Dutch fishermen using tridents in the 17th centurySpearfishing is a form of fishing that has been popular throughout the world for centuries. Early civilizations are familiar with the custom of spearing fish out of rivers and streams using sharpened sticks as a means of catching food. Spearfishing today employs more modern and effective elastic- or pneumatic-powered spearguns and slings to strike the hunted fish.
Spearfishing may be done using free-diving or SCUBA techniques. However, spearfishing while using SCUBA or other artificial breathing apparatus is frowned up on some locations and is illegal in many others. Because of the lack of sport in some modern spearfishing techniques, the use of mechanically-powered spearguns is outlawed in some jurisdictions.
Spearfishing in the past has been detrimental to the environment when species unafraid or unused to divers were targeted excessively. However, it is also highly selective and has no by-catch; therefore with education and proper regulations spearfishing can be the most ecologically sustainable form of fishing.
The very best free-diving spearfishers can hold their breath for durations of 2-4 minutes and dive to depths of 40 or even 60 meters (about 130 to 200 feet). However, dives of approximately 1 minute and 15 or 20 meters (about 50 to 70 feet) are more common for the average experienced spearfisher.
During the 1960s, a campaign was led by Ralph Davies to have spearfishing recognized as an Olympic sport. This never came to be. There is a long list of World Records for the largest catch by species carrying on to the current day. Two organisations, the International Underwater Spearfishing Association (IUSA)  and the International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee IBSRC , offer a complete set of rules to insure that any world record setting fish is caught under fair conditions. Spearfishing is illegal in many bodies of water, and some locations only allow spearfishing during certain seasons.
Modern-type sport spearfishing started on the French Riviera in the 1930's. At first, divers used no more aid than ordinary watertight swimming goggles, but it led to development of the modern scuba diver's mask and fins and snorkel. Some Italian sport spearfishers started using oxygen rebreathers, and from that came the Italian commando frogmen.
In tropical seas, some natives spearfish in snorkelling kit for a living, often using home-made kit.
Spearguns have been described in at least one kit catalog intended to be read by armed forces diving organizations rather than by sport divers. That arouses a suspicion that there have been cases of spearguns being used as armed forces weapons.
Types of Free-dive Spearfishing
The methods and locations freedive spearfishers use vary greatly around the world. This variation extends to the species of fish sought and the gear used.
Shore diving is perhaps the most common form of spearfishing and simply involves entering and exiting the sea from a beaches or headlands and hunting around ocean architecture, usually reef, but also rocks, kelp or sand. Usually shore divers hunt between 5 and 25 meters (about 17 to 83 feet) depth, though it depends on location. In some locations in the South Pacific, divers can experience huge drop-offs from 5 meters to up 30 or 40 meters very close to the shore line. Sharks and reef fish can be abundant in these locations. In more subtropical areas, sharks may be less common, but other challenges face the shore diver, such entering and exiting the water in the presence of big waves. Headlands are favored for entry because of their proximity to deeper water, but timing an entries and exits is important so the diver does not get pushed onto rocks by waves. Beach entry can be safer, but more difficult due the need to consistently dive through the waves until the surf line is crossed.
Shore dives can produce a mixed bag of fish, mainly reef fish, but ocean going pelagic fish are caught from shore dives too, and can be specifically targeted.
Shore diving can be done with trigger-less spears such as pole spears or Hawaiian slings, but more commonly triggered devices such as spearguns. Speargun setups to catch and store fish include speed rigs, fish stringers, or reels.
The use of catch bags worn close to the body is discouraged for two reasons. Firstly, the bloodied fish can bring sharks in close to the diver, and secondly because the bag can inhibit movement, especially descent or ascent on deeper freedives.
Boats, ships or even kayaks can be used to access off shore reefs or ocean structure such as pinnacles. Man made structures such as oil rigs and FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) are also fished. Sometimes a boat is necessary to access a location that is close to shore, but inaccessible by land.
Methods and gear used for diving from a boat diving are similar to shore diving or blue water hunting depending on the prey sought. Care must be taken with spearguns in the cramped confines of a small boat, and it is recommended that spear guns are never loaded on the boat.
Boat diving is practiced worldwide. Hot spots include the northern islands of New Zealand (yellow tail kingfish), Gulf of Florida oil rigs (cobia, grouper) and the Great Barrier Reef (wahoo, dog-tooth tuna). FADS are targeted worldwide, often specifically for mahi-mahi (dolphin fish).
Blue Water Hunting
Blue water hunting is the area of most interest to elite spearfishers, but has increased in popularity generally in recent years. It involves accessing usually very deep and clear water and trolling, chumming for large pelagic fish species such as marlin, tuna, or giant trevally. Blue water hunting is often conducted in drifts; the boat driver will drop one or more divers and allow them to drift in the current for up several kilometers before collecting them. Blue water hunters can go for hours without seeing any fish, and without any ocean structure or a visible bottom the divers can experience sensory deprivation. It can be difficult to determine the true size of a solitary fish when sighted due to the lack of ocean structure for comparison. One technique to overcome this is to note the size of the fish's eye in relation to its body - large examples of their species will have a relatively smaller eye.
Notably, blue water hunters make use of breakaway rigs and large multi band wooden guns to catch and subdue their prey. If the prey is large and still has fight left after being subdued, a second gun can be used to provide a kill shot at a safe distance from the fish. This is acceptable to IBSRC and IUSA regulations as long as the spearfisher loads it himself in the water.
Blue water hunting is conducted world wide, but notable hot spots include South Africa (yellow fin tuna) and the South Pacific (dog-tooth tuna).
Len Jones' Guide to Freedive Spearfishing by Len Jones.
Bluewater Hunting & Freediving by Terry Maas. ISBN 0-9644966-3-1