Protecting the ocean’s fastest fish

Billfish are a group of large apex predators that include Marlin, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Spearfish. Billfish are an incredibly unique species, characterised by their size, speed, and long, beak-like bills. The Sailfish is considered one of the ocean’s fastest fish, with speeds recorded over 68mph. Billfish are big – some species growing to lengths that surpass 4 metres, weighing in over 800kg!

In the West Indian Ocean region, Billfish are of critical importance to fisheries, both for food security and the economy. As top predators, Billfish also play a vital role in maintaining the equilibrium of the ocean ecosystem.  Billfish are caught for food, both by artisanal fisherman and industrial fishing fleets, and are valued recreationally as gamefish for sport. Collectively, these human-induced activities have seen Billfish decline from overfishing. Exacerbating the issue, a distinct lack of scientific data exists on the Billfish species.


A Black Marlin leaping out of the water. Photograph: Shutterstock.

“There are so many unanswered questions about this magnificent species.”

From game-fishing to conservation

The West Indian Ocean is a hotspot for game-fishing. Catching the colossal Billfish’ offers an exhilarating experience for game-fishing enthusiasts, and they pay good money to partake in the sport. This injects much-needed funds into the region’s ocean economy. Given the popularity of the sport, the Billfish team have engaged the game-fishing community to act as data collectors, tagging the fish they catch. As such, the game-fishing community play a vital role in Billfish conservation efforts. Nina explains, ‘we supply recreational fishers with tags, and they practice catch, tag and release’.

Through the data collected from this method, the Billfish Project is pioneering this remarkable fish’ research and conservation. The project has three main objectives, comparing historical and current Billfish data, researching the species genetics and their distribution in the ocean, and evaluating the socio-economic value of fisheries to local communities. The brains behind the project belong to Dr. Nina Wambiji and Dr. Nelly Isigi Kadagi, two Kenyan-based marine scientists, ‘There so many unanswered questions about this magnificent species.’ 

First image: A member of the Billfish team interviewing a local fisherman in Zanzibar. Photograph: Billfish-WIO Project  Second image:  Examining a Swordfish. Photograph: Shutterstock.

Led by Nina and Nelly, the project is a promising example of women being recognised in the ocean science space, ‘This is the first time a female-led project has been funded at this level regionally’. In Kenya and the wider African region, marine science is still an up-and-coming discipline, with men far outnumbering women. Nina and Nelly are keen to amend this gender imbalance. The Billfish project currently works with nine students, six of whom are women, ‘we look at the project as an inspiration for other young female scientists who want to move forward in the marine environment’.

The project is now entering its second year, and Nina and Nelly are thrilled with the success they’ve experienced so far, ‘we’ve been able to extend the project to Somalia, Comoros, Seychelles, and Mauritius’. The team has also published multiple scientific papers, building an essential resource for Billfish data.  Through their work, the team are steadily building capacity to ensure fish stocks are protected for the future. This will have tangible benefits for both local communities and the wider ocean ecosystem. Over the next two years, the project is only set to gain more momentum, and Nelly and Nina are confident in its ability to use science to find solutions. With such passionate leaders at the helm, there’s no doubt they’re right.  

The GenO campaign sits within the UN Ocean Decade – visit the Decade website for more information.

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