You just tagged and released a marlin, sailfish, or swordfish. Ever wonder where that billfish will go, what route it took to get there, and what its ultimate fate will be? So do the scientists who are trying to determine the condition of, and connections among, billfish stocks and fisheries around the globe. Historically, 50 to 80 percent of what is known about our fisheries for billfish comes from traditional tagging data, but so much more is unknown. Because traditional tagging methods require the fish to be recaptured, the chance of ever hearing again about a given tagged billfish is about one in a hundred.  Thanks to recent developments in electronic fish tags, that’s changing.  *See below for information on our WHITE MARLIN TAGGING PROGRAM

The technology that’s making a big splash in billfish research is the “pop-up” satellite archival tag (PSAT). These tags are actually 5"-long, computer-controlled sensors that can be programmed to measure and store water temperature, depth and light-based location data every minute. After a pre-determined time period (researchers can program the tag to sample from less than a day to over a year), the tags detach from the fish and float to the surface where they transmit their stored information to the Argos satellite system (Figure 1). The collected data are then provided to the researcher via email. The beauty of this technology is that it provides intimate details of the life of individual billfish in their natural environment without requiring researchers or anglers to physically retrieve the tags from the fish or from the ocean. This new tool holds great promise for ultimately providing more specific types of data that will assist in management, conservation, and rebuilding of billfish resources around the globe.

The concept behind the Adopt-A-Billfish program is to enlist the help of billfish anglers who are not only interested in learning more about the billfish that they pursue, but who also want to play an important role in ensuring their stocks are healthy for future generations. The world’s billfish populations generally are not in good shape, especially in the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantic sailfish, blue marlin and white marlin stocks are currently a fraction of their historical sizes and are continuing to decline. In fact, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) lists Atlantic blue and white marlin as “over-fished”. In addition, Atlantic swordfish had previously been overfished but is now showing signs of rebuilding. This problem is likely not limited to the Atlantic Ocean – information on billfish movement in the Pacific and Indian Oceans are particularly scarce and its important to obtain data from these ocean basins as well.

The major threats to the world’s marlin, sailfish and swordfish stocks stem from the fact that these species are either targeted, or unintentionally caught as “bycatch” by the multi-national offshore longline fisheries that supply tuna and swordfish for the global market. With the kind of data that pop-up satellite tags provide, we can let the fish themselves point to ways of reducing unnecessary lethal interactions with man. With pop-up tag data, we can form the basis for devising ways to reduce the “overlap” (in time and in space) between the commercial fisheries and the habitats that billfish have relied on to spawn, grow to maturity and feed for hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists are just now starting to appreciate the different applications of PSAT technology to address billfish research topics, including assessing the ultimate fate of animals released after being captured using various fishing methods, hook-types, and baits.

If you want to be a part of the solution, you can help in one of two ways: (1) adopt a sailfish, marlin, or swordfish by picking up the cost of one or more pop-up satellite tags ($4,000US each) for scientists to deploy; and/or (2) donate your offshore fishing vessel for deployment of these tags. These donations will go directly to the purchase, testing, programming and deployment of satellite tags, when and where information is needed most. Throughout the world, private foundations, recreational fishing organizations, and individual anglers are increasingly becoming aware of the critical need for detailed data on the biology of these valuable, unique, yet vulnerable fish stocks.

The Adopt-A-Billfish PSAT tagging program is being coordinated by a team of experienced scientists who work with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southeast and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers (Miami, FL., La Jolla, CA) and The Billfish Foundation. Tagging operations are currently underway throughout the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, including the waters off South Florida, North Carolina, the Bahamas and Bermuda. In the Pacific, we are relying on a network of collaborators, especially those affiliated with the Presidential Challenge tournament series off the coast of Central America.

All donations involving sponsorship of tags will be handled by The Billfish Foundation.  All donors contributing to Adopt-A-Billfish will be provided a letter documenting their tax deductible gift, from either The Billfish Foundation. In addition, participants in Adopt-A-Billfish will also receive timely updates of research results.

Found throughout most of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, white marlin are among the least understood of all the billfish species. The Adopt-A-Billfish Satellite Tagging Program wants to increase that knowledge base through hands-on research as well as provide some much-needed scientific information to those groups charged with managing the fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  

It happens like clockwork almost every year: in the late summer and early fall, the white marlin bite heats up in Venezuela. At nearly the same time, boats fishing the mid-Atlantic region from North Carolina to Maryland would also have fantastic white marlin fishing for a few weeks until the fish finally disappeared at the end of the season. But how was this possible? Were there two distinct bodies of fish? Where did they come from, and more importantly, where do they go?

The first part of the Adopt-A-Billfish white marlin tagging study was conducted in 2007, prior to the worldwide economic meltdown that put the brakes on everything for a few years. Seventeen white marlin were tagged in 2007 with PSAT pop-up satellite tags off North Carolina and Ocean City, Maryland. The tags yielded some interesting results, with several whites migrating over 2,500 miles down to South America. With some initial knowledge under their belts, the scientific team led by NOAA’s Dr. Eric Prince, planned the second phase of the study where additional PSAT tags would be deployed in white marlin in the southern Caribbean and off the mid-Atlantic nearly simultaneously in the late summer. Prince believes that there are possibly two separate stocks of white marlin. “Our working hypothesis is that the whites in the far southern Caribbean near the top of South America in the fall spend the rest of their year below the equator along southern Brazil, and that the mid-Atlantic fish from the Carolinas and Maryland migrate down to about two degrees north of the equator near the mouth of the Amazon River,” Prince says.

