This story was written for On The Rip Magazine, the magazine of South Jersey Tournaments, Cape May, NJ
Like so many other types of fishing, the pursuit of the White Marlin has been refined through an evolution of equipment, techniques, tackle and an incredible input of science and conservation. Having the ability to reach productive grounds that offer many chances to hook and fight fish allows the process and pace of information gathering to be picked up rapidly.
In regards to White Marlin, few places aided in the development of techniques and tackle like the Mid-Atlantic waters of the United States east coast. Up until the 1970’s and 80’s when places like Venezuela with its vast numbers of fish were reached, the offshore waters from New Jersey to Cape Hatteras were unmatched for whites. Even allowing Ocean City, Maryland to lay claim as the White Marlin Capital of the World.
Like almost everything today, the post World War II era opened up everything we take for granted today. Diesel engines began being marinized, boat building technologies developed to handle the heavier and higher horsepower to go farther, faster. Tackle advancements in rod building materials, reel evolution from star drags to lever drags and geared multi-speed reels changed how an angler could fight a fish with much greater ease. The development of plastics impacted every single aspect of what was happening, in boatbuilding, engine control components and tackle — not the least of which was the development of monofilament for line and leader.
But perhaps the largest impact was science. The science behind electronics bringing us echo sounders to see under the boat, radar to see out in advance of the boat, low and high frequency radio to communicate ship to ship and ship to shore, all started thanks to the military efforts of WWII. Satellite sea surface temperature and chlorophyll information is all thanks to science. The science behind fisheries research through specimen studies, tagging programs starting with Dr. Frank Mather at Woods Hole and the like that gave us and continue to give us insights into range, behavior, diet, spawning data, biomass and stock health.
For years Dr. John Graves of the Virginal Institute of Marine Science has been a fixture on the docks at the weigh-ins of the Mid-Atlantic. Along with his team from the VIMS, Graves has lead the charge in collecting data from the tournament fleet. Countless hours of analytical data gathering through interviews, specimen collection and dissection for age, sex, growth, health and species DNA studies have provided a wealth of information about the White Marlin that has helped captains, crews and anglers become more and more efficient in their pursuits of the quarry. But a mystery lurked in the science and it started in the Eastern Atlantic over one hundred years ago.
The first specimen captured for scientific study came from one of my favorite fishing grounds, the island of Madeira. In 1840 an English minister on the island Thomas Lowe had been collecting data on fish around the island and happened upon a species previously unrecorded. He had described the fish’s body as being “clothed with large scales of a peculiar shape and nature.” Lowe, his notebooks along with his billfish sample were lost in the Bay of Biscay when the steamship Liberia sank in 1874 on course to Madeira from Liverpool.
It was a full 100 years later in 1974 that Richard Robins from the University of Miami concluded that samples he collected 10 years earlier in Europe were “of a species whose presence had been unsuspected.” Although comparing the samples to Lowes description determined they were the same. However, Robins specimens were also collected in the eastern Atlantic so researchers were reticent to believe and did not know of the possibility that some of what they were calling White Marlin, were actually Round Scale Spearfish, which for all practical purposes look the same.
Throughout the ’90’s Robins laid out some of the little differences between the two species including the distance from anal fin to vent, pectoral and dorsal fin shapes and of course the scales. But then in 2006, Lawrence Beerkircher and his past advisor Dr. Mahmood Shivji who specializes in fish genetics at the Nova Southeastern University Guy Harvey Research Institute used genetic DNA to finally determine that there are two distinct species.
Although they look much alike, the genetic study proved that they were very different, in fact they were not even of the same genus and the samples ruled out that White Marlin and Round Scale Spearfish interbred. In their 2012 paper “Broad geographic distribution of roundscale spearfish (Tetrapturus georgii) (Teleostei, Istiophoridae) in the Atlantic revealed by DNA analysis: Implications for white marlin and roundscale spearfish management”
Andrea M. Bernarda, Mahmood S. Shivjia,∗, Rodrigo Rodrigues Dominguesb,h, Fabio Hissa Vieira Hazinc, Alberto Ferreira de Amorimb, Andres Domingod, Freddy Arochae, Eric D. Princef, John P. Hoolihang, Alexandre Wagner Silva Hilsdorfh
the authors determined that “It became apparent from fisheries observer data for this region that recent “white marlin” catches were in fact com- prised of a combination of white marlin and roundscale spearfish, with the latter species comprising ∼27% of white marlin recorded catch (Beerkircher et al., 2009). The proportion of the two species may also vary spatially and temporally in specific areas of the Caribbean Sea (Arocha and Silva, 2011).”
So what have you been catching? Although tournaments and club trophies are primarily focused on white marlin, the fact of the matter is, it is possible that 27% of your “white marlin” catches have not been whites. But let’s take a look at a typical white marlin in the western Atlantic as he migrates east and north out of the Yucatan Peninsula up the east coast to the Canyons of the Northeast. Our fish was tagged by the folks at the GHRI in 2014.
It’s May 5th and the crew has Satellite tagged a white marlin off Isla Mujeres caught with a circle hook rigged ballyhoo. He swims away strong catching a free ride with the Yucatan current and goes up into the central Gulf of Mexico. Most likely diving for a squid meal, eating flying fish and bonitos long the way.
It’s June 24th and the Satellite tag shows he is southwest of Key West and catches the Gulf Stream to the Straights of Florida. Eating flying fish and diving deep to catch a squid meal along the way the fish continues up the coast.
By July 4th it is off Cape Hatteras, not lingering it sets a course for well offshore of the Poorman’s and Baltimore Canyon staying in that area from July 9 to 18 feeding on the ample squid there. Avoiding the actual Canyons the fish then moves on to an area Northeast of the Hudson Canyon, then turns swimming up inshore to the west, just north of the Hudson Canyon tip then working back east and offshore from July 22 to August 1.
From August 2 to September 17 the fish continues to push east well out in the deep when the Satellite tag pops off the fish. Swimming some 2000 miles in alittle over 4 months, we wonder if the fish spawned while on its several week sojourn into the central Gulf or was his last known position heading out and then turning southerly into the Atlantic a course for its annual spawn?
Obviously different fish react differently to various water conditions, temperatures, currents and food sources, so results per fish are always varying. These journeys teach us a great deal but the need for more data and science to help manage stocks and conserve the resource is critical for healthy fisheries of all kinds, especially billfish and tunas that travel great distances through territorial waters.
Supporting conservation groups that work on fisheries science and billfish conservation such as IGFA, the Billfish Foundation and RFA helps to gain the necessary data needed. Being involved in any sport requires a commitment to give back to the resource — tuna and billfishing is no exception. Your commitment as anglers and crewmen to membership and awareness is a vital component in keeping these organizations and the marine science departments of universities thriving.