The Bright Side: Death, taxes and fishing captains

Fishing captains are an individualistic lot. They sit up on the bridge of their boat, day after day, surveying their watery kingdom, trying to figure out where to find a fish that will bite, coming up with more theories than Carter has pills.

Get them all in one room, ask them the same question and you’ll get a different answer from each one. Like death and taxes this has just been a fact of life, until today.


Fishing was erratic this past summer, which is when it is supposed to be the steadiest. It started to get good in November, which is not unusual. What is unusual is that fishing stayed that way through New Years. Between Christmas and New Years alone, it seemed like a marlin over 500 pounds was caught every day, with the largest 900 pounds.

Even more unusual, the good fishing has carried through most of January as well. I did not gather all the skippers in one room and ask ‘em why fishing has been so good this winter, but I did call a few on the phone.

I expected to fill this article with their various theories, but instead, for the first time in history, they all agreed on something: “I don’t know why fishing has been so good, but I’ll take it!” After about the fifth time I heard this, I figured to myself, “Well, this is going to be the worlds shortest article.” A deeper dive, however started to uncover different tid bits here and there.

“Maybe these are the fish we were supposed to get this summer,” proffered Capt. Stymie Epstein. This theory has some merit to it, as other seasonal fisheries are known to start later or earlier than “normal” in some years. Down on the Great Barrier Reef, the black marlin usually congregate in October and November. Sometimes they get started in September and sometimes they start in late October. However, these variances are only a couple of weeks, not three months.

In the world of marlin, all the big ones are female and they usually come to Kona in summer to spawn. This past summer, however, none of the females that were brought to the scales in the Hawaii Marlin Tournament Series were in spawning conditions. According to Big Al, our marlin-cutting pal, the big females he’s been processing this winter have likewise been barren of eggs. So if marlin are not spawning in summer and they are not here spawning “late,” then something else is going on.

Based upon a study published by the Commonwealth Marine Economics Programme, funded by the U.K. Government, “Climate change is expected to have profound effects on oceanic fish habitats, food webs, the fish stocks they support and, as a consequence, the productivity of fisheries… Based on recent distribution modelling, tuna populations are expected to move eastward and to higher latitudes due to climate drivers…”

This report focuses almost entirely on various tuna species, with only a glancing mention of marlin. That’s because the economics of the tuna industry drive the funding for most fishery studies of tropical and subtropical species. However, where there’s tuna, there’s marlin – sooner or later.

Plus, the U.K. Commonwealth has a number of territories in the western Pacific that will be negatively impacted by this shift of biomass. The Western Pacific has produced more than half of the world’s tuna since the expansion of the commercial fleets began in the late 1950’s. That’s not half of the tuna caught in the Pacific. That’s half of the tuna caught on Earth. That would be a fair few tuna!

So the U.K. and its western Pacific territories have good reason for concern. The trickle down is expected to have a deleterious effect to their economies. On top of that, climate based changes to reef species the local people depend upon for food is also expected, while our fishing is projected to get better.

If this paper is correct, then what the Kona skippers have been experiencing could, at least in part, be attributable to this eastward shift of stocks. It might also explain why none in this stock of fish are in spawning condition. Perhaps they didn’t come to Kona to spawn, they got shoved over here from where they usually hang out, just doing fish stuff.

Stymie’s son, Capt. Tracy Epstein, put it this way, “The body of water we have around us now just seems to be holding a lot of fish.”

When you spend years and years out on the ocean, studying your watery kingdom from the bridge, you do start to visualize and understand the concept of movements of large bodies of water within the massive Pacific Ocean. Pockets of life are created by a combination of weather factors such as trade winds, oceanic factors such as currents as well as terrestrial and bathymetric features.

So what happens if we get more marlin, but they stop coming to spawn? On this topic, the paper says this, “The influence of such climate variability can impact the survival of larvae and thus subsequent recruitment, and also redistribution of the most suitable habitats….” which indicates that it is possible that spawning grounds will change. However, the comment is so general that more studies are needed to address this specific scenario.

Here in Hawaii, Wild Oceans has kicked off a research program they call “The Kona Project” which aims to try and improve knowledge of the spawning activity and larval distribution of marlin in the “Kona Gyre” ecosystem. This eddy turns in the lee of the Big Island, but the far side of the gyre can be more than 200 miles offshore, affecting the sea mounts and Penguin Banks, for starters.

Although every Captain agrees, “I’ll take it!” when it comes to better fishing, it is with uncanny timing that the “Kona Project” has commenced to try and figure out why.


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