Why don’t you eat sailfish?

Sailfish is a large, fast fish that lives in tropical and subtropical oceans around the world. It is known for its iconic sail-like dorsal fin, which stretches nearly the full length of its body. Despite being a popular game fish, sailfish is not frequently eaten. There are several reasons why sailfish is not a more popular seafood choice.

Quick Answers

– Sailfish meat is often tough and dry

– There are concerns about mercury levels in sailfish

– Sailfish numbers are declining, raising sustainability concerns

– More popular fish like tuna, salmon, and cod are easier to find and prepare

– Sailfish is not caught commercially in large numbers

– There is not a high demand for sailfish meat

Sailfish Meat Quality

One of the main reasons sailfish is not eaten more often comes down to meat quality. The flesh of sailfish tends to be tougher and drier than many other popular fish. This is partly due to the muscular structure and biology of sailfish. Since sailfish are constantly swimming and built for speed, their muscles tend to be less tender. The meat contains more connective tissue and myoglobin proteins which make it tougher when cooked.

Unlike fattier fish like salmon and tuna that have high oil content, sailfish is a lean fish. Without as much fatty tissue to keep the flesh moist during cooking, sailfish dries out easily if overcooked. This leaves many people dissatisfied with the texture and mouthfeel. The lean nature and lack of oil content also impacts the flavor. Most people find sailfish to be relatively bland and fishy tasting compared to buttery alternatives like Chilean sea bass.

While skillful marinating and preparation can help tenderize sailfish meat and add flavor, it takes more time and effort compared to cooking most popular white fish fillets. Many home cooks and restaurants choose not to work with a fish that presents more challenges in terms of producing a tender, flaky, and moist final product. This further limits the demand and availability of sailfish.

Mercury Level Concerns

Another factor that may make people hesitant to eat sailfish is concerns over mercury exposure. As a large, long-lived predatory fish, sailfish tends to accumulate high levels of mercury within its tissues. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends children and pregnant women avoid eating sailfish entirely due to the potential developmental risks from mercury exposure.

The FDA also provides guidelines for how much sailfish adults can safely consume, recommending limiting intake to no more than 3 servings per month. While these guidelines are meant to minimize risk, some consumers choose to avoid sailfish altogether rather than closely regulate their consumption. Even though other popular fish like tuna also have high mercury levels, the exceptionally high concentrations found in sailfish meat turn some people away.

Declining Sailfish Populations

Overfishing and declining populations are another factor that limit sailfish as a consumer choice. Sailfish numbers have dropped significantly over the past few decades. They are now considered endangered in parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Both recreational fishing catch limits and commercial fishing quotas have been reduced in many areas in an effort to allow populations to recover.

This means less sailfish is available to even enter the seafood market in the first place. Those that are caught are often released rather than harvested due to the focus on conservation. Conscientious consumers that want to make sustainable seafood choices often take population status into account. With sailfish considered vulnerable, it does not rank highly as an environmentally friendly dinner option for many people.

Accessibility of Other Fish

The accessibility and affordability of other popular fish also helps explain sailfish’s limited market appeal. Fish like tuna, salmon, cod, and mahi mahi are all easier for restaurants and home cooks to obtain. Not only are these fish caught in larger commercial numbers, they are also farm-raised around the world.

The high volume of these other fish keeps costs down and makes them readily available year-round. In comparison, sailfish needs to be line caught and has a much lower overall supply. Less availability coupled with tricky preparation means sailfuse commands a higher price tag than more approachable choices like tilapia and swai fillets.

For home cooks, it takes more effort to track down fresh sailfish to purchase compared to ubiquitous mainstays like salmon and cod. Even when sailfish can be sourced from specialty markets or as a seasonal offering, the unfamiliarity of how to cook it dissuades many people from trying. In restaurants, sailfish rarely makes an appearance due to its obscurity and the perceptions that other fish provide a better value and experience. The path of least resistance leads most diners to stick to menu options they are familiar with.

Minimal Commercial Fishing

Unlike major commercial targets like albacore tuna and Alaska pollock that are caught by the millions of tons, sailfish has little targeted large-scale fishing. Most sailfish caught are taken incidentally as bycatch during commercial fishing for other species.

