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WHEA students use marlin data for school project

Updated: 
March 11, 2014 - 12:05am

A marlin-tracking effort that started as an homage to the Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament is providing the basis for a year-long West Hawaii Explorations Academy science project.

The collaboration began last summer, when Bob and Sally Kurz, long-time visitors to Kona who also happen to be representatives for the International Game Fish Association, were talking with WHEA science teacher Beverley Wigzell. Wizgell was looking for a project for her students and the Kurzes, who launched the Great Marlin Race in 2009, suggested the students start tracking the race.

In the months since, about a dozen students have taken spreadsheet data, collected by satellite tags on Pacific blue marlin tagged during the HIBT since 2009, gone fishing, learned about fish anatomy and studied on-shore fishing and coral as well. Next quarter, the students will be assembling a marlin skeleton, learning the names of the bones, and studying the stomach contents of fish caught in Hawaiian waters.

Ileana Hinchcliff, 12, said she was most impressed by “learning how far the marlins can travel in that short amount of time.”

The satellite tags stay attached to the fish for 180 days, Sally Kurz said. Then they disengage, and the computer that has been tracking how far and how deep the fish has swum, as well as water temperature, floats to the surface, where it transmits data to a satellite. That information is downloaded and translated into a readable format, which scientists and researchers then format into a spreadsheet.

One marlin, caught and tagged by Wizgell’s husband in August, just lost its tag recently, Sally Kurz said. It has traveled the second farthest of the roughly 40 fish tracked since 2009, about 3,000 nautical miles. That’s actually fewer miles than the fish actually would have swum, she added, because the measurements are from where the tag begins transmitting to where it ends, and doesn’t account for the actual route the fish takes.

The Kurzes helped found the Great Marlin Race several years ago, working with a Stanford University researcher. To offset the cost of the satellite tags, which run about $4,500 each, they encouraged HIBT entrants to sponsor a tag. Several have, Bob Kurz said.

In 2011, the International Game Fish Association approached them and asked to become a sponsor and take the project to other countries. Marlin are now being tracked in Australia, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Morocco, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

“We have gained a tremendous amount of data,” Bob Kurz said. “Range, temperature of the water they prefer.”

Sally Kurz said prior to the start of the Great Marlin Race, “we had very little scientific knowledge of where these marlins go.”

A number of the marlin tags have surfaced near the Marquesas Islands, which happen to be about as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north of it, Bob Kurz said. That may say something about the kind of temperatures and environment the fish seek while migrating around the Pacific.

In addition to providing raw data for the students to analyze, the IGFA and the Kurzes brought science equipment and four laptop computers to the school Thursday. Sally Kurz has also been using the many contacts she has in Kona, from 40 years of visiting and fishing here, to get boat captains and other people involved in the fishing industry to meet with and talk with students.