Shaw and Nodder first described the Atlantic sailfish in 1792 and
assigned it the species name Xiphias platypterus. Some scientists believe
that the Atlantic and Pacific sailfishes are separate species and apply
the name I. albicans to the Atlantic form. Other names that have been
used for this species include Histiophorus americanus, H. albicans, H.
granulifer, H. indicas, H. orientales, H. pulchellus, Makaira velifera,
Skeponopodus guebucu, H. granulifer, Xiphias velifer, Istiophorus amarui,
I. americanus, I. brookei, I. gladius, I. grayii, I. immaculatus,
I. ludibundus, I. wrighti, I. maguirei, and I. volador.
English language common names include Atlantic sailfish, billfish, Indo-Pacific sailfish,
ocean gar, ocean guard, Pacific sailfish, and sailfish. Other common names are abanico
(Spanish), aguja (Spanish), aguja de abanico (Spanish), aguja vela (Spanish), atlanticheskii
parusnik (Russian), atlantinperjekala (Finnish), atlantisk segelfisk (Swedish), atlantisk
seifisk (Norwegian), bashokajiki (Japanese), bicuda (Portuguese), bicudo (Portuguese),
caravela (Portuguese), dung dung (Wolof), espadarte-veleiro (Portuguese), espadon (French),
espadon voilier (French), malan (Wolof), nishibashoo (Japanese), nishibashookajiki (Japanese),
palagar (Spanish), parusnik (Russian), parusnik-ryba (Russian), peco (Portuguese),
peixe andala (Portuguese), peixe de vela (Portuguese), peixe-vela (Portugese), pesce
vela (Italian), pez vela (Spanish), pez vela de Atlantico (Spanish), pez vela del
Indo-Pacifico (Spanish), prieta (Spanish), purjekala (Finnish), segelfisch (German),
seilfisk (Norwegian), seilvis (Afrikaans), sejlfisk (Danish), squadron (French),
veleiro-de-atlantico (Portugese), veleiro (Portuguese), veleiro do atlantico (Portugese),
voilier de l'Atlantique (French), voiler de l'Indo-Pacifique (French), voladeira (Spanish),
zegal-fisch (Dutch), and zeilvis (Dutch).
The sailfish is distributed from approximately 40° N to 40° S in the western Atlantic
Ocean and from 50° N to 32° S in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It has been taken in the
Mediterranean Sea, although few records exist for this region. In the western Atlantic
Ocean, its highest abundance is in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast of Florida,
and the Caribbean Sea. In this region, distribution is apparently influenced by wind
conditions as well as water temperature. In the northern and southern extremes of the
its distribution, sailfish appear during warm seasons. These seasonal changes in distribution
may be directly linked to prey movement. In the eastern Atlantic Ocean, there is an aggregation
off the coast of West Africa.
In the Pacific Ocean, the sailfish is widely distributed in temperate and tropical
regions. It resides in waters from 45° to 50° N to 35° S in the western Pacific and
from 35° N to 35° S in the eastern Pacific. Sailfish are especially abundant off Papua
New Guinea and the Philippines as well as from Tahiti to the Marquesas and off Hawaii.
This species may also be found in the Indian Ocean to approximately 35-45° S latitude.
World distribution map for
The Atlantic sailfish swims in the surface epipelagic and oceanic waters. It generally
remains above the thermocline, in water temperatures between 70° and 83°F (21° to 28° C).
There is evidence that it also swims into deeper water. It is less oceanic than other
billfishes, making frequent forays into nearshore water.
courtesy FAO Species Catalogue: Billfishes of the World
- · Distinctive Features
The upper jaw is modified into a long bill which is circular in cross section. This upper
jaw is approximately twice the length of the lower jaw. Two dorsal and anal fins are present.
The first dorsal fin is large, much taller than the width of the body. This large fin runs
most of the length of the body, with the longest ray being the 20th. The first anal fin is
set far back on the body. Second dorsal and anal fins approximately mirror one another in
size and shape. Both are short and concave. The pectoral and pelvic fins are long with the
pelvic fins almost twice as long and nearly reaching the origin of the first anal fin. The
pelvic fins have one spine and multiple soft rays fused together. A pair of grooves run
along the ventral side of the body, into which the pelvic fins can be depressed.
The caudal peduncle has double keels and caudal notchs on the upper and lower surfaces.
The lateral line is readily visible.
- · Coloration
Body color is variable depending upon level of excitement. The body is dark blue
dorsally and white with brown spots ventrally. About 20 bars, each consisting of
many light blue dots, are present on each side. The fins are all generally blackish
blue. The anal fin base is white. The first dorsal fin contains many small black
dots, which are more common towards the anterior end of the fin.
