Nutrient-rich currents attract the huge fish
The wind was gusting from the east and the twin Suzuki 250-horsepower outboards were roaring. The Big Fish, a 35-foot sport fishing boat, was pushing through five-foot seas in the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago, in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The waters of the Galapagos are among the best places in the world to fish for marlin. And I was hoping to catch one.
I’m from Miami and I’ve been fishing for bill fish – sailfish and marlin – since I was 13 years old. I’ve caught more than a dozen sailfish, but I’d never hooked a marlin. Blue marlin often weigh-in at 300 to 400 pounds and some get up to 1,000 pounds.
I fish a lot with my uncle. When he learned I was going to the Galapagos on a study abroad program at the University of Miami, he decided to give me a marlin fishing trip as a present. I lined up a charter with a company on the mainland of Ecuador that owns the Big Fish.
One morning at about 7:30 a.m., we set out from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island aboard the Big Fish. The skies were clear, a soft shade of blue, with a fringe of fluffy, cotton-white clouds at the horizon.
The captain was Ronnie Yagual, who grew up in Guayaquil, on the mainland, and had been fishing for marlin for seven years. He says he’s caught 300 marlin. I had brought along on the boat three other University of Miami students, Steven Elenberg, Samuel Noddle and Christopher Privette and our professor, Joseph B. Treaster.
The best months for marlin fishing in the Galapagos are October to April, when the water is warm. We were fishing in May, a little late in the year to expect the best results.
The Galapagos Islands are in an optimal location for marlin fishing. Shallow and deep ocean currents pass through the islands. The main ones are South-Equatorial Current, the Humboldt Current, and the Cromwell Equatorial Current. The currents are important because they supply nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon dioxide to plankton that are food for fish that marlin eat.
Gustavo Hernandez grew up in the Galapagos. He has traveled and worked on fishing boats around the world. He ranks the Galapagos as the best marlin fishing place in the world, ahead of Panama, the Bahamas, Argentina and Mexico.
“The best moment when fishing is when you are fishing for tuna or marlin,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes, in the shoals, you find a lot of different species. There you find dolphins. You find sharks. You find sea lions. In the Galapagos you find a lot of passion for fishing but on the side of conservation.”
Hernandez helped organize a marlin tournament in 2005 that attracted 11 boats and crews from the mainland of Ecuador. Over four days, he says, the fishermen brought in 1,800 marlin. That event was one of the highlights of Galapagos fishing.
The annual tournament has continued, but fewer boats have been competing and the catches have been much smaller. Hernandez, who owns a marlin fishing boat, said that the marlin fishing business has declined somewhat. In 2005, when he organized the first marlin tournament, he said, 55 to 60 fishermen chartered his boats over the year. Now, he said, he’s averaging 35 to 40 charters a year.
Six years ago, in 2008, Ecuador, which governs the Galapagos, introduced comprehensive fishing regulations for the islands. The goal was to protect marine life and, at the same time, give commercial fishermen an opportunity to share in the growing tourism business.
Under the new regulations, commercial fishermen, who fished for tuna, sword fish, wahoo and other food fish and sold it by the pound, could take up to 10 tourists on close-to-shore excursions. The tourists could take home up to 50 pounds of fish.
Some boat captains had already begun specializing in fishing trips for tourists, looking especially for marlin and sail fish at prices that now run up to $1,800 a day. The best spots were often 20 to 30 miles offshore. The new regulations required recreational fishermen to release back into the sea any marlin or sail fish they caught.
Fernando Ojeda, a fisherman and a Galapagos National Park guide on San Cristobal Island, said that before the regulations, commercial fishermen had no limits on how much they could catch. But they were mostly barred from taking tourists on their boats. The commercial fishermen still have few limits on how much they can haul in for market. But the regulations established fishing seasons and prohibited taking fish below certain sizes.
“At the beginning,” Ojeda said, “the idea was that local fishermen were able to take tourists to the ocean to show them the different techniques or artisanal ways to catch fish here in the marine reserve of the Galapagos Islands, sharing time on their local boats, the small ones, the traditional boats. That was the original idea.”
But many fishermen found they were able to make more money for less work by taking tourists on diving trips and sightseeing trips and, occasionally, recreational fishing trips. The number of traditional fishing boats has declined, Ojeda said, and the number of boats dedicated to tourism has risen.
On my day on the Big Fish, we seemed to be getting off to a good start. We headed for a spot about 25 miles off San Cristobal where Capt. Yagual and his mate, Fernando Yepez, said they had a secret spot for catching marlin. But the seas were pretty choppy and it was windy. Conditions were not good, Yagual said.
He had set out six lines, four with lures and two with teasers. We trolled a few hours without getting a strike. The lures were about a foot long. Some were red and black. Others were blue and black. Sometimes, Capt. Yagual said, they use ballyhoo as live bait. He and other boat captains said most of the marlin fishermen in the Galapagos come from the United States, Argentina, and Brazil.
I didn’t see much on our day on the Big Fish because pretty early in the trip I got sea sick, as I often do, even though I love fishing for marlin and sailfish. The night before, I’d gotten a case of food poisoning. I still had a trace of the stomach problem when we got on the boat. I hoped it would go away, but it only got worse. The more we trolled and the more we didn’t find a marlin, the worse I felt.
Capt. Yagual said the wind and the seas were working against us. But he wanted to keep trying. I was hurting pretty bad. I don’t think I have ever been so nauseated. I really wanted to catch a marlin. At about noon, we talked about giving up. The captain wanted to keep at it and I did, too. About an hour later though, I couldn’t take any more. And we headed for shore. I still had not caught my marlin. #