SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 17, October 2016 - Page 59

major wildlife highlight in my life. Part of the beauty of the experience was the fact that these top predators, who knew exactly that we were there, accepted us completely and let us simply observe.

Yet, these ambassadors of the high seas are threatened, like so much else in the oceans of the world. Even before humans have learned enough about their basic biology, from the moment we have been able we have rapidly and very effectively, been systematically ridding the planet of sailfish. Nor do we understand the consequences. We do know that apex predators in general are the keystone species of ecosystems and without sailfish being present in their pivotal role anything could happen. Maybe no billfish would mean that baitfish numbers exploded, just as no lions results in too many grazers and bush turning to desert so, an explosion of baitfish might eat all the plankton. But, guess what, 50% of the planet’s oxygen comes from oceanic plankton. Who knows what will happen? Whatever happens, if the trend continues, it will not be good.

Why are they threatened? Throughout their range sailfish regularly encounter 30-40 mile long lengths of monofilament nylon, laced with tens of thousands of baited hooks. Easy prey, the sailfish take the bait and drown on the line. The cruel irony is that these highly NON-selective fishing methods are actually targeting tuna and swordfish, yet alongside the dead sailfish may hang a drowned turtle or albatross. Sailfish have a rather tough, undesirable meat and are not even allowed to be landed commercially in the USA. When the fisherman comes to haul in the longline he berates the catch of “trash” fish, turtles and birds as a waste of hook space and they get tossed overboard to pile up on the sea floor. Unbelievably these incredible fish are caught for no other reason than to be thrown away as “by-catch” – a politically correct euphemism meaning carnage and waste.

I could no more imagine killing one of these animals as I could a lion. Of course there are people who would like to do both and I would say to those people “What’s the point? Haven’t we done enough damage to the planet, our home, already?” “Why not just trash your bedroom, your living room or your back yard – surely it’s the same?”

As the bait ball was being eaten smaller and smaller, the desperate sardines became individually more and more vulnerable. Occasionally one would break out from the ball and try to take sanctuary in our wetsuits or use us as a shield. An alert sailfish would soon swerve in perilously close to catch the errant sardine and, as thin as a knife would flex its body and shy away at the last instant in a supreme show of athleticism, the long, pointed bill missing my face by a foot or less. It was then I remembered Pete Atkinson’s comments and knew that if a sailfish had the will it could pierce my body with it’s sword, like a hot knife through butter. Malice was absent however and I felt guilty on behalf of those of my species whose only thought was to wrangle a hooked one.

‘Tag and release’ is the cry from all the would-be conservationists amongst the anglers. Yes, of course, it is better than bringing ashore a dead sailfish just to have it weighed and I applaud the goodwill and common sense of the initiative. We even spotted a tagged animal swimming happily with the crowd and joining in the hunt. I also witnessed however, underwater, from a few feet, the effort, stress and damage (as the taut monofilament continually raked the animals flank) of a sailfish with a hook in its mouth at the end of a line while the oblivious topside crew waited for it to provide the “thrilling leap”. It was not an easy thing to watch.

The fastest fish in the sea, not to mention one of the most beautiful, sailfish are a supreme blend of wolf, cheetah and chameleon. The time has come that they deserve our respect and understanding. Time too that we ban all indiscriminate long-line fishing and gill netting giving the sailfish, indeed all billfish, a chance to recover.

I give them “honorary mammal” status.

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