Tagging Program and Pacific Angler Survey

For over 50 years, the SWFSC has provided conventional billfish tags to individual anglers, charter boats, and tournaments across the Pacific. Participating anglers also receive the International Billfish Angler Survey, which compiles information on recreational billfish catch and fishing effort by location. Trends in catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) tracked over a 46-year time period serves as an indicator of change in the health of billfish stocks and can provide a measure of relative abundance. Long-term trends in angler catch rates by specific area are also important in understanding the impact of fisheries on billfish resources. Species of interest are the black marlin (Makaira nigricans), Pacific blue marlin (Istiompax indica), striped marlin (Kajikia audax), Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus), shortbill spearfish (Tetrapturus angustirostrus), and swordfish (Xiphias gladius). The results of the Cooperative Billfish Tagging Program can be found in our annual SWFSC Billfish Newsletter

Tagging flag

Obtaining billfish tags

SWFSC will mail billfish tags upon request to individual anglers, charters, and tournaments. Email Liana Heberer (liana.heberer@noaa.gov) or James Wraith (james.wraith@noaa.gov) with your name, street address, phone number and number of tags you wish to receive. 

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Catching and tagging billfish:

We recommend anglers use circle hooks when intending to release fish, because they reduce deep or fouling hooking when bait fishing. Never attempt to tag a fish while it is jumping or thrashing, and bring your fish to leader as quickly as possible but wait until the fish is calm and swimming beside the boat before tagging. Insert the tag in the back muscle below the tallest part of the dorsal fin and avoid the gills, head, and stomach.

When releasing the fish, slowly tow it through the water to allow water to flow over the gills until its normal color returns and it begins to swim on its own. Remove the hook with a good pair of pliers, or if deeply hooked in the throat or stomach, release it by cutting the leader as close to the hook as possible.

Downloadable Billfish Tagging Guide and Billfish Identification Guide.

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Reporting released billfish:

Fill out the Billfish Tagging Report card which corresponds to the released tag (this card applies to both billfish and sharks). Please include latitude and longitude, date of release, estimated length (lower jaw-to-fork length; LJFL) and estimated weight of the fish. Include name and mailing address of the angler and boat captain (to receive the Billfish Angler Survey) and other remarks as appropriate. Simply place card in mail, as postage is pre-paid, to return results to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Need to report a recaptured tagged billfish? Click here.

Results of the 2013 Billfish Angler Survey 

Catch and effort reported for the 2013 International Billfish Angler Survey. Numbers indicate total days fished by location, number of billfish caught, and the catch-per-fishing day. The most predominate species caught by area is also listed: striped marlin (SM); blue marlin (BM); black marlin (BK); and sailfish (SF). The results of the 2013 fishing efforts are primarily from Pacific locations although anglers also reported some fishing activity in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. In 2013, a total of 410 billfish anglers reported catching 1,269 billfish during 1,977 fishing days. The overall CPUE (measured in catch per day fished) for 2013 was 0.64 billfish per angler-day, compared to 0.46 billfish per angler-day for 2011-2012.  Moreover, the 2013 result was greater than the overall annual average across all survey years (0.51), and overall median value (0.48). 

The three areas where survey respondents fished the most days were Hawaii, Baja California (Mexico) and southern California. In Hawaii, although the 2013 effort was down, the CPUE increased. A total of 765 fishing days were reported, which was less than half the number of fishing days in 2011-2012, however the 2013 CPUE of 0.44 was greater than both the average for the previous five years (2008-2012, 0.42 CPUE) and the total annual average (0.38 CPUE). The 2013 season was also exceptionally good off Baja California, ranking third highest in Baja's Survey history. Anglers averaged over 1 billfish per fishing day (1.11 CPUE) and the major species was striped marlin (Kajikia audax). Off southern California, where striped marlin accounted for 96% of the billfish catch, anglers reported a slight improvement in their CPUE in comparison to recent years. After three consecutive bad fishing years (2010-2012) that had the three lowest CPUEs on record, a slight increase in CPUE was reported for 2013 (0.07).

    The catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) in number of fish per angler fishing day reported by region from 1969-2013 for Pacifc blue marlin (A), striped marlin (B), Pacific sailfish (C), and black marlin (D).

