— by Wild Oceans president, Ken Hinman
“Like many Americans, I was first introduced to the blue marlin by Ernest Hemingway in his classic 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which chronicles an existential battle between an old Cuban fisherman and a great fish longer than his boat.
“Reading the story then, I could only imagine how much that fish weighed, but today I know the real-world record for a blue marlin caught on rod-and-reel is an astounding 1,500 pounds. And they get a lot bigger than that. The blue marlin is, by any measure, a magnificent fish; an unparalleled combination of size and speed that, coupled with a powerful sword-like bill, make it one of the ocean’s top predators.”
Blue marlin and other billfish, a family that includes four species of marlin as well as the smaller sailfish and spearfish, are magnificent creatures with few natural predators. But they are also among the most threatened fish in the sea, because man, after all, is the most dangerous predator of all, limited only by the limits we set for ourselves. Here in the United States, where fishermen revere and protect billfish, we’ve set limits. On the high seas, however, commercial overfishing by foreign fleets has reduced billfish populations to a mere fraction of what they were just decades ago.
According to a recent global assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), three species of billfish are in serious trouble. The IUCN, which maintains the well-respected Red List of Threatened Species, classified blue marlin and white marlin as “vulnerable” to extinction, while striped marlin was assessed as “near threatened.” The key to recovery of billfish is to reduce commercial fishing pressure.
In 2008, Wild Oceans (formerly the National Coalition for Marine Conservation or NCMC) started the Take Marlin Off the Menu campaign with the International Game Fish Association to educate consumers and seafood retailers to avoid marlin products, for conservation and health reasons, convince lawmakers to remove billfish from commercial markets in the United States, all while promoting conservation of billfish at international fishery management bodies.
We achieved a major victory in 2012 with passage of The Billfish Conservation Act, which now prohibits the sale of all species of billfish (swordfish are not included) in the U.S., with an exception for traditional fisheries within Hawaii and the Pacific islands. The law ends U.S. importation of foreign-caught billfish, an estimated 30,000 Pacific marlin and other billfish each year.
Throughout history, animals once offered for sale are no longer. Societies determine that certain species need to be protected from the demands of commerce. The reasons may be social, economic, ecological or all three. Today, we’ve reached that point in history with billfish.
“It’s a natural progression,” says Wild Oceans’ Hinman. “Hemingway hunted big marlin and hung them on the dock. Today, the billfish anglers I know don’t ‘catch’ the fish at all, but let them go alive, modifying their gear to make sure every released fish survives. Some say the tipping point occurred in 1958, off Cape Hatteras, when my late friend Jack Cleveland caught a blue marlin he guessed weighed somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds. When he shocked everyone by letting it go, it was the talk of the docks up and down the coast, the first known voluntary release of a big blue. Fifty years later, it’s the angler who lands a billfish who’s got some explaining to do.”
Santiago, the aging fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, pays homage to his mortal adversary. “…Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother.”