Sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus

The Sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus, whose common Spanish name is pez vela, is one of the smaller species in the Billfish or Istiophoridae Family, known collectively as picudos in Mexico. This is the only one species in the genus Istiophorus and it is found in Mexican waters of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, being one of the few Mexican fish found in both oceans. Note: some members of the scientific community believe that the Sailfish found in the Atlantic is a separate species, the Atlantic Sailfish, Istiophorus albicans. The two fish are morphologically the same, although the Pacific species can weigh up to 100 kg (220 pounds) the Atlantic species achieves a maximum of 60 kg (132 pounds) in weight. I have elected to treat them as one and the same species.

The Sailfish have elongated fairly compressed bodies. They have a long slender bill with a rounded cross section and a high sail-like first dorsal fin that is much larger than the body depth. They are dark silver in color with 20 bluish vertical bars on their sides and transition to pale silver ventrally. The membrane in their first dorsal fin is blue-black with numerous dark spots. Their head has a prolonged upper bill, relatively small eyes, and a mouth equipped with small teeth. Their anal fin has two spines and 12 to 25 rays; their first dorsal fin has a long base with 47 to 53 rays; their caudal fin is large and strongly forked; their second dorsal fin is very small and located at the rear; their pectoral fins are long and pointed; and their pelvic fins are very long and almost reach the anal fin. There are two keels on the side of their tail base. Their lateral line is visible and curved over the pectoral fins and straight toward the tail base. Their body is covered with small triangular scales.

The Sailfish are an oceanic and epipelagic species that is highly migratory but usually found in coastal environments above the thermocline at depths up to 130 feet. They are known to form small schools comprised of three to thirty individuals. They prefer water temperatures between 21o and 28oC. They reach a maximum length of 3.48 meters (11 feet 5 inches). The World Record caught in Ecuadorian waters in 1947 is 100.2 kg (220.4 pounds). A Sailfish Weight from Length Conversion Table has been included in this website to allow the accurate determination of fish weight from length so that these fish can be returned to the ocean unharmed (strongly recommended). They feed primarily on fish (halfbeaks, mackerel, and small tuna), crustaceans, and cephalopods and use their bill to spear and stun prey. Reproduction is via pelagic eggs with each female capable of releasing up to 5 million eggs per annum. Juveniles are fast growing and seldom seen by humans. They have a lifespan of thirteen years.

In Mexican waters the Sailfish are widespread and found in all waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific with the exception that they are absent from the northern 20% of the Sea of Cortez.

The Sailfish cannot be confused with any other species due to its enormous dorsal fin.

The Sailfish are caught primarily by short and artisanal fishermen and as a bycatch of longline and purse seines. Annual catch rates are on the order of 2,000 metric tons. Global populations are stable and from a conservation perspective they are considered of “least concern.” The Mexican Government has placed a ban on the catch and sale of Sailfish by commercial fishermen. They are a highly prized targeted big game species, primarily due their phenomenal acrobatic aerial displays, however, due to their poor food value they are of no commercial interest and normally a “catch and release.” They are, however, utilized on a limited basis for sashimi and sushi, broiled and baked, and sold fresh, smoked, and frozen.

Sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus. Fish caught from coastal waters off Point Palmilla, July 2014. Length: 1.85 meters (6 feet 1 inch) – lower bill to fork. Weight: 29 kg (64 pounds).

Sailfish (2)

Sailfish, Istiophorus platypterus. Underwater photos courtesy of Marc Montocchio (, Morehead City , North Carolina.