The difficulty of catching sailfish in large numbers is another obstacle to making it a viable food option. The high speeds sailfish can reach make them difficult to catch in the type of stationary nets and equipment used in big commercial fishing operations. Dynamic and active fishing methods like trolling with baited lines are much more effective at hooking sailfish. But these techniques do not allow for efficient mass harvesting.

With little profitable incentive and the inherent challenges of catching sailfish in bulk, commercial fishing fleets direct their efforts toward more abundant targets. This contributes to the very limited availability of sailfish as a consumer product. The recreational fishing sector takes most of the sailfish catch, where the priority is sport rather than supplying food markets.

Low Consumer Demand

At the end of the day, there is minimal public demand and market for sailfish meat. In countries where sailfish is traditionally eaten, it comprises a small niche of overall seafood consumption. And in places where sailfish is rarely eaten, there is little desire to expand seafood preferences to include this obscure option.

Without existing consumer demand and familiarity, the commercial fishing and retail industries have no reason to direct efforts toward making sailfish more available. It comes down to simple economics – supply responds to demand, not the other way around. When the majority of consumers are content with the array of more popular and economical fish choices, sailfish continues to dwell in obscurity outside of sport fishing circles.

Changing perceptions and increasing demand for sailfish would require considerable public education. Given sailfish’s drawbacks like mediocre meat and high mercury levels, it is unlikely a major market for sailfish will ever develop. Unless some major advantages of sailfish meat are discovered and promoted, consumer disinterest will persist.

How Sailfish are Caught

While commercial sailfish fishing is minimal, sailfish are primarily caught in several ways:


In this method, long fishing lines with hundreds or thousands of baited hooks are deployed off boats or left unattended. Sailfish going after the bait occasionally get hooked and reeled in as incidental bycatch when longlines are retrieved.


Boats drag lines with hooked baits behind them to attract and catch sailfish. This is an active method often used in recreational sailfishing tournaments. Multiple lines may be trolled to improve chances.

Pole and Line

Also called baitboat fishing, this method uses live bait fish to attract sailfish while fishing from a vessel. When sailfish approach the bait, they are caught on hook and line that fishermen actively manage.

Fishing Method Commercial Use Recreational Use
Longlining Yes No
Trolling No Yes
Pole and Line Yes Yes

Rod and Reel

The traditional rod and reel method is mostly used in recreational sailfishing where fish are caught one at a time. This highly selective approach causes little harm to other marine life. Deep sea charter boats often use rod and reel to attract customers seeking a sailfish trophy.


Historically, harpooning was a common method of catching sailfish before modern fishing gear dominated. Today it continues on a small scale in some tropical regions. Skilled fishermen harpoon sailfish individually when they near the boat by spear or modified poleaxe.

Sailfish Characteristics

Understanding what makes sailfish different from other fish also provides context on why it is not more popular to eat. Some key characteristics include:


Sailfish average 4 to 5 feet long and around 50 to 100 pounds fully grown. The largest specimens can reach up to 10 feet long and 220 pounds. They grow quickly, able to reach 6 feet within a year.


Distinguished by their sail-like dorsal fin, sailfish have an elongated bill and streamlined silver or bluish body ideal for speedy swimming. Their fins are bayonet-shaped and may ripple with iridescent colors.


Found in tropical and subtropical oceans, sailfish inhabit waters around the Americas, Africa, Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia. The Atlantic and Pacific populations are distinct. Within their range they may migrate long distances seasonally.


Sailfish spend most of their time in surface waters and feed on schooling fish like sardines, anchovies, and squid. They are the fastest swimmers in the ocean, hitting speeds over 65 mph when hunting prey.


Spawning takes place during spring and summer in warm ocean gyres. Females can produce up to 10 million eggs which hatch into larvae that become free-swimming young sailfish within a week.

Regulations on Sailfish Fishing

Sailfish fishing is managed under various international conventions and national laws that have established protections due to concerns over declining populations.

Atlantic Ocean

In the Atlantic, sailfish management falls under the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICCAT sets minimum size limits, vessel permits, and annual catch limits for sailfish and other highly migratory Atlantic species.

