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Proper Billfish Handling

Max Howard holds a sailfish in the water as the boat slowly moves forward, pushing oxygenated water over its gills.


Bragging rights shouldn't come at the expense of the sailfish.

Despite the best intentions of well-meaning anglers, sailfish held out of the water for photos stand a greater chance of dying after being released than those left in the water following a fight.

And just for the record, hoisting a sailfish out of the water for a photo is against federal law (unless you hold a Highly Migratory Species angling permit and plan to keep it).

Atlantic highly migratory fish (including sailfish and marlin) “must be released in

a manner that will ensure maximum probability of survival, but without removing the fish from the water,” says the code of federal regulations [50 CFR 635.21 (a)(1)].

NOAA Fisheries' enforcement staff patrols social media and does contact and warn anglers who post photos of billfish held out of the water, said Ally Rogers, spokeswoman for NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement.

A dehooking tool should be used to remove the hook while the fish is in the water, or the line should be cut as close to the fish as possible before the release, Rogers said.

Jason Schratwieser, conservation director for the International Game Fish Association, believes lifting the head out of the water briefly to remove the hook is acceptable, but that the whole fish should never be removed from the water.

After a fight, a sailfish is usually fighting an oxygen deficit and is in danger of reaching the “point of no return,” said Eric Prince, a retired NOAA Fisheries billfish researcher.

The degree of the billfish's oxygen deficit depends on the length of the fight, the number of jumps, whether the fish was tangled in the leader, and other factors, Prince said.

"Fishermen as a whole are not able to tell when that point of no return is," Prince said. "Also, if you're not careful how you hold the fish, you can injure internal organs."

Graduate student Lela Schlenker of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science removed white marlin from the water to take blood samples while studying the effects of fight times on their post-release survival.

She learned that fight times didn't matter as much as the time the bill fish spent out of the water for blood sampling.

John Graves, professor of marine science at VIMS, said the death rate increased with amount of time the white marlin spent out of the water. Overall, six of 21 fish, nearly 29 percent died after being removed from the water for blood samples. In a previous white marlin study, only one of 59 tagged marlin died, Graves said. Those marlin were not removed from the water.

It's important to take time to revive sailfish and other billfish by holding them upright alongside a slow-moving boat, said Schratwieser of the IGFA. Billfish are “ram ventilators,” meaning water must be moving over their gills for them to extract oxygen from the water, hence the slow moving boat.

“If the fish is even remotely lethargic, take a few minutes to revive it by moving the boat,” Schratwieser said, adding that anglers should not give up on a billfish that looks dead.

Schratwieser caught a blue marlin off Puerto Rico in 2011. After a 30-minute fight, the fish came up tail wrapped. The captain all but pronounced it dead.

After reviving it for more than five minutes, the marlin regained its strength. It was fitted with a satellite tag, which popped off 46 days later to reveal that the fish had traveled 419 nautical miles.

“Even if they come up looking deader than hell, try to revive them,” Schratwieser said.

Regulations and release tips for large pelagic fish can be found at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/hms/compliance/guides/index.html FS

First Published Florida Sportsman October 2017

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