- ·Size, Age, and Growth
The sailfish is one of the smaller members of the family Istiophoridae. The maximum size
for the sailfish from the Atlantic region is 124 inches (340 cm) total length and around
128 pounds (100 kg). The all-tackle record listed by International Game Fish Association
(IGFA) is (100 kg). In southern Florida, the fish tend to be smaller, generally between
68-90 inches (173-229 cm) total length. Commercial longline vessels in the Atlantic
generally catch fish of 49-83 inches (125-210 cm) in length. The largest fish are usually
In waters of the Pacific Ocean, the maximum size for the sailfish is recorded at 134
inches (340 cm) total length and around 220 pounds (100 kg) in weight.
Sailfish feed on a variety of fish
including the needlefish pictured above
© Doug Perrine
- · Food Habits
Cephalopods (squid and octopus) and bony fishes are the primary prey items of the sailfish
in the Atlantic Ocean. Mackerels, tunas, jacks, halfbeaks, and needlefish are the most commonly
taken fishes. These prey items indicate that some feeding occurs at the surface, as well as in
midwater, along reef edges, or along the bottom substrate.
Sailfish in the Pacific region feed on fishes and cephalopods including squid. Fishes
consumed include sardines, achovies, jacks, dolphin, ribbonfish and triggerfish.
- · Reproduction
In the western North Atlantic Ocean, spawning may begin as early as April, but occurs primarily
during the summer months. Females swim slowly through shallow water, with their dorsal fin above
the water surface. One or more males will accompany her and spawn near the surface. Spawning
may also occur in deep waters along the coast of North America and over the continental shelf
off the West African coast. Spawning has been observed year-round in the eastern Atlantic,
with a peak in the summer months. A large female may release 4,500,000 eggs while spawning.
Atlantic sailfish are approximately 0.125 inches (0.3 cm) at hatching. Larval sailfish lack
the jaw characteristic of the adults. The head contains many spines: one above the eye, on
the lower operculum, and smaller one located between these. At 0.25 inches (0.6 cm), the jaws
begin to elongate. At 8 inches (20 cm), all larval characteristics have disappeared and the
juvenile has all the features of an adult. During the first year of life, young fish can often
be observed off the coast of Florida. At six months, a juvenile may weight 6 lbs (2.7 kg) and
be 4.5 feet (1.4 m) long. Upon reaching this size, growth rate decreases.
© George Burgess
In the waters of the Pacific Ocean, sailfish appear to spawn in tropical and subtropical
regions, with localized peaks during summer months. The males and females swim in pairs or
two to three males pursue a female during spawning.
- · Predators
Dolphinfish and other large predatory fishes as well as seabirds feed on the sailfish.
- · Parasites
A total of 34 parasitic species have been recorded from the sailfish, including the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean range of sailfish. Parasites include protozoans, digenea (flukes), didymozoidea (tissue flukes), monogenea (gillworms), cestoda (tapeworms), nematoda (roundworms), acanthocephala (spiny-headed worms), copepods, barnacles, and isopods. Ectoparasitic fish consist of pilotfish (Naucrate ductor), cookiecutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis), white suckerfish (Remora albescens), spearfish remora Remora brachyptera, marlin sucker Remora osteochir, and common remora (Remora remora).
Importance to Humans
In the Atlantic, sailfish has little value as a commercial fishery, with the meat being
relatively tough and rarely sold unless smoked. However, the sailfish is highly sought after
by recreational fishermen. Popular fishing locations include Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Windward
Islands, and the Gulf of Mexico. Atlantic sailfish are usually hooked by trolling, with either
whole mullet or ballyhoo as bait.
In the Indo-Pacific, sailfish are taken as bycatch by commercial tuna longliners. They are
also caught with driftnets, harpoons, and by trolling by commercial fishers.
Sailfish catch size limit
in federal waters is a lower jaw fork length (LJFL)
of 63 inches (160 cm)
The National Marine Fisheries Service manages the sailfish under the authority of the
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to insure the long-term
sustainability of fishery stocks. Currently all U.S. flagged commercial vessels are
prohibited from selling, retaining, or purchasing Atlantic billfish including sailfish.
Recreational fishers must obtain a permit from NOAA fisheries for fishing in federal waters
and state regulations may also apply. The minimum size limit for sailfish of 63 inches (160 cm)
lower jaw fork length applies shoreward of the outer boundary of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.