Chasing barrels and billfish: meet the scientist on a mission to conserve pelagic fisheries

IMAS scientist Sean Tracey has spent many years catching tuna, swordfish and other large pelagic fish around Australia, but it’s not just the thrill of the chase that drives him. He is dedicated to fisheries research – and especially to understanding and conserving these fascinating, energetic creatures.

Now the Fisheries and Aquaculture Centre Head at IMAS Taroona, Sean has been involved in fisheries and ecosystem research on a state, national and international level for 23 years. But for the past decade he’s been particularly focused on studying large pelagic fish species, like tuna and billfish, and the recreational fisheries that target them.

Sean was recently recognised for his work in this area with the International Game Fish Association’s (IGFA) 2023 Barry M. Fitzpatrick Conservation Award. Established in 1993, the award honours those who have made significant and outstanding contributions to fisheries conservation.

“It’s an honour for the large pelagic research we do at IMAS to be recognised by this IGFA award," Sean said. "It illustrates that IMAS is an international leader in this space through globally-relevant science, which opens up new opportunities to continue our research with scientists and fishers around the world."

Landing the dream job

In 2001, Sean’s passion for the ocean and fishing led him to a career in fisheries and marine ecosystem science at IMAS, where he later specialised in recreational fisheries research.

During a distinguished career, his research – including around 200 publications – has underpinned sustainable marine resource management and addressed ecological challenges in Tasmania, Australia and the world.

“I’ve always had a love for the ocean,” he said. “Growing up down the road from where I work at IMAS Taroona, I had easy access to the Derwent River. I spent many days on, in or under the water as a keen fisher, surfer and diver so I’ve always had this drive and passion to find out more about our oceans and the fish that live in them.

“Alongside recreational fishers, I’ve been involved in satellite tagging projects studying Southern Bluefin Tuna, Broadbill Swordfish, Black Marlin, Blue Marlin, Striped Marlin and Sailfish in Australian waters, which are truly extraordinary animals to work with.

“This has allowed us to tag these species in areas they hadn’t been studied before, giving us new insights into their biology, distribution and migratory paths. It’s allowed us to assess post-release survival and how recreational fishers could reduce unintended mortalities when releasing these fish.

"It’s about peeling back the layers to understand the ways these fish use the ocean, and that’s critical to informing the management of these species, most of which are managed internationally.”

Tuna Chasing

Sean founded the IMAS-led Tuna Champions program in 2018, a world-leading recreational fisheries stewardship initiative focusing on Southern Bluefin Tuna. It uses evidence-based science to educate fishers about caring for their catch to either increase its chance of post-release survival or enhance the meat quality of kept fish.

“I’m quite enthusiastic about education, knowledge sharing and citizen science, which led me to form Tuna Champions,” Sean said. “The program has been instrumental in fostering fisher behavioural change, proving that research-based education is a positive thing for the fish, the fishers and the science community. It’s also served as a blueprint for similar programs and has influenced game fishing tournament rules.”

In 2021, Tuna Champions was extended for three years to also cover Yellowfin, Longtail and other tuna species around Australia. Later this year, Sean and his team will work with recreational fishers to satellite tag Yellowfin Tuna off the southern NSW coast – the southernmost point that Yellowfin have been tagged in Australian waters.

Sean has also worked with researchers in Norway to establish a tuna tagging program and holds a unique record from his time there five years ago.

“At one stage, I’d deployed satellite tags on bluefin tuna at their most northerly point on Earth off Norway, and their most southerly point off Tasmania,” he said.

Billfishing in the Indian Ocean

Sean is currently working with the French research institute IFREMER, international researchers, charter operators and recreational fishers to tag marlin, sailfish and swordfish across the Indian Ocean. Since 2022, he’s tagged over 30 billfish off the coast of Exmouth in Western Australia.

The IFREMER project team have been tagging billfish from different countries bordering the Indian Ocean, with over 100 tags to be deployed. This will form a picture of how these fish utilise the whole ocean and may help find spawning aggregation areas.

“It’s been an unforgettable experience to work with scientists, recreational fishers, conservationists and some of the best angling and charter crews in Exmouth, which is a Mecca for billfish,” Sean said. “Every time we go out, I pinch myself thinking about this job.”

Sean releasing a Black Marlin off the Montebello Islands, WA (IFREMER Indian Ocean billfish tagging project)

Sean releasing Sailfish off Exmouth, WA (IFREMER Indian Ocean billfish tagging project)

More than just fisheries science

While he’s had a profound impact on fisheries science, Sean has also influenced the careers of many researchers – including that of Tuna Champions Project Officer Indy Thompson, who was a fishing-obsessed teenager when Sean inspired her to pursue a career in fisheries science.

“I’m now living that dream and have the pleasure of working with Sean on many world-first projects, from educating fishers through to tracking fish,” Indy said.

"Sean has an unmatched drive in his field to create a better future for large pelagic fish, the fishers that target them and the scientists researching these fisheries.”

Sean said he cherishes studying these fish and his connections with scientists and fishers around the world.

“When tagging 350kg swordfish and dealing with it scientifically, you need the boat driver, the angler and the scientists working in perfect harmony,” he said.

“Coming back from a day’s fishing, everyone's reflecting on what we've achieved with such large fish in such remote and picturesque environments. These are the memories and friendships that I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life.”


  • Top right: Sean with a satellite tag from a Broadbill Swordfish (Photo: The Mercury).
  • Top left: Sean with a tagged Broadbill Swordfish off Tasmania's East Coast.
  • Middle right:  Sean with a  Southern Bluefin Tuna off Tasmania's South Coast.
  • Bottom left: Sean (centre) with Tuna Champions Project Officer India Thompson (left) and Jet Worsteling (son of IFISH host Paul Worsteling) off the coast of Exmouth, WA.

Published 28 June 2023

Authorised by the Executive Director, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies
8 August, 2023