If you think running a marathon sounds like a lot of work, try swimming 2,282 nautical miles. That’s what it took to win the 2010 Great Marlin Race… and the 2011 race is already underway.
Going into its third year, the Great Marlin Race has combined competition, science and recreational anglers to gather much-needed data about the migrations of marlin.
Billfish are some of the most difficult species in the ocean to study because they make vast oceanic treks each year.
Researchers know very little about where they roam. Gathering such information is a crucial step to protect the animals, and one tool in particular has helped make that process much easier — the pop-up satellite tag or PSAT.
PSATs track a fish’s movement as well as various depth changes over a set time period. The tags then pop off the fish, float to the surface and relay the information to scientists via satellites. In essence, the tag sends the researchers an email with all of the gathered data. With this information, along with sunrise and sunset curves, the scientists can create a fairly accurate track of where the animals roam.
The kicker, however, is the expense of the tags. Running between $3,500 to $5,000 a piece, the tags are by no means cheap, but the information they gather is priceless. The Great Marlin Race came up with the concept of having anglers sponsor some of the cost, and in return those teams can win some handsome prizes such as a tournament entry into the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament (HIBT), valued at roughly $8,000!
The longest journey recorded so far was taken by an 180-pound marlin that was tagged on October 4, 2009. The odometer on this fish tallied a 2,651 nautical mile journey that ended well south of the Equator.
How It Began
The race kicked off in 2009 when Peter Fithian, who runs the HIBT, approached Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University about creating a conservation program for the tournament’s 50th anniversary. They wanted to come up with an event that would involve the HIBT teams and gather data about marlin while raising awareness about the overfishing of billfish in all of the world’s oceans.
Block has a long career studying highly migratory species such as billfish and tuna. Together with her colleagues, including former Pacific Ocean Research Foundation director Bob Kurz, and Stanford biologists George Shillinger and Randy Kocheaver, they were able to launch the first Great Marlin Race at the 2009 HIBT.
In its first year, 10 tags were deployed but unfortunately only five tags reported back. However, those tags revealed some eye-opening information. Four tags showed remarkable travels, ranging from 1,036 to 2,651 nautical miles. These were some of the longest tracks ever recorded for Pacific blue marlin. “For me it was fascinating to see how far the blue marlin went so quickly across a portion of the ocean that is very hot, the equator,” said Block.
The team made some changes for the 2010 race and dropped the at-large period to four months, or 120 days. That improved the results dramatically and nine of the 10 tags deployed in 2010 reported back.
“We had fantastic data return rates in 2010 and got tracks from nine fish, which is a great accomplishment,” said Stanford marine biologist Randy Kochevar. “The results from 2010 compared to 2009 illustrated a different pattern. We need to look at what’s happening over several years before we make any generalizations because the fish went to very different places.”
In 2009, four of the five tracks went south/southwest toward the Marquesas Islands in the Southern Hemisphere. No fish went that direction in 2010. One fish remained in the Hawaiian Islands for the entire 120-day deployment and several others headed east/southeast.
On To the Atlantic
Ten fish were tagged this past July off of Hawaii, marking the third running of the Great Marlin Race in the Pacific. Kochevar is excited to see if these fish head in yet a different direction, but the biggest news for 2011 is coming from the Atlantic.
Kochevar and the rest of the Stanford team partnered up with the International Game Fish Association to create a worldwide Great Marlin Race and for the first time in the event’s history, 10 PSATs were deployed in the Atlantic. These tags were deployed as part of the Club Nautico de San Juan International Billfish Tournament in Puerto Rico.
“We’re really excited to establish a formal collaboration with IGFA,” Kochevar said. “They’ve been interested and supportive and put forward the idea for a more ambitious, broader scale program to run these races at a series of tournaments around the globe.”
Kochevar is working closely with the IGFA’s Conservation Director, Jason Schratwieser, who helped make the Puerto Rico race a reality and already has plans in the works for Australia, Japan and Panama.
“We need to get more tags out there for a more comprehensive idea of how far marlin are migrating and how they utilize the water column and habitat,” Schratwieser said. “If we could get out 50 tags a year around the world, it would help us piece together a billfish atlas and better understand how they’re migrating in different oceans. With that information, we’re better armed to protect blue marlin internationally. I also think it will engage more anglers in the research and have more reverence for the animal.”
To make the Great Marlin Race truly global, Stanford is happy to share the tag data with other scientists and countries. That’s very unusual in the scientific community and a welcomed change.
“The data is out there for people to access and use,” Schratwieser said.
With more researchers using the data on various projects, anglers can be a part of a truly global project that will reflect our respect for these creatures and our commitment to improve their status. And that’s what this project is all about.
— Get Involved —
— Tag Data —
Currently anglers, teams or even companies can sponsor a marlin in the great marlin race for $4,000. This fee sponsors a tag and if you’re tagged fish swims the farthest that year, you win a free entry into one of the world’s most elite marlin tournaments. The Great Marlin Race is a not-for-profit entity and the cost to enter is considered a charitable donation.
“It gives us the opportunity to study an otherwise very difficult species to track. It also lets us interact with and educate the anglers, captains and crews in the tournament.”
The Great Marlin Race is held in conjunction with a traditional marlin tournament. Teams participating in the event can also sponsor a tag. The race is actively pursuing more tournaments to work with in all portions of the globe. For more information visit www.greatmarlinrace.org.
Stanford University gathers important data from the use of the pop-up satellite tags. The tags are programed to collect data on diving behavior, times at various depths during the day and night, and time spent at different water temperatures.
After a 120-day period, the tags pop off of the fish and float to the surface.
If everything goes according to plan, the tag will send back all of the info it has collected via satellite. The data goes right to the scientist.
With this information, along with sunrise and sunset curves, the scientists can create a fairly accurate track of where these billfish roam. It takes several years to build up a solid database before the scientists can begin theorizing the exact migrational pattern and spawning areas of blue marlin. But the tags have already show that marlin live dual lives — spending nights swimming in the top five meters of the water column and diving to depths of 250 meters or more during the day.