Angling for Change

In three decades, the Fort Lauderdale-based Billfish Foundation and its army – navy? – of angler volunteers have done vital work helping to preserve some of the ocean’s most awe-inspiring fish. But that work isn’t done.

By: 

Ryan Pfeffer

Published date: 

Jul. 1, 2017

As the story goes, somewhere around 1985, Winthrop P. Rockefeller, the grandson of American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and former governor of Arkansas, began to notice a disturbing trend in one of his favorite hobbies.

Win was a fisherman — but not just any fisherman. Win caught billfish. And that is no easy thing to do.

Made infamous by their tendency to put up grueling fights, leaping and thrashing out of the water like thousand-pound missiles of muscle and lethal bone, the billfish might very well be the ultimate test of an angler. The word billfish is an umbrella term used to classify a group of the ocean’s fastest and fiercest apex predators, all of which sport a spear-like “bill” of a nose that can be used for hunting and self-defense. Though there are multiple subspecies, the billfish group includes the sailfish, the spearfish, the swordfish, and the most prized and powerful of them all: the marlin, which can grow up to 2,000 pounds. They can make it from Fort Lauderdale to Africa with ease, swim as fast as a cheetah can run, and have killed men before. It’s easy to see why writers like Ernest Hemingway have devoted entire novels to these fish and, with all due respect to sharks, it might be time for the Discovery Channel to give the billfish its own week.

Naturally, they were the crown of game fishing by the ’80s. So one can imagine the sinking feeling that began to settle in the gut of Mr. Rockefeller when he slowly started to realize they were disappearing.

“I fished out of Miami and, I mean, we went from going out and catching four or five sailfish in a short day to four or five in a long week,” says Joan Vernon, an angler at the time. “It got pretty scary.”

Logically, it didn’t make sense. As anglers, they were only getting better, honing their technique and agility on impressively large boats, using the day’s latest and most expensive technology to give them the upper hand. Still, their catch grew sparse.

This was not exactly news to Dr. Eric Prince, then the head of blue marlin research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center. Dr. Prince had been trying for years, in vain, to get people to care about billfish. He knew things were bad. He was well aware that the species was getting hammered by commercial longline boats taking dangerous amounts of billfish as unintentional bycatch. He was also well aware that few people, especially commercial fishing fleets with money on their mind, were interested in hearing about the plight of a hobby fish.

But Dr. Prince would soon gain a valuable ally on a work trip to the San Juan International Billfish Tournament. At the banquet dinner towards the end of the world’s largest billfish tournament, Prince received a tap on the shoulder. He turned around to see two men, their crisp suits standing in stark contrast to his shorts and T-shirt. One, he noticed, had the bulge of a .44 revolver underneath his jacket.

“Dr. Prince, my name is Winthrop Rockefeller, and I would like to talk to you about a way to raise money for research on Billfish.”

It was music to Prince’s ears.

Fishermen Saving Fish

There's an argument Ellen Peel hears every now and then. Boiled down, it sounds something like this: How can you possibly claim to be conserving these animals when you actively hunt them? You really want to help billfish? Stop. Fishing. Dude.

And you’re welcome to march on down to the Billfish Foundation’s office on the corner of Commercial and Federal and try that one on her. Chances are, Peel, the current president of TBF, will glance at you through her aqua blue glasses, and, in her warm Mississippi drawl, invite you to take a trip on down to Pier 66 on a clear day.

“Get a small glance of how many sport fishing boats are here,” Peel says. They aren’t going anywhere, she argues. So, yes, it might sound nice to preach about a world where we completely leave the fish alone, but that’s an environmental utopia that does not jive with the current reality of Fort Lauderdale and every other fishing destination in the world. By eliminating sport fishing altogether, Peel says, “It would take away jobs.” Boating, tourism, charters, tournaments — added together, billfishing is an industry worth millions.

It’s been 21 years since Rockefeller, who passed away in 2006, convinced Peel to take her current job with TBF. She was apprehensive at first. Having worked in conservation before, and boasting a marine-focused Master’s of Law from the University of Washington, Peel knew firsthand the painful bureaucratic obstacle course of ocean conservation and management. And billfish, being the highly migratory animals they are — often navigating the coasts of entire countries many times over throughout their lives — warranted the cooperation of multiple nations.

