Sailfish, those captivating and swift creatures, are best admired in their natural habitat, not on your lap for a photo. Federal regulations prohibit the removal of sailfish from the water in most cases, emphasizing humane practices in their conservation.
In federal waters, where these rules apply, it’s perfectly legal to keep a sailfish only if it measures 63 inches (lower jaw fork length) and you possess the required licenses and permits. However, if the intention is to release the fish, removing it from the water is a violation of Highly Migratory Species (HMS) regulations (50 CFR 635.21 (a) (2)). The rule states that if a billfish is hooked but not retained, it must be released by cutting the line near the hook or by using a dehooking device, all while keeping the fish in the water.
In Florida, which is home to many sailfish, rules differ slightly. Temporary removal from state waters is allowed unless you’re aboard a vessel with an HMS Angling Permit. For HMS permit holders, removing the fish from the water can result in fines, starting at $500 for first-time offenders.
These rules aim to ensure the survival and well-being of billfish. A study by Dr. John Graves of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences found that post-release mortality (PRM) increased significantly for fish removed from the water, even for just a few minutes. Less than 2% of white marlin survived when taken out of the water before release, compared to over a third that survived when left in the water.
Charter captains in Florida emphasize adhering to these regulations to protect the fish and maintain their populations. Pulling sailfish from the water for photos is discouraged due to its harm to the fish and potential safety risks. Instead, experts recommend holding the bill or leader above water for a picture or tagging the fish, contributing to research and adding to the thrill of the fight.
When releasing a sailfish, take care of the bill, wear gloves, and hold it securely near the fish’s mouth, allowing it to swim upright in the water by the boat’s side. Move the boat gently to help the sailfish regain strength, and when it swims powerfully on its own, release it away from the boat. Remember, sailfish are meant to be appreciated in their aquatic domain, not as trophies on your lap.