November marks the unofficial opening of sailfish season in South Florida, and all indications are that 2012-13 could see a bonanza of the spindle-beaked gamefish.
“We predict the South Florida sailfishing to be average or better than average,” said oceanographer Mitch Roffer, president of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service. “Water temperatures are dropping in North Carolina and South Carolina, pushing the fish toward Florida.”
Roffer said if air and water temperatures remain seasonably cool, then all that’s needed for a banner season is for the northerly-flowing Gulf Stream to send its strong currents shoreward, concentrating baitfish into tight schools to be attacked by sailfish.
South Florida’s sailfish population is in much better shape than in the eastern Atlantic, where the fish are over-exploited — particularly off West Africa, according to NOAA Fisheries billfish scientist Eric Prince. Prince says the species is benefiting from U.S. conservation measures such as the use of circle hooks, a firmly-rooted catch-and-release ethic among sport fishers and a ban on sailfish sales.
“I think we’ve moderated the extent of overfishing by the good work we’ve done in South Florida,” Prince said.
The number of sailfish tournaments in mainland Southeast Florida and the Keys has burgeoned over the past 15 years, with multiple contests held most weekends from November to mid-April. Most tournament teams fish with live bait — such as herring, goggle eyes, pilchards and sardines — on kites. But since circle hooks and catch-and-release are mandatory, Prince says, they are not hurting the stocks.
“It’s a very valuable fishery,” he said. “It’s a non-consumptive use of the resource. You don’t need to kill one to have fun. If you’re going to have that many tournaments, this is the way to do it.”
To boost sailfish stocks worldwide, Prince said, other nations have to be convinced to follow the U.S. conservation lead — particularly in view of global climate change, which shrinks the habitat of sailfish and other migratory species. Sailfish releases have been brisk following several recent cold fronts, especially off Palm Beach.
Tournament organizer Jamie Bunn of Lighthouse Point said he and captain Art Sapp released 18 of 23 sails hooked in a day of fishing off Boynton Beach about two weeks ago. Captain Ray Rosher, who owns the two Miss Britt charterboats in Miami, said they’ve released nine in a day — “not bad for early season,” he said.
In January, sailfishermen were thrilled at the outcome of the Silver Sailfish Derby put on by the West Palm Beach Fishing Club and what it portended for the rest of the season. The fleet of 46 boats smashed nearly every record in the tournament’s 75-year history, releasing 1,174 sails in three days. But in the ensuing months, warm weather and a lack of bait resulted in a decline in tournament release numbers.
“Bait in general was tough last year. Our sailfish catch reflected that,” Rosher said. “This year, so far, the bait supply has been pretty good. It doesn’t look worse than recent history.”
The 2012-13 sailfish tournament season will see the end of some contests and the addition of others. Gone, at least temporarily, is the Sailfish Pro Series — a circuit geared to the top 15-20 professional teams in the region — and also the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament.