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Costa Rica Sailfish




costa rica fishing charterCosta Rica Sailfish for Dummies
by Todd Staley, Fishing Director

I’ve never been one that was afraid or too proud to ask for help. Some things I don’t understand and at 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 fish go at the end of the season? Do they go offshore or do they go south or go north? 

A few months ago Dr. Nelson Ehrhardt from the University of Miami and scientific advisor to the Central America Billfish Association (CABA) contacted me and asked if I could share my data collected from operating the largest bill fishing resort in Central America for the last 10 years. I gladly agreed and learned he had been doing an extensive study in Mexico and Central America for the last 2 years.

Each meeting with him in San Jose and at the resort 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 so understandable. Dr. Ehrhardt should write “Sailfish for Dummies.”
It is the same population of sailfish, “pez vela” as it is known south of the border that 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 a hundred miles or so off the beach but spends it’s early years in the estuaries. The largest sailfish and the long standing world record of 222 lbs comes from their farthest range to the south in Ecuador.

costa rica sport fishingThe Tropical Pacific is really not a very inviting place for sailfish. The low oxygen content in the water will not support sailfish. Two famous currents bring in healthy water. The Humboldt current that flows north from Chile and Peru collides with the California current flowing south from the United States and Mexico off the coast of Central America and forms a “tongue” of current that that supports sailfish. This still only supports sailfish life to a depth of 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 to 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 Tehuantepel lowlands  offshore into the Pacific. Likewise the Papagayo winds from Lake Nicaragua push offshore across Nicaragua at 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 oxygen depleted water to the surface that can not support sailfish. The entire population is forced into pockets of healthy water which happen to in front of windless parts of southern Mexico, Guatamala, Costa Rica and parts of Panama. During this period El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other parts of Panama are nearly void of sailfish. This is the equivalent of taking the entire population of people living on the East Coast of Florida and moving them to Saint Augustine, Vero Beach and Miami 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.

sailfish boat costa ricaThe reality is there is not a tremendous abundance of fish in these areas but the whole population being forced to share these pockets. In the occurrence of a strong “El Nino,” 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 Guatamala and Costa Rica drop dramatically.

Costa Rica has the benefit of two peak 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 a strong management plan is needed by all Central American countries working together. FECOPT (Todd Staley is on the board of FECOPT – Federation of Fishing Tourism) is working with sport and commercial fishermen and government on management plans within Costa Rica.  CABA and The Billfish Foundation, (TBF) as well as 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 a half of 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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Aricle Courtesy of FECOPT - Federation of Fishing Tourism

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