|Todd Staley has been chasing finny creatures around the Osa for nearly two decades. He has been Fishing Director at Crocodile Bay Resort since it opened in 1999. You can send photos, fishing reports, ect. directly to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos courtesy of Crocodile Bay Resort.|
I had wondered for some time what makes Central America and particularly the Osa Peninsula so special when it comes to sailfish. Why are there so many 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 the fish go at the end of the season? Do they go offshore or do they go south or north?I’ve never been one to be afraid or too proud to ask for help. Some things I don’t understand, and with 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.
A few years back I met Dr. Nelson Ehrhardt from the University of Miami and scientific adviser to the Central American Billfish Association (CABA). He has been studying billfish in the Eastern Tropical Pacific for several years and has even done satellite tagging studies right here out of Puerto Jimenez. Every time I bump into Dr Ehrhardt I learn a little more about the blue-water ballerinas. It’s amazing how professionals can put all kinds of stuff in perspective and make it understandable. Dr. Ehrhardt should write “Sailfish for Dummies.”
The tropical Pacific is really not a very inviting place for sailfish. The low oxygen content in the water will not support them, but two famous currents bring in healthy water. The Humboldt Current flows north from Chile and Peru and collides with the California Current flowing south from the U.S. and Mexico off the coast of Central America, forming a “tongue” of current that supports sailfish, though to a depth of only 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.
The same population of sailfish – pez vela in Spanish – 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. The largest sailfish and the long-standing world record of 222 pounds came from their farthest range to the south in Ecuador
Another phenomenon happens each year controlling the movements of sailfish. Three distinct and powerful winds blow from land 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 Tehuantepec lowlands offshore into the Pacific. Likewise, the Papagayo winds from Lake Nicaragua push offshore across Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border. Also, a Caribbean wind current crosses Panama and blows into the Pacific near the Panama Canal.
As the surface water is pushed offshore, the upwelling sends to the surface oxygen-depleted water that cannot support sailfish. The entire population is forced into pockets of healthy water, which happen to lie in front of windless parts of southern Mexico, Guatemala, parts of Panama, and southern half of Costa Rica including the Osa. During this period, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other parts of Panama are nearly devoid of sailfish. This is the equivalent of taking the entire population of United States and moving everybody to Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles 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.
The reality is that these areas do not have a tremendous abundance of fish, but the whole population is forced to share these pockets. When there is a strong El Niño—like this year—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, the fish act differently. We will see as we get into the season how that affects us here.
Costa Rica has the benefit of two peak sailfish 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 that a strong management plan is needed with all Central American countries working together. Satellite tagging has shown that Guatemalan fish move up and down the coast while Costa Rica fish seem to move in and out. The fish freely cross borders so what happens in one country affects fish populations and the health of the stock in neighboring countries.
Fortunately within the last two years the commercial and sport fishing communities have started working together and have begun working on a plan to use the ocean resources more responsibly. Working together they successfully lobbied the government to protect 44% of territorial waters from tuna purse seiners. This gives the local commercial fleet a better opportunity to target tuna reducing the bycatch of sailfish. Neither group could have taken on the powerful tuna industry alone but by working together changes were made. A by-product of this action is now fewer dolphins will die or be harassed as tuna seiners often encircle them for the tuna that swim below.
The choice is yours. Lots of action or maybe a chance at a really big fish. . .
Offshore and this year’s El Nino is one of the reasons the top of my head is barren. One day several sails and maybe a marlin or two will enter the spread and the next day all the fish in the ocean are in hiding. A tuna up to 100lbs is taken now and then but the big party of fish expected with the new tuna regulation did show this year because of the water temperature rise cause by the “bad child.”
Inshore on the other hand is wide open. If you want to really stretch some string so to speak stay in the gulf or work the shoreline between Matapalo and Carate of course staying away from the protected area in front of the lagoons. Lots of roosterfish, several types of snapper, African pompano, mackerel, jacks, and other surprises are putting smiles on those looking for catch and release action or a good snapper dinner.