NOAA Southeast Fisheries, Jan. 14, 2022—Anyone involved in a tagging program is excited when they get a report of a recapture since these are the lynchpin of a volunteer, constituent based program. So when scientists with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center were notified just after Thanksgiving that a few tagged sailfish had been recaptured, they were thrilled.
On November 30, 2021, moments after the catch, the NOAA team received a sailfish recapture report from Captain Paul Ross on the charter boat Relentless from Bud ‘n Mary’s Marina in Islamorada, Florida. He suspected that the tag they were looking at was one he had deployed recently because the tag number was very close to those he still had onboard. While it was not a tag Ross deployed, it was one from a sailfish Captain Alex Adler tagged on Halloween on the charter boat Kalex. These two boats tie up about a hundred feet from each other and the fish was recaptured within a mile or so of its original release location. Ross replaced the original tag with a new one so NOAA can continue to track this fish.
That day got more exciting when two additional reports came in to NOAA to report catches from a few days before. On November 27, two other tagged sailfish were recaptured. As the NOAA team began recording the details, they started realizing what a rare situation this was.
One fish had been tagged six months earlier off the coast of Miami from the charter boat Billin Office with Captain Nelson Delatorre. Captain Mike Brady on Cowpoke and angler Allie Schelin, recaptured it off of Ft. Pierce, Florida–about 120 miles north of the original release location.
The second sailfish, also originally tagged by Delatorre on 13 November 2021, was recaptured near Conch Reef, offshore of Key Largo. Captain Brian Cone on the charter boat Contagious, and angler George Burkhart from the Atlanta Saltwater Sportsman’s Club caught it about 60 miles SSW of its tagging location.
“Having two sailfish tagged on the same boat get recaptured on the same day at about the same time has only happened one other time, in 1992,” said Derke Snodgrass, NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center Fishery Biologist. “We were quite surprised given the low chances of catching a tagged sailfish, let alone one that was tagged by a specific individual. To have two recaptures occur practically within minutes of each other is almost unbelievable. To have those two fish originally tagged by the same captain just boggles the mind.”
Over the last ten years or so approximately 8,500 sailfish in the Atlantic have been tagged and are monitored by NOAA, The Billfish Foundation, and Grey Fish Tag. By recording interactions with fish that have been tagged, scientists are learning more about when and where the fish migrate, the range of their habitat, seasonal patterns, shifts in behavioral changes and many other aspects of their ecology. NOAA works with other organizations and many volunteers to tag sailfish and other highly migratory species, including tunas and other billfishes. They depend on the fishing community, tournament operators, and other participants to report any recaptures.
“These two recaptures demonstrate that these fish use a wide range of the Florida coast for most of the year,” Snodgrass said. “That these fish went opposite directions could just be a factor of their time at large but it also supports the notion that the prime sailfish times in any given area may be shifting away from a seasonal abundance pattern.”
Captain Delatorre has tagged more than 300 sailfish for NOAA. In addition to these two recaptures, one other fish he tagged was previously recaptured.
What are the odds of this happening? Using only the number of tagged sailfish out in the Atlantic (~8,500, including NMFS, TBF and GFT) from the past ten years or so, the chance of catching two tagged sailfish on one day is about 1 in a 6132. The chances of those two being from the Captain Delatorre is about 1 in 191,446. Remember that this calculation does NOT include any information pertaining to the number of non-tagged sailfish so the chance of catching a tagged fish or a non-tagged fish is almost incalculable on a population level.
Now, for the other time this has occurred, mentioned earlier. Although this other occurrence happened almost thirty years ago. In 1992, the situation was a bit different. There were significantly more tagged sailfish out there, possibly as much as five times as many (For whatever reason dock talk has downplayed the importance of tagging fish in recent history). This made the likelihood of two sailfish tagged by the same captain being caught on the same day quite small.
Now, to really make your Super Chugger spin, both of the original releases and both recaptures were by the same captain; Alex Adler on the Kalex. Yes the same one who just had a fish recaptured by Paul Ross. As if this couldn’t get any more unique, this will cause your Loran to come back to life. The recaptures in 1992 were a double header caught moments apart from each other. The chance of catching two of Captain Adler’s tagged fish back then on the same day was significantly smaller.
In addition to these coincidences, Captain Paul Ross has potentially the highest recapture rate for fish that he has tagged on his boat “Relentless”. In general, sailfish have a recapture rate of about 0.5-1.5% whereas his rate is over 4%. What is that golden touch? Is he tagging fish in a uniquely positioned area for fish moving readily to other commonly fished areas? Is he only tagging the healthiest of fish? Is he reviving them all very thoroughly? Scientists don’t know yet, but are looking at the data and looking for trends. It is an interesting aspect of tagging practices that they are investigating further, but can’t do it without the tagging data.
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