Some agencies say blue marlin may be at risk
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
When local fishing boats bring in a Pacific blue marlin, the boat owner's crew and neighbors often eat fish for free.
Cultural anthropologist Craig Severance of the University of Hawai'i-Hilo said sharing the marlin catch is a tradition in the Islands.
"All ethnic groups are involved in this. The weekend-warrior type, if they get a marlin and don't sell it, they may have a deal with a smoker in which they get half the smoked fish back. And that then goes into family relationships," Severance said.
When anglers do sell it, marlin is a versatile, low-cost addition to fishmarket shelves.
"Marlin is a very important fish to the market," said Jim Cook of Pacific Ocean Producers, which sells fishing gear and owns commercial fishing boats. "It is sold as a white fish in the tourist industry. It is a fish that gets dry very fast (when overcooked), but your average 250-pound marlin is not going to get cooked. It's going into poke."
Marlin often sells for half the price of more popular fish like yellowfin and bigeye tuna, mahimahi and ono.
"For low-income people, it may be the cheapest source of protein they can get," Severance said.
But fisheries regulators say they are seeing signs that the Pacific blue marlin population may be at risk.
"The fishing effort is about as much as you want to see on the stock," said Bob Skilman, a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who has worked on attempting to assess the Pacific-wide stocks of the marlin.
Pacific blues are among the most prized sportfish. Males grow to about 300 pounds and females to as much as 1,800 pounds.
They are warm-water fish, migrating in equatorial waters 75 degrees Fahrenheit or above. In summer, they shift north of the equator, and in Hawai'i's winter, they follow the warm waters south. They range from the western to the eastern Pacific, and there is a special habitat for them in the calm, warm waters in the lee of the Big Island, where a sportfishing industry has built up around them.
In the Atlantic, blue marlin populations have been driven far below maximum sustainable yield and there are restrictions on catch and sale.
The Fishery Management Council has asked its staff to prepare recommendations for the management of the Pacific fishery. But anecdotal evidence from Hawai'i fishing buffs indicate that marlin fishing actually seems to be improving.
"I disagree that the stock is down. They're catching a lot of them this year," Buck said.
Marcia Hamilton, an economist with the fishery council, agreed that local results have been good, but said Hawai'i represents only a small part of the Pacific-wide fishing effort.
"Fishermen around here, especially this year, say it's a generally good year for Pacific blue marlin," Hamilton said. But Hawai'i's catch represents just 4 percent to 6 percent of the catch around the Pacific, she said.
The council asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to hold fishing education sessions, aimed at teaching anglers about the marlin stocks and how best to reduce marlin deaths in situations where the fish are caught and then released.
Buck said he fears errant regulation. There is no point in releasing marlin that have been hooked in such a way that they'll die; that's a waste of food for Hawai'i residents, he said. And any attempt to limit marlin catch by changing the kind of gear anglers use is unlikely to succeed, he said.
"Marlin will eat anything if they're hungry, from a damashi (a small hook decorated with flashy bits of plastic) to a 14-inch lure," he said.
Hamilton said certain hook shapes and multiple hook rigs could limit damage to marlin, making them more likely to survive if released. Longline fishing gear, which is not aimed at marlin but does hook them, may catch fewer when it is set deeper or in specific areas, she said.
Some Hawai'i trollers voluntarily release healthy marlin of certain sizes, and some fishing tournaments encourage releasing the catch.
Skilman said the fishing pressure on marlin Pacific-wide seems to be less than it was a decade ago. Mainly that's because most longline fishing gear is being set at lower depths to target bigeye tuna, which are caught in deeper, colder waters than marlin prefer. When more longline gear was set shallower to target yellowfin tuna, more marlin were caught.
"It did appear, about 10 years ago, that they were overfished. Populations now seem to have responded by increasing somewhat," Skilman said.
Another concern is the increasing number of Pacific Island nations with commercial fishing fleets. Although they mostly are fishing in waters that don't produce much marlin catch, that could easily change, he said.
Ultimately, the Hawai'i anglers and scientists agreed that what will protect marlin stocks is international treaties regulating longline boats.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at email@example.com or (808) 245-3074.