One of the coolest-looking and most recognizable fish in the ocean — the sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) — is also one of the fastest and most athletic in the world. It’s a type of billfish, a predatory fish species that also includes swordfish, spearfish and marlin.
Billfish are known for their long, spear-like bills and for their impressive size and speed. All billfish species are predatory and use their bills to hunt and catch prey. They also have striking dorsal fins, though none are as remarkable as the sailfish (more on that below). Its signature sail-like fin and its forked tail fin, help in its identification and where it got its name.
How to Recognize a Sailfish
The sailfish can be found in temperate to tropical waters around the world. They’re commonly fished in the southeast United States, the Gulf of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and the Windward Islands. They’re also in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, with some occasionally found in the Mediterranean Sea. Though sailfish are fast, they typically don’t travel far, preferring warm coastal waters and hunting grounds close to the ocean’s surface.
Sailfish can grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) long from tip to tail, and can weigh upward of 220 pounds (99 kilograms). Even at that size, they’re fast; they can swim nearly 70 miles per hour (112.7 kilometers per hour) making the sailfish the fastest fish in the ocean. Just to put that in perspective, the cheetah, the fastest animal on land, tops out at about the same speed.
It’s probably no surprise that sailfish have a few distinguishing features, like their spear-like bills. But the most impressive and recognizable is their massive dorsal fins. These sails stretch the entire length of their bodies and grow taller than the sailfish is long. In other words, the sail can be about as big as the fish itself.
Studies also have shown that sailfish can even deploy and retract their fins. When their sail is retracted, sailfish can reduce their drag, generating more thrust and speed. The opposite is also true: With the sail is raised, they can increase their drag and slow down dramatically.
Sailfish have distinctive color patterns, too, that help differentiate them from other billfish. They have mostly blue bodies and white bellies, and a pattern of light blue spots and vertical stripes. Their fins are usually blackish-blue and their coloring can change when they’re particularly active or excited.
Sailfish Are Avid Hunters
Sailfish have a few common prey including large fish, squid and crustaceans (such as crab and shrimp). Sailfish have been studied working together to surround and trap schools of sardines. The hunting method was documented with as few as four sailfish to as many as 70, though the hunting didn’t appear to be coordinated. Instead, the sailfish charged the school of sardines one at a time and used their bills to “slash” and “prod” the fish.
According to the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the sailfish might not catch as many fish as they would if they were hunting solo, but they definitely don’t have to work as hard for it.
The sailfish’s size means they’re generally at the top of the food chain, but they are preyed upon by a few larger species, typically sharks, orcas and mahi mahi.
Sailfish and Sport Fishing
The meat of the sailfish is tough, so they have very little value on the commercial seafood market. But because of their speed, strength and striking looks, they’re very popular targets for sport fishing. Recreational fishermen must use certain kinds of gear to minimize injury to the sailfish, and nearly all are catch-and-release. Only fishermen with a federal Atlantic highly migratory species (HMS) permit can keep them, and they must be at least 5.25 feet (1.6 meters) long to be legal.
Cpt. Ray Rosher has been a professional fisherman since 1979 and has owned Miss Britt Charters in Miami since 1999. Rosher has decades of experience with sailfish that began in the 1970s when he used to eat smoked sailfish at his grandfather’s house.
“My grandfather was really focused on catching them and we grew up eating them. It was just part of our life, a staple of his days of fishing on the drift boats,” Rosher says. “Then I would say in the ’80s people became more focused on conservation, and using circle hooks and releasing sailfish.”
Rosher says sailfish are particularly popular for sport fishing because they’re fun to pursue.
“There is a challenge involved in catching them and obviously they’re beautiful. They’re really exciting to catch,” he says. “They jump. They average about 7 feet. [2.1 meters] total in length and they fight hard, generally.”
Sailfish and Commercial Fishing
However, commercial fishing is still the biggest threat to the sailfish population. Sailfish are sometimes caught — along with tuna and other fish — as bycatch of fishing gear for large-scale food production.
In the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service enforces conservation efforts. All commercial ships flagged in the US are prohibited from selling, retaining or purchasing sailfish, along with all other Atlantic billfish species. As we mentioned, recreational fishers must have all the proper permits to catch sailfish, and they must release them back to the ocean.
“Every once in a while, you’ll get one that’s bleeding or a shark bites its tail off or something that is legal size, so no sense in letting him go,” Rosher says. “I would say, well over 95 percent of the sailfish are released.”
Rosher says, in his experience, the conservation efforts have paid off.
“One of the big factors in South Florida is that they’re prevalent enough to target, meaning if I see only one every week, people just wouldn’t spend the money to pursue them,” Rosher says. “Just not common enough, right? Just not achievable enough to go out and catch one or two or three a day. But sailfish in their current population are that prevalent.”
And, Rosher says, there’s a lot of money in the sport fishing industry.
“The benefit that sailfish bring to a local economy is staggering when you look at what people spend to go catch them,” he says. “I have three charter boats. I also fish on other tournament boats. I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in my presence in a year in the pursuit of generally, or mainly, sailfish.”