will reach six pounds in six months, and may be thirty pounds in their first year. Tagging has shown sailfish will live as long as twelve years and make large seasonal migrations, though some will linger in good feeding areas for long periods. They eat a variety of oceanic species, such as sardines, anchovies, puffer fish, filefish, flying fish, small tunas and bonitos, jacks and ballyhoo. In turn, they have few predators, but the large sharks, such as the mako, tiger and bull sharks, have preyed upon sailfish, as do large blue marlin and some large toothed cetaceans, like orcas.
There is little directed commercial fishing for sailfish in the Caribbean, but there is a lot of commercial long line activity in the eastern Pacific. This is unfortunate, particularly in Costa Rica, where the recreational use of sailfish is much more valuable to the local economy as a living fish than as a protein source. Socio-economic studies in Central America have shown the sailfish to be a very valuable sustainable resource in the catch and release fishery. The use of circle hooks in this fishery ensures 99% survival, and so some countries, like Guatemala, have banned the landing of all sailfish. There is currently an effort in Central America to have a regional approach to the management of the species, particularly as the species migrates extensively along the coasts of the member countries.
My underwater encounters with sailfish and sardines were some of the most graphic and inspiring I have had in fifteen years of diving with billfish all around the world. Underwater photography of these marvelous fish has become more exciting and educational compared to their angling value and provides a unique experience in certain locations.
It is our collective responsibility to conserve all marine creatures and maintain the biodiversity of the planet.
Good diving and fishing.
— Guy Harvey
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