Tag: billfish costa rica

Costa Rica Sailfish Tagging

Young Biologist Studies Sailfish

Young biologist’s only sailfishing trophies are tissue samples

The sailfish popped up in the spread lit up in an iridescent purple hue. This fish was hungry and vigorously slashed the teaser with its bill. Everyone jumped into action. Capt. Melvin Sánchez sounded the alarm from the tower, as he was the first to see the oceanic swordsman appear. Mate Sharlye Oporta screamed for the angler to get ready, and the angler reached for his 14-weight fly rod attached to a fly that looked like half of a pink chicken with a hook in. Beatriz Naranjo anxiously observed.

It had been a frustrating morning. This was the fifth fish that had showed up in the spread, the array of teasers (lures without hooks) trolled behind the boat to attract billfish (marlin and sailfish). The angler, a visitor to Costa Rica from Colorado, was a well-versed fly fisherman when it came to small fish, streams and much lighter equipment. He had often read of the exciting battles with large deep-sea creatures on a fly rod, and it was on his bucket list.
the air.

The first fish was a case of buck fever. The teasers were cleared, the fish took the fly and the angler froze. In half a second the sailfish figured this wasn’t as tasty as it thought and spit it out.

In the second attempt the back cast ended wrapped up in the outrigger and the opportunity was lost. Fish number three, the angler tried to set the hook with his rod instead of pulling on the line, and the fish escaped. The next fish came in lazy and wasn’t interested.

Now fish number five came up hot. Everyone did a quick little “fish” prayer in their head. No one on board wanted to see that fish caught more than Beatriz Naranjo.

When some little girls were playing with dolls, playing make-believe hairdresser or make-believe mom, Beatriz was exploring the forest near her home in Tarrazú, high up in coffee country. She and her cousins would spend all day climbing trees, walking creek beds and turning over whatever they could move to see what lived underneath. It is little wonder she chose to study science, specifically marine science, at the University of Costa Rica, from which she graduated.
When FECOP (the Costa Rica Sport fishing Federation) teamed up with Gray Taxidermy’s fish tagging research program, they put their heads together to reward college students interested in studying species related to sportfishing. That encompasses not only pelagic species, but many inshore species also. They decided to have a competition among students from all universities in Costa Rica, and Beatriz won a scholarship with her proposal to study the feeding ecology of sport fish.

That science has had many advancements. Beatriz became interested in feeding ecology while studying the stomach contents of rainbow trout in the high altitudes of the Savegre River. That required killing the sample and opening the stomach. It also told the story of a very short window of time in the animal’s life. Today, with a very small tissue sample from a live animal, scientists can determine what exactly that fish has been feeding on over a long period of time.

For inshore species such as snappers, groupers, congrias, and mackerel, she could seek the assistance of artisanal fishermen for samples. For species that are normal catch-and-release, she needed to ride along on sport fishing boats. She has gathered nearly 800 samples, which co-scholarship winner José Luis Molina will soon be studying in a laboratory.

FECOP’s director of science and research, Moises Mug, says the partnership with Gray FishTag Research has been a win-win for all.

“Their database is growing rapidly, at rates that have surpassed the NOAA tagging programs, so NOAA is now partnering with Gray FishTag Research to improve their own tagging program,” he said. “Also, in addition to tagging all species that our professional charter boat captains and customers seek in Costa Rica, they have successfully deployed satellite tagging for the first time ever on a roosterfish in Costa Rica.”

Beatriz, who did most of her pelagic studies out of Puerto Jiménez, liked the area so much she has settled there and works as a guide for Aventuras Tropicales kayak tours, often doing long treks in the Golfo Dulce. After graduation in June, she plans to pursue a master’s in scientific nature and do a study on mercury levels in Costa Rican fish.

“Before I got involved in this study I did not like sport fishing,” Beatriz said. “It has had a bad reputation among Costa Rican people. What I met was very nice people, families and couples who come to our country to fish.”

What impressed her most were the Costa Ricans who worked on the boats and how they cared for the fish that they caught and released. Many told her they used to be commercial fisherman and were away from their families for weeks at a time. Now they make a better living and are home with their families every night.

And so now sailfish number five charged in. Teasers were cleared and the angler from Colorado made his cast. This time, when the fish engulfed the fly, the angler didn’t flinch. He set the hook with a slip-strike, pulling on the line instead of the rod, and instantly the fish burned 150 yards of line off the reel and began its dance across the flat blue aquatic dance floor.

Thirty minutes later the fish was beside the boat and Beatriz jumped into action. She placed a tag in the fish to study its movements and took a small sample of tissue before releasing it. The angler high-fived his crew as he scratched one off the bucket list.

