At Full-mast: Sailfish of The Atlantic and Indo-Pacific

April 8, 2015



The sailfish of the world’s oceans are among the most regal, awe-inspiring sport fish in existence. Capable of reaching top-speeds over sixty-plus miles-per-hour, these relatives of the marlin are far from an easy catch. Although they’re part of the billfish family, they’re not to be confused with their cousins the swordfish and marlin. The sailfish can out-swim its kin any day of the week.

Live Fast, Die Young
Sailfish are conceived in a paternally and maternally voided fashion. An ovulating female will release tens-of-thousands of unfertilized eggs into the open ocean that, should the free-floating eggs encounter equally unrestrained sperm, will hatch into a ten-millimeter larval fish in just thirty-six hours. Fast-forward to the fish’s first birthday, it’ll be nearly five-feet in length and weigh in excess of sixty-pounds and nearly sexually mature. Unfortunately for the lively fish, its longevity is is rather limited. And, just after eleven years on average, the adult sailfish will succumb to old age.

Dual Sails In The Wind
The sailfish complex, Istiophorus, is composed of two genetically and geographically distinct species. The most common, well-understood animal is the Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) of—you guessed it—the temperate waters of the Atlantic. The other, lesser known species is the Indo-Pacific (Istiophorus platypterus) sailfish that inhabits similar niches in the warm Pacific waters. Primarily blue in color with subtle gray barring, the sailfish patrols the oceans the upper water column, aggressively chasing after schooling pelagic (open water) bait fish.

There’s Power In Numbers—And Sharp Weaponry
Now, for a moment, imagine being impaled by a hundred-plus-pound, aerodynamic spike at nearly seventy-miles-an-hour—not a pretty picture, right? Yielding its pointed rostrum like a well-practiced javelin, the sailfish will charge into a school of fish hoping to either impale an unsuspecting bait fish. The more practical method is to flail it’s anatomical weapon vivaciously around, stunning the unlucky few fish in its wake, then snacking on them while they’re knocked out.

Oh, and this is a group effort as well. Sailfish are like aquatic wolf packs; calculating and assessing the situation at hand. Some members of the pack will pan-out to herd the schools into tightly woven bait balls, tasking the other pack members to later charge into the bail ball, rostrum first. There’s power in physicality, but success in numbers.

Meeting Your Match
Sailfish, culinary speaking, are unappealing. Their flesh is not only tough and chewy, but ironically lack-luster in its flavor profile; this may explain why unlike most large pelagic fish, sailfish population counts have remained somewhat steady in the twentieth-century. They may not fare too well on a dinner plate, but a plaque on the other hand—they’re jaw-dropping. Anglers often recall tug-of-wars between their line and the fish lasting not minutes, but hours at casting depths around one-hundred feet. But landing such a stoic animal is well worth the lengthy, exhausting struggle—your spirits will be at full-mast, no doubt.

―Science writer and green journalist, Matthew Charnock



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