How the Great Marlin Race came about
To help commemorate the 50th Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament (HIBT), which was held July 20-24th, 2009, Stanford University, Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators (GTOPP) and the Pacific Ocean Research Foundation sponsored the first ever “Great Marlin Race”
You might ask what do a fishing tournament and a marlin race have in common? Well you might look at it as a “competition within a competition”. The HIBT has a long-standing history of providing anglers from around the globe with excellent Pacific blue marlin fishing. Over the years, it also has been a leader in fostering scientific research for billfish. In fact, some of the pioneering work on the development of electronic tags happened at the HIBT. In 2009, for the tournament’s 50th anniversary, they decided to build on that rich history.
Dr. Barbara Block, Prothro Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford University, and Bob Kurz, a long-time HIBT participant and billfishing enthusiatiast, put their heads together following the 49th HIBT on doing something special to help celebrate the HIBT’s golden anniversary. What resulted was a satellite-tagging program for Pacific blue marlin called the “Great Marlin Race.”
Based on the format established by Block’s team for the “Great Turtle Race” in 2007, the Great Marlin Race utilizes electronic tags to follow the movements of highly migratory Pacific blue marlin. The HIBT angling teams were given the opportunity to sponsor marlin tags to deploy themselves, or to have deployed by members of the Stanford University research team.
Each tag is programmed to release 120-180 days following deployment. When the tags float to the surface and are located by an orbiting satellite, the marlin that is furthest from Kona is declared the winner of the Great Marlin Race. Thanks to the generosity of HIBT founder and director, Peter Fithian, the sponsor of the winning marlin receives a free entry, for a team of up to 6 anglers, to the following year's HIBT.
For the scientists, the excitement just begins there. For a week to ten days after each tag reaches the surface, it sends data back to the lab about where the fish went and what it did during the deployment. This gives new insights into the way these animals live in the open ocean – and because the tags also record temperature, the scientists even gain knowledge about the open ocean itself, where such measurements are hard to come by.
During the 2009 HIBT seven satellite tags were sponsored and deployed. Five of those tags reported back - three of which had traveled all the way to the southern hemisphere, in the vicinity of the Marquesas Islands - with distances of 1800-2250 nautical miles!
In the 2010 HIBT ten tags were sponsored and deployed, with nine successfully reporting. These tags showed a broader range of migratory paths, from south-southwest to almost due east, and a winning distance of 2,282 nautical miles.
The effort to tag and track Pacific Blue Marlin in the Great Marlin Race is part of a much larger and longer-term program called “Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators” or GTOPP, led by Dr. Barbara Block and her colleagues. This international, multi-disciplinary research initiative combines the efforts of biologging scientists from around the globe, utilizing electronic tags to study the migratory behavior of dozens of different kinds of animals such as sharks, whales, sea turtles, sea birds, seals and sea lions, and even squid.
“We are building on more than a decade of work in the Atlantic and Pacific,” says Block. “By observing many different kinds of animals in similar ways and at the same time, and combining information about their behavior with information about the physical oceans around them, we are beginning to understand how the open ocean ecosystem actually works.”
The HIBT is oftentimes referred to as “the grand-daddy of billfish tournaments”. Well, this year it added to its legacy, not only for being a world-class marlin tournament, but also for hosting the first ever “Great Marlin Race”. May the best marlin win, but regardless of which marlin actually wins the race, Pacific blue marlin everywhere will benefit from the knowledge gained from this important research project. Looks like a win-win!