These studies will become invaluable in learning more about, and responsibly managing, billfish. I personally am very interested to see what they feed on over a long period of time – besides half a pink chicken.

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Costa Rica Sailfish Season

Costa Rica Sport Fishing – Sailfish for Dummies

Todd Staley Fishing Column Tico TimesBy Todd Staley published for The Tico Times
I’ve never been one to be afraid or too proud to ask for help. Some things I don’t understand, and with others I’m all thumbs. That’s why I’ve always kept close friendships with boat mechanics, fishing guides, reel repair people, doctors, scientists and even shrinks.

I’ve wondered for some time what makes Central America so special when it comes to sailfish. Why does the season peak from December through April? Why are the fish so big in Costa Rica, and why don’t we catch juvenile fish? Where do the fish go at the end of the season? Do they go offshore or do they go south or north?

Several years ago, Dr. Nelson Ehrhardt from the University of Miami and scientific adviser to the Central American Billfish Association (CABA) contacted me and asked if I could share my data collected from operating the largest billfishing resort in Central America for the past 10 years. I gladly agreed, and learned he had been doing an extensive study in Mexico and Central America for the last two years.

Each meeting with him in San José and at the resort in Puerto Jiménez, I learned a little more about blue-water ballerinas. It’s amazing how professionals can put all kinds of stuff in perspective and make it understandable. Dr. Ehrhardt should write “Sailfish for Dummies.”

Costa Rica Fishing Destinations

The same population of sailfish – pez vela in Spanish – traverses the eastern tropical Pacific from southern Mexico to Ecuador. It is one of the most condensed sailfish populations in the world. The lifetime of a sail is 10 to 15 years. Most of the juveniles spend their first few years off the coast of Mexico. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were born there. For example, a west coast Florida tarpon starts its life 100 miles or so off the beach, but spends its early years in the estuaries. The largest sailfish and the long-standing world record of 222 pounds came from their farthest range to the south in Ecuador.

The tropical Pacific is really not a very inviting place for sailfish. The low oxygen content in the water will not support them, but two famous currents bring in healthy water. The Humboldt Current flows north from Chile and Peru and collides with the California Current flowing south from the U.S. and Mexico off the coast of Central America, forming a “tongue” of current that supports sailfish, though to a depth of only 100 meters or less. Unlike the striped marlin that is caught off Mexico but might spawn off Australia, the eastern tropical sailfish’s range is limited to the coastal waters of the two currents and the tongue formed off Central America.

Another phenomenon happens each year: Three distinct and powerful winds blow from land offshore. They start in December or January and blow until March or April. In Mexico, winds that start in the Gulf of Mexico push across the Tehuantepec lowlands offshore into the Pacific. Likewise, the Papagayo winds from Lake Nicaragua push offshore across Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border. Also, a Caribbean wind current crosses Panama heading into the Pacific near the Panama Canal.

As the Pacific surface water is pushed offshore, the upwelling sends to the surface oxygen-depleted water that cannot support sailfish. The entire population is forced into pockets of healthy water, which happen to lie in front of windless parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and parts of Panama. During this period, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other parts of Panama are nearly devoid of sailfish. This is the equivalent of taking the entire population of San José and moving everybody to the Pacific coast for four months out of the year, with no one living in between. Fortunately for the sailfish, their main food source, squid and sardines, follow the same pattern.

The reality is that these areas do not have a tremendous abundance of fish, but the whole population is forced to share these pockets. When there is a strong El Niño, the winds do not blow, so the population is not condensed into oxygen-healthy pockets caused by the normal upwelling. The surface waters also warm, and peak-season fishing results in Guatemala and Costa Rica drop dramatically.

Costa Rica has the benefit of two peak sailfish seasons. From the Gulf of Nicoya south, the peak is January through April. The Guanacaste region to the north begins to peak in May after the winds die and the fish begin to move freely out of prisons formed in Guatemala and southern Costa Rica.

Dr. Ehrhardt’s studies have shown that a strong management plan is needed with all Central American countries working together. The Costa Rican Tourist Fishing Federation (FECOPT) is working with sport and commercial fishermen and the government on management plans within Costa Rica. In addition, CABA, The Billfish Foundation and local groups are working with Central American governments to form a united effort to conserve the region’s sailfish populations.

So now I’m standing on the stern of this boat with half a chicken’s worth of pink-dyed feathers and a fly rod in my hand, waiting for a ballerina to pop up, mulling over everything I learned about sailfish. If anyone has any advice on how to make a sailfish a dummy, I’m all ears!

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