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Old 09-12-2000, 03:06 PM
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Default REcap of MCSD Offshore Invitational Tournament

From the San Diego Union-Tribune ...
Local anglers help scientists study marlin at new tourney

By Ed Zieralski
STAFF WRITER

September 10, 2000

Angler adrenaline and the anticipation of big catches for big money usually charge the atmosphere of a captains meeting before a billfish tournament.

But the captains meeting Thursday night at the San Diego Marlin Club was mellow, almost subdued, and for good reason. The inaugural two-day Marlin Club Offshore Invitational Tournament that ended yesterday was a unique fishing competition, reportedly the first of its kind anywhere.

The anglers fished for more than $20,000 in cash and prizes, with the top prize going to the boat with the most released fish. But that seemed to be a secondary motivation. This was a tag-and-release money tournament with no professional observers and done largely to gather data to help scientists better understand marlin.

"It's the first of its kind that I know of not to have professional observers," said Mike "The Beak" Hurt, part of Bill McWethy's team aboard McWethy's 58-foot C-Bandit.

Instead of observers, throwaway cameras were used to document the tagging and releasing of billfish with 8-foot tag sticks. Instead of big fish and weigh-ins and a party at the scales, tournament organizers hustled film to a one-hour photo shop. Official winners were announced last night at a special awards dinner at Sea World.

"This is essentially a photography contest, guys, so make sure you get good pictures of your tag and releases," Capt. Rich Hamilton told the participating anglers at the captains meeting. "If you drop your camera in the water and lose it, it's just like a fish fell off the swim step."

Hamilton, the tournament chairman and captain of Millie Fitzgerald's Mil-So-Mar, one of the 16 competing boats, explained to the captains why this mainly was a science-based, tag-and-release tournament. He said it was up to recreational fishermen to help scientists learn more about marlin fishing.

"There's a fisheries management plan coming up soon, and that will change the way we fish here," Hamilton said. "We're looking at regulations for bag limits and size limits coming here soon."

Hamilton was talking about the Pacific Fisheries Management Council's Highly Migratory Species Plan that is due out next year. Commercial fishermen have petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to allow long-lining inside the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the West Coast. Recreational fishermen are terrified that a proposal that calls for 135 long-line boats will devastate sportfishing.

Hamilton received inspiration to hold the tournament after meeting with NMFS officials last summer at the Balboa Angling Club. NMFS scientists asked Southern California fishing clubs to meet and talk about the various fisheries plans that are being worked on throughout the world. Of particular interest is the Highly Migratory Species plan that will govern and impact commercial and recreational angling off the West Coast.

"NMFS wanted a cooperative effort with sportfishermen to collect data on marlin," Hamilton said. "It's unbelievable how little is known about marlin. I've fished for them for 15 years and didn't know much. I was shocked that scientists don't know how long they live, when they reach sexual maturity, where they go -- it's unbelievable."

Hamilton responded to the meeting by introducing DNA testing of marlin weighed in at the San Diego Marlin Club. Tissue samples are now cut from any dead marlin brought to the club (mostly by nonmembers) and sent to NMFS for DNA analysis.

"The Magnuson Act demands the best available science be used for fisheries management, but there is no science on marlin," Hamilton said. "So how can you manage a species if you don't know anything about it? This is a way for recreational fishermen to step up and do something."

Hamilton pitched the idea of the tournament to club members, but it wasn't received well at first. Catch-and-release fishing is a huge part of the marlin fisherman's ethic today, with an estimated 80 percent or more of all marlin caught off Southern California released. But paying money for marlin, even released, caused some backlash.

"The big obstacle was the cash award," Hamilton said. "We don't give cash awards here for killing marlin."

But he sold president Dave Verdugo on the science aspects and the attention the club would get in the international angling community. Verdugo said he was disappointed in the local turnout and support, but they competed with a handful of other marlin tournaments.

In addition to more than $20,000 in tournament cash and prizes for the fishermen, there were more cash and prize incentives from Steve Crouch's Vista-based Tag & Brag. All the anglers had to do was take a small skin sample from the marlin's fin they tagged and released, no easy chore, and bring it back for DNA analysis.

Only two boats tagged and released marlin, so they were named co-winners, but only one, the Mil-So-Mar, managed a DNA sample. In addition to splitting first-place money, the Mil-So-Mar crew received $500 and five sets of shorts and shirts from Tag & Brag.

The T-Rose with Capt. David Thompson was the only other boat to tag and release a marlin, hooked by angler Fred Weston. But they didn't manage a DNA sample.

And for the first time, two expensive archival pop-up satellite tags were available on two boats to place in marlin for sophisticated tracking. Unfortunately, the two boats that had the pop-up tags, the Legend and the Capt. Hook II, didn't tag and release any marlin.

Verdugo, the Marlin Club president, said the tags will be used at the club's Invitational Light Tackle Tournament, Sept. 22-23.

Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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