Joan Vernon, The Saltwater Crusader
Vice Chairman, the Billfish Foundation , Key Biscayne, Fla.
Circle-hook advocate Joan Vernon cofounded Adopt-A-Billfish in 2002, a research program that places $4,000 tracking tags into marlin, swordfish, and sailfish to collect habitat data that will help countries conserve the declining populations.
In the early '90s I started seeing photographs of purse seine boats in Costa Rica with hundreds of sailfish carcasses hanging out of their nets. Then I'd go to the Bahamas and see people killing white marlin in tournaments-all this slaughtering of an already distressed species. The whole problem stems from economics. Sportfishing is huge in these Eastern Pacific countries. Anglers hire local mates, frequent restaurants-I mean, you're seeing schools getting built due to this industry. But without the fish, the whole thing will collapse. For 20 years, I've been going to these governments and telling them, for instance, "You shouldn't go into this spawning area with long-liners because the stocks are declining." And they'd say, "How do you know?" In 2002, a University of Miami scientist invited me to lunch. He saw a need for satellite tagging in the Pacific. And I said, wow, this is it. I'd been desperate for exactly this research to advocate for regulations. So we started planning Adopt-A-Billfish. I put a team of NOAA scientists together and kept going from there.
My role is organizing and securing funding. I got everything together for the first tagging trip in Panama, even though it was right after 9/11. Flights were canceled, and getting those scientists out of the country was a major deal. So when I caught that first sailfish, and that first tag went in, I thought, we're really under way. Then you go back and sit on pins and needles until the first tag reports. It could take a while, and in that time, well, these fish jump and a $4,000 tag could go flying. When the data came in, we were so excited. The next step is taking that info to these governments to push for sustainable management. Phase II of the project in the Pacific started last year with only four tags, and we had to stop because the federal government cut funds. The importance of Phase II is huge-of all the Central American countries I fish in, Costa Rica is abusing the resource by far the worst.
This program is such a necessity for the conservation of billfish and the preservation of these coastal economies. We drastically need this science. I mean, it's a must; we can't move forward without it. That's why I've dedicated myself to it, and I hope I'll find the money to keep going.
-- Kimberly Hiss