She also lived in St. Petersburg and wasn’t particularly thrilled about making the move east. Plus, she had two big dobermans and nowhere to put them. But all walls fell to Rockefeller’s persuasion. He was more than happy to put Peel and her pooches up in his Miami apartment for the time being. No need to worry about any dog-related accidents on the floor, he told her. It was all marble anyway.

More than two decades later, Peel’s passion hasn’t waned. “Here are some of the most magnificent apex predators in the ocean,” she says, “and they have always, for eons, attracted anglers to fish for them.” And yet at TBF’s inception scientists had — at best — a skeletal knowledge of billfish and almost no hard scientific data on their migratory patterns.

Part of the reason, Peel says, “is governments only put a priority on fish that are targeted for the consumer market.” In 1988, with the help of the fledgling Billfish Foundation, the federal Atlantic Billfish Plan was passed, reserving Atlantic Billfish solely for recreational fishing. “Which was great,” Peel says. “But what it also did was it really accentuated that they were lower on the totem pole. The fish that are coming in in tons to be sold — that’s what was getting all the attention.”

So TBF was in a bit of a predicament. In order to help push billfish-friendly legislation, it needed data and statistics to present, something tangible that could be translated into conservation policy. But with billfish taken off the mass market, neither the government nor private fishing industries had much motivation to help out. So TBF was going to have to do it alone — a tall order for a staff not even big enough to fill a basketball court. Luckily, as the team would quickly learn, they were about to get more help than they ever imagined.

“As anglers, we have to take responsibility”

Sandra MacMillan is one of the over 100,000 volunteer anglers contributing to TBF’s wildly successful tagging program. The Lauderdale native, like many in her sport, started young, with the help of her father. Now she owns her own boat, a hulking white 63-foot Spencer Yacht named “Sandman,” and operates out of Fort Lauderdale.

MacMillan still remembers her first billfish. It was a sail — the most common billfish you’ll find in South Florida. She brought it to the side of the boat, released it healthy, and began a lifelong obsession with the animals. “I think they are just the most beautiful creatures,” she says. “Every time I see one — it’s incredible. I’ll never get sick of it.”

MacMillan is one of the star pupils of TBF’s tagging program, an initiative founded in 1990. Back then, TBF realized one way to get the data it sorely needed was through tagging, which had worked wonders on other species. But the government’s billfish program was anemic at best, only providing about 600 to 800 tags a year. TBF has since brought that number to 15,000, and provides them to anglers at just over $3 a tag.

The tags themselves are small, made nowadays from medical-grade silicon, and relatively low-tech. They are applied with a sharp needle and a well-placed thrust of a long plastic spear. Ask nicely and Peter Chaibongsai, TBF’s director of conservation programs, will let you practice on his stuffed marlin. He even brought it to this year’s Tortuga Festival, sans pointy needle of course, because there were “a lot of drunk people.”

Tag data is compiled when anglers report to TBF where and when they tagged a fish, and, hopefully, when that fish is re-caught, another team of anglers does the same, giving a decent picture of where the fish has travelled and how big it has gotten since. It’s Peel’s dream to be able to get the funding to give the tags out for free, which, she estimates, would at least triple the number of 100,000 tagging volunteers.

“When tagging first came about, anglers were so excited because this was something new,” Peel says. Joan Vernon, who’s now the Treasurer of TBF, remembers the start of the tagging program well. “Right away people jumped on with TBF, because they were used to tagging with the national marine. “Here are some of the most magnificent apex predators in the ocean…and they have always, for eons, attracted anglers to fish for them.” 29 fisheries service and TBF was the new kid on the block,” she says. “[TBF] had excellent scientists working with them, and the promise of international tagging — not just in the United States.”

What the tagging program allowed TBF to do was to identify trouble areas and use its resources more efficiently. It also lit a fire under the angling community in more ways than one. Aside from the annual competition to see who tags the most fish, curiosity proved to be a massive motivator.

“What do these fish do, where do they go, do they live after we release them? This was a huge thing in tagging back in the late ’90s,” Vernon says. And the quest for more information continues to push anglers today.

Nearly every meaningful study on billfish that’s been published in the last two decades has relied on this data. And there have been no shortage of staggering discoveries. One marlin travelled more than 2,000 miles from Montauk at the tip of Long Island to the northern tip of Africa in only 187 days. With the help of a more advanced satellite tag (which TBF uses too, albeit more sparingly since one of those will run you $5,000), a Marlin was tracked diving to a depth of 805 meters. It was previously thought they wouldn’t go any deeper than 200 meters.