Blue marlin (Makaira nigricans) are distributed tropically and sub-tropically in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. They generally prefer blue water and are typically found as scattered individuals rather than in schools. It is the most common species encountered by billfish anglers off Hawaii and other central and western Pacific island nations.  Anglers reports have indicated a downward trend in blue marlin CPUEs off Baja California, with the 2013 CPUE at 0.02. In contrast, the 2013 Hawaiian CPUE has trended upward since the inception of the Survey, plateauing at a relatively high level over the last ten years (0.28). The highest reported CPUE for 2013 was 2.41 in Costa Rica, where 11 anglers reported 111 fish in just 46 days. During 2013, blue marlin were also reported from locations including Japan, Bermuda, Australia, Tonga, Galapagos Islands, Guatemala, Florida, Panama, Cape Verde Island, and Brazil.

Striped marlin (Kajikia audax) is an oceanic species found in tropical, subtropical and temperate water of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It generally inhabits cooler water and is the most common billfish species encountered by anglers off southern California, northern Mexico, and New Zealand. In fact, over 90% of the striped marlin catch for 2013 occurred off southern California, Mexico, and Hawaii. The 0.73 CPUE result from 2013 was the fourth highest striped marlin CPUE reported off Mexico and well above the overall annual average of 0.50. Off Hawaii, the CPUE was 0.04 and off southern California, a similarly low CPUE of 0.07 was reported for 2013.

Pacific sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) prefer tropical habitat and are abundant in eastern Pacific coastal and offshore waters from Mexico to Ecuador. Sailfish can be found in schools, often with others of similar size. Sailfish CPUEs for 2013 were up at each of the three highlighted eastern Pacific sailfish destinations compared to 2012. Anglers reported 0.37 sailfish per day throughout Mexico, 0.41 sailfish per fishing day off Panama, and 1.80 sailfish per fishing day off Costa Rica. In addition to these three locations, sailfish catch was also reported from Malaysia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Japan.

Black marlin (Istiompax indica) are typically found in the tropical, subtropical and occasionally in temperate waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are often caught near land masses and coral reefs and feed on fishes, cephalopods, crustaceans and small tunas when abundant. During 2013, black marlin were caught at four locations including Australia, Mexico, Panama and Costa  Rica. Australia was the only location where this species was caught in greater numbers than other billfish and had the highest CPUE, 0.38. The result was below the average of CPUEs from the previous 5 years (0.43) but well above the reported catches off Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico. The black marlin CPUE was 0.05 off Panama, 0.04 off Costa Rica, and 0.01 off Mexico for the 2013 year. 

Billfish Tagging Program Results 

The SWFSC's angler-based Billfish Tagging Program began in 1963 and has provided tagging supplies to billfish anglers for over 50 continuous years. The program encourages the participation and cooperation of recreational anglers, sportfishing organizations, and commercial fishers and utilizes release and recapture data from tagged billfish to determine movement, distribution, and growth patterns of billfish. In collaboration with California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), nearly 80,000 fish have been tagged and release.

Summary of billfish tagged during 2013, by region.

We are pleased to report that a total of 768 tags were released on billfish, the majority of which were released on blue marlin (Makaira nigricans). In fact, the blue marlin has been tagged more than any other billfish species for 13 consecutive years. Overall, striped marlin (Tetrapturus audax) have been tagged more than any other species, and between 1963 and 2001, striped marlin were tagged more than other billfish species during all but 5 reporting years.

The shift in the major tagged species occurred during 2000 as a result of a change in location of the greatest tagging effort. The SWFSC Tagging Program started in southern California and the outreach effort in the early years was concentrated around southern California and Baja California, Mexico, where striped marlin are the dominant billfish species. However, in recent years the focal point of the tagging effort has moved to Hawaii where blue marlin is the billfish species that is most caught by recreational anglers.


Tag Recoveries  

Tag recoveries are a vital part of the Tagging Program because they allow us to track movements of highly migratory billfish species and monitor growth and mortality rates. In past years, as many as 27 recoveries have been recorded in a single years. In 2013, five recoveries were reported, including three Pacific blue marlin and two sailfish. Two of the blue marlin were recaptured around the Hawaiian Islands, one after 36 days at liberty and the other after 16 days at liberty. Additionally, a blue marlin tagged off Hawaii was recaptured far from the Hawaiian Islands. The fish had travelled a net minimum distance of 885 nautical miles in only 37 days. The distance travelled by recaptured sailfish were relatively short. Both recaptured fish were recovered within 10 nautical miles of their release location, however, neither fish spent more than a month at liberty.  


Last modified: 6/17/2015