Working in close coordination with the Adopt-A-Billfish program is The Billfish Foundation, who manages all the bookkeeping for the tag donations and also raised the funds for several of the tags for the North Carolina portion of the study. Each PSAT tag represents an investment of $4,000 so it’s not a duty to be taken lightly.  Fortunately, tag donations are tax deductible.

Phase II of the program began in earnest off Oregon Inlet, NC on Sept. 5, 2011. The trip was initially postponed due to Hurricane Irene but once the teams were able to hit the water a few days later, the conditions were flat calm and perfect for tagging. NOAA scientist John Hoolihan, assisted by Ann Barse of Salisbury University, would handle the tagging duties aboard Capt. Fin Gaddy’s 56-foot Paul Mann, Qualifier. Capt. Dennis Endee’s A-Salt-Weapon, with anglers from the Greensboro, NC-based Piedmont Offshore Sportfishing Club aboard, would also be participating as the lead fishing vessel. The two captains would coordinate with other boats in the area to transfer any hooked white marlin over to the science team on the Qualifier. And while the group had planned to spend a week to ten days at sea to deploy all the tags, they happened to find outstanding white marlin fishing on that particular day in September, tagging all 11 fish by 1:30 in the afternoon. In addition to the Qualifier and A-Salt-Weapon, other participating boats that transferred white marlin were Capt. Barry Daniels’ Skirt Chaser, Capt. Harold Smith’s Spray and the Salty Squirrel, captained by Jeff James.

While it’s possible to rack up big numbers fishing on a single boat, it really helps to have others working in the area, ready to transfer hooked fish to the tagging team. The process works like this: when a white is hooked up, the lead boat runs over at full speed and maneuvers in close. A tennis ball rigged with heavy snap swivels is tied to an outfit and loose line pulled off the reel and coiled in the cockpit. When the white is leadered, the tennis ball is thrown over and the snap clipped into the leader, where the main line is then cut and the fish fought by the crew of the tagging vessel.

The fish is then “snootered” in order for the scientific team to both maintain control of the fish and prevent the white from thrashing against the side of the boat. The snooter is also critical for resuscitation after the fish has been tagged as well as for accuracy of the tag placement and for the safety of the tagger. After the tag is deployed, the fish’s length is recorded and a mucous swab taken. The swab will enable DNA analysis of the fish to determine its sex as well as definitive species (in case it might be a roundscale spearfish). The white marlin is then revived while still on the snooter before being released.

While Venezuela was initially scheduled for the second phase of the tagging program, the tenuous political situation and lack of participating vessels led to another choice: the island nation of Aruba. Thanks to the hard work of Capt. Eric Mansur, the government of Aruba as well as several private donors was able to provide funding for several tags as well as for boat time and lodging for the science team. This marks the first time that a foreign government has become involved in a NOAA-approved and supported tagging program.

The Presidential Caribbean Cup tournament also helped fund tags for this side of the project, which kicked off Sept. 12th. Mansur’s boat Alina participated as the lead vessel along with the Teaser, Driftwood, Kenny’s Toy, Tara, BZN and Makuaka donating fishing time during the week. And while windy weather kept the fleet in port for a couple days, seven tags were successfully deployed on white marlin during the trip.

Satellite tags of the type used in this program have the ability to record three basic parameters: depth, temperature and ambient light levels, which can be used to determine location. They are programmed to record a data point once a minute for the next six months, after which the tag releases from the fish and floats to the surface. It will then transmit its stored data to an orbiting ARGOS satellite system—each tag will transmit for about ten days or until its internal battery is exhausted. Should the fish die, the tag is set to automatically deploy if it remains at the same depth for longer than 24 hours.

Once the data is collected, it’s up to the scientists at NOAA to unlock the secrets that the information may hold. The material is compiled and scientifically analyzed before being published as a series of scientific papers, which also undergo an important process known as peer review among other scientists in the field. 

So what does Dr. Prince hope to learn from this study? Other than supporting his hypothesis of two different groups of white marlin, he brings up several other concepts. “There are things like seasonality, migration patterns during specific times of the year that have never been studied before in white marlin,” he says. “We’re also interested in vertical habitat use, how white marlin travel from the depths to the surface—why and for how long. There’s just so much information that we don’t know about these fish.”

It’s important to remember, especially in today’s age of instant gratification, that good science takes time. Each tag is programmed to record its data for six months before it even pops off to transmit, then it may take several more months before the data can be scientifically analyzed, papers written and peer reviews completed. However, it’s through the use of good science acquired through efforts like the Adopt-A-Billfish program that can be of tremendous benefit to those who determine fisheries management decisions for the entire Atlantic Ocean, and so its importance cannot be understated.

The Adopt-A-Billfish Program would like to thank the following groups and individuals for their contributions:

North Carolina
Piedmont Offshore Sportfishing Club
Craig and Tyler Sudbrink
Capt. Fin Gaddy, Qualifier
Capt. Dennis Endee, A-Salt-Weapon

Tag Contributors
Santa Rosa
Pernod-Ricard Travel Retail
Transimex Freezone, N.V.
Tabacal, N.V.
Altac N.V.
Presidential Caribbean Cup

Coordinator: Capt. Eric Mansur, Alina

Hotel Sponsor: Richard Eman, Aruba Surfside Marina
Conservation Partners: Costa Sunglasses, Presidential Challenge Charitable Foundation
Boat Sponsors: Tara, Alina, Driftwood, Teaser , Kenny’s Toy, BZN, Makuaka

For more detailed information on how you can participate in Adopt-A-Billfish, contact the Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Cooperative Tagging Center at: 1(800) 437-3936; The Billfish Foundation (954) 938-0150; or Joan Vernon, The Presidential Challenge (305)361-9258.

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