I spent World Oceans Day netting my favorite fish, the Permit. There, I said it. Now I have something else to say – I abhor nets. Hate them to no end. Even the sight of them makes my stomach turn. In my experience, nets are often the tool of poachers, the very people who pillage and plunder the rich natural resources in the waters surrounding my beloved Xcalak and Mahahual. In the span of a day, a couple of guys (or ladies, I don’t discriminate) with a net can damage the ecosystem of an aquatic area so badly it may not recover for a decade, if ever. So how did I did I come to spend a day meant for protecting the oceans, wielding the very abomination I hate so much, against my very favorite fish in the sea? Why, to save them of course.

Fly fishing for Permit is my passion, it’s what I do for fun and it’s pretty much my only hobby when we’re living in Mahahual or Xcalak (unless you count drinking beer, laying in hammocks, petting dogs and making fun of my friends). I love these fish. I love catching them (and by “them” I mean “the one” that I’ve caught in two years of trying) then releasing them to hopefully see them again another day. They’re smart, strong, super hard to find and even harder to trick into eating your fly. Everyone I know in this area treats them with great reverence and respect, fisherperson or no. But this isn’t a post about fishing or how important Permit are to me, it’s a post about fish conservation. So let’s get to that part.

Addiel Perez, doctoral candidate at Ecosur University , gives a presentation regarding fish migrations and their importance to fishing guides and interested parties in Xcalak, Mexico

A couple of weeks ago my buddy Alex invited me to a presentation being put on by a guy who has been studying the fishery in the Xcalak area in great detail. Eager to learn what I could to better chase fish, I attended. The “guy” turned out to be Addiel Perez, a doctoral student who is working with the highly respected Bonefish & Tarpon Trust to study the migratory habits of fish in the area. In order to do this, Addiel and his team use nets in order to catch entire schools of fish, tag each fish and then release the school intact. He explained to me that when done properly, the nets cause the fish way less stress than other methods and increase the odds of a healthy release. Keeping them together in schools also keeps them calmer and healthier. After the fish are released, their movements can be tracked via the tags. I was intrigued, to say the least, so when he offered me the chance to join him for a day, I jumped at it.

The day started off like any other day fishing, we hopped on the boat and started looking for fish. Things only began to change once we found them. Rather than trying to get a single fish to eat a tiny fly, we were using a big net to circle around the whole school and gather them all up. We finally spotted a school and with great anticipation (and slightly less anxiety) I jumped into the water with the end of the net as the boat pulled the rest of it across the path of the school.

My job at this point was to hold the end of the net while the boat circled around the school. I’m told it’s a highly skilled position.

Before the two ends of the net could meet, we all lost sight of the school until they reappeared a few minutes later and several hundred yards away. They’d gotten away. I told you they were smart and fast, didn’t I? So, we picked the nets up and moved on. We (and the fish) did this exact thing several more times and I began to think that catching Permit with a net was almost as hard as it is with a fly rod. Our third or fourth try came along and the fish disappeared before the net closed and we had no idea where they’d gone. We didn’t see them surface anywhere around us but Permit are notorious for disappearing in plain site so we continued to bring the net closer and closer to make the area the fish could be in smaller.

Hmm, are they in here? I’ve lost Permit many different ways but never an entire school at once.

And suddenly, there they were! An entire school of the beautiful babies swimming just feet from me! Man, I was so happy to see those guys in the net! (I guarantee you that’s the only time you’ll ever hear me say that sentence).

A huge school of swirling, circling Permit! Right at my feet!

It wasn’t time to celebrate yet. Being in the net isn’t super bad for the fish since they still had plenty of room to swim comfortably, but we wanted to get them set free ASAP. We had a lot of data to record before releasing the fish so we had to get to work. And work fast.

In order to ensure the healthiest possible release, we needed to work as fast and smooth as an assembly line while treating the fish with respect and minimizing our contact with them and their time out of the water. Roberto, our captain, brought fish from the net “corral” and into a smaller holding area. I brought one fish at a time from the holding area and placed it on Addiel’s workstation. Addiel measured the fish and tagged it. Local conservationist, Rob Mukai from Acocote Eco Inn recorded the data and prepared the tags and then I released the fish back to his buddies. Easy-peasy, right?

My job was to grab a Permit from the holding area and to place it in front of Addiel to record his data.

 

Addiel tagging and Rob recording the data.

 

And away he goes. The tag is the little orange stripe just below the dorsal fin of the fish.

Each fish spent a total of 30-45 seconds out of the water and most seemed pretty calm considering. The length of each fish was measured and each was fitted with a biodegradable tag with a tag number and the contact information for Addiel’s study.

The whole purpose of Addiel’s study is to show the migratory habits of the fish. Or, basically, to prove that the fish off the southern coast of Mexico, the northern part of Belize and out into the Caribbean are the same fish. They’re all spending time in each place so it’s important for all of the countries involved to cooperate together to protect these fish. They are a shared resource and need to be treated as such since one country’s actions (or lack thereof) could seriously affect the fishery of another.

As odd as it was for me to be using nets on my favorite fish, I learned that they aren’t just the weapons for mass destruction that I thought they were – nets are a tool. Like any tool, they can be used for great good or great evil and I can safely say that Addiel Perez is using his for great good.

We tagged 52 Permit that day and I’m proud to say that every single one of them swam strongly away, healthy, if not exactly happy. Each one bearing a tag that will provide the data Addiel needs to help protect their species.

I am never happier than when I am on, in or near water of any sort and am happiest when that water is the ocean. If that ocean is the Caribbean, and specifically the Mexican Caribbean? Well, it doesn’t get any better than that for me. The waters surrounding Xcalak and Mahahual are my sacred place, they are of monumental importance to me and I’m willing to do just about anything to protect them and the creatures that call them home. Apparently, I’ll even go so far as to do something I hate to something that I love.

***Addiel’s study is mainly a bonefish study but any fisher that catches either a Bonefish or Permit with a tag on it is encouraged to send the tag number, the date and approximate location where the fish was caught to the email address on the tag or directly to Addiel at addieluperez@yahoo.com. More information on the study can be found here.***