“There’s no organization in the world that has enough money that could pay for the sampling that our volunteers provide,” Peel says.

And those volunteers have proved fiercely loyal to the cause. “As anglers, we have to take responsibility,” MacMillan says. “I’ve released every single billfish I’ve ever caught. I think my knowledge on the water, to tell [scientists] what we caught, where, and what we saw, is so important for research and conservation efforts going forward. They need us. They need anglers to tell them what we see on the water.”

The Wider Ocean

One can't help but ponder a parallel universe in which TBF never existed. With the stark lack of allies billfish have, what might have happened to the species if TBF simply never got off the ground?

Might they have encountered, we shutter to say, the E-word?

“Probably not extinction,” says Dr. C. Phillip Goodyear, TBF’s resident scientist. “But certainly there was not an incentive to conserve the species nearly as much as there is now. And a lot of that is directly a benefit of TBF.”

Yet the war is far from won. And everyone at TBF understands that the there is no finish line to the conservation effort. It will remain a lifelong battle, and an uphill one at that. But Peel is optimistic. She’s made undeniable progress. TBF has successfully reduced the destructive impact of longline fishing boats on billfish, preached the importance of circle hooks — which prevent fish from being fatally “gut hooked” — to the angling community, and promoted safe release techniques and practices to those who catch billfish. Peel estimates about 97 percent of anglers now release their billfish, and that number is growing every year.

Still, others see a more difficult road ahead. Dr. Prince, who’s been in the trenches of this fight as long as anyone, understandably shows signs of battle fatigue. He’s deeply worried about climate change and our government’s lack of action about it. He also preaches the danger of oxygen minimum zones (OMZs), a fairly recent — and troubling — discovery he’s devoted the last few years of his career to.

“Bottom line is, in the pelagic waters, there’s a freight train full of water that’s low in oxygen,” he says. Much lower in oxygen than many of the pelagic species — including billfish — need. That train is moving closer and closer to the surface, pushing up billfish with it, which does two things. One, it creates a false illusion that billfish are becoming more plentiful, and, two, makes them more susceptible to human fishing. “I always tell people: if I have five Japanese coy, and I put them in my bathtub and fill it all the way to the top and try to catch one with my hand, it would be very difficult. But if you take out the plug and let the water go down, just enough to keep their gills wet, you can collect them very easily. This is what’s happening to the billfish.”

So how do we stop this? The OMZs, the longline bycatch, the slow and apathetic hand of environmental bureaucracy? “I don’t know,” Prince says softly. “But I do not expect it to be done. And that’s the sad part of my career… I know all about the fish now, but there’s nothing I can really do to keep these guys from killing them.”

It is understandable to get frustrated when taking a wide-angle look at the modern state of the oceans in all their various states of distress.

“I’m cautiously optimistic for billfish because they are highly migratory in nature,” Peel says. “If we represented the poor sawfish…” Peel sighs. “They’re in deep trouble.”

Peel and others at TBF have found new reason to be optimistic lately. Occasionally, when invited, they’ll do presentations at middle and high schools in South Florida. And they’ve been stunned at what they’ve seen. “[The students] knew what bycatch was, they knew what maximum sustainable yield was — which is shocking for a tenth grader to understand,” Peel says.

These kids are eager to learn and want to help. Within the last year, Peel’s gotten a few moving letters from young people all around the globe. There was one from a young girl in Ascension Island, a remote island just about halfway between Africa and South America that’s home to some of the world’s largest marlin. She wanted to know how she could help conserve these giants. There was another from a young man in his 20s who lived in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean.

This young man wrote a long, impassioned plea to Peel. He bemoaned the fact that, on his island, it was common to kill anything they caught. He wanted to know what he could do to change that. He asked for facts and statistics, suggestions on winning his people over. Maybe he could write an email to his government, he pondered. Or perhaps post something on Facebook. He used to kill these fish too, he admitted, before he knew better. But he changed. “I believe that others can change their habit too,” he wrote, “if they understand what is happening around them and why they should make an effort.”

Peel stayed late on Friday to write him back.

“As long as these fish generate the passion that they do in people, then we have a chance,” she says. “They just want to get it done. They have confidence in us.”