Currently there is a 67,525 pound commercial catch limit for Atlantic sailfish applicable to ICCAT member countries. Recreational anglers are limited to 2 sailfish per person per day. Permitted vessels authorized to catch sailfish commercially and recreationally are also capped under a quota system.

Indian Ocean

No current catch limits are in place for Indian Ocean sailfish. However, the Indo-Pacific Billfish Commission recommends only catching sailfish over 110 cm, banning longlining, and promoting tag and release of recreationally caught sailfish.

Pacific Ocean

The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), responsible for Pacific sailfish management, has put limits on commercial fishing. For 2022, the total Pacific sailfish catch quota is 240 metric tons. Sailfish under 83 cm must be released.

Atlantic Coast of Africa

On the Atlantic coast of Africa where sailfish are heavily targeted, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Marine Living Resources (ICCAT) imposed a provisional limit of 8,000 sailfish that can be caught annually.

Sailfish Population Status

Despite some regulations, most sailfish populations are still considered vulnerable or endangered.

Atlantic Ocean

The Atlantic sailfish population is estimated to be at only 25% of historic levels. Overfishing coupled with accidental mortality from bycatch has contributed to the decline. Atlantic sailfish are now designated as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Indian Ocean

Sailfish numbers are more robust in the Indian Ocean but most stocks are fully fished or overfished. Further population declines are forecasted if current catch rates persist.

Pacific Ocean

The eastern Pacific sailfish population remains healthier than the western stock, but overall numbers have dropped around 30% since the 1990s. Less fishing pressure in the eastern Pacific gives the population more resilience.

Gulf of Mexico

The small concentration of sailfish in the Gulf of Mexico suffers from historic overfishing and substantial bycatch deaths, keeping numbers depressed.

Efforts to Protect Sailfish

Conservation programs are working to stabilize and rebuild struggling sailfish populations before they reach critically endangered levels.

Time-Area Closures

Closing off certain areas to fishing during spawning seasons reduces pressure on sailfish when they gather to breed and are most vulnerable to capture. This allows more fish to complete reproduction.

Reduced Fishing Quotas

Establishing science-based catch limits in commercial, recreational, and subsistence sailfish fisheries curtails overfishing and excessive catch. Quotas enable populations to rebound.

Gear Restrictions

Banning certain gear types known to accidentally kill sailfish like drift gillnets reduces detrimental bycatch that threatens the species. Regulating allowable fishing gear discourages indiscriminate harvest.

Released Alive Bonus

Rewarding recreational sailfish anglers with extra catch opportunities when fish are kept in the water and released alive after capture incentivizes a conservation ethic.

Data Collection

Improving data gathering on sailfish catch numbers, locations, and life history through observer programs and angler reports helps managers set policies based on accurate population assessments.

Eating Sailfish

For those unfazed by the drawbacks of sailfish as table fare, some preparations and cooking methods can yield better results:


“Bled” sailfish refers to fish that have had their blood drained immediately after catching. This prevents blood from seeping into tissues and imparting an unpleasant flavor. Bleeding combined with prompt iced storage optimizes eating quality.


A marinade containing an acidic ingredient like vinegar or citrus juice helps break down tough connective tissue in sailfish to make it more tender. Marinating thin sailfish fillets or steaks for 6-12 hours improves texture.

Moist Heat

Cooking methods like poaching, steaming, or gentle pan sautéing prevent sailfish from drying out too much. Keeping it moist prevents chewiness.


Serving sailfish with sauces adds moisture and allows the flavors of fresh ingredients like tomatoes, olives, pineapple, or citrus to enhance the relatively mild taste of properly handled sailfish.


Sailfish occupies a peculiar place as a legendary game fish yet rarely eaten meal. While sailfish does not stand up to more popular and widely available choices, its unique ecology, conservation concerns, and niche appeal to adventurous seafood eaters make it an intriguing subject. For now sailfish seems fated to remain primarily the stuff of fishing dreams and sea stories rather than dinner plates. But with thoughtful management and improved sustainability, perhaps sailfish will one day join the ranks of fish you are more likely to find on a restaurant menu or market shelf.

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