Fishing ban hangs in balance before marlin status ruling

OUTDOORS

Outdoors

August 25, 2002|By CANDUS THOMSON

OCEAN CITY - Take in the White Marlin Open for a week, and it's hard to believe that there may not be enough of the billfish left in the Atlantic to ensure their survival.

During the five days of the tournament, 1,104 white marlin were caught in the deep canyons more than 50 miles offshore. All but 24 of them were released.

Folks dockside used that one-week snapshot of catches as proof that nothing is wrong and that efforts to ban white marlin fishing has something to do with PETA or Greenpeace or some other liberal outfit.

Well, it's time to pay the piper.

Early next week, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to rule on whether the white marlin deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act. If it places marlin on the list, recreational and commercial fishing for the big billfish could end about this time next year.

It's a decision that's being driven by a citizen petition filed last September by an environmental group and a Maryland man, both alarmed by the dwindling white marlin population.

The Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation and biologist James Chambers, who lives in the Washington suburb of Kensington, feel that the folks responsible for protecting white marlin are ignoring the obvious.

In their petition, the foundation and Chambers, former manager of migratory species for NMFS, say they believe the white marlin population has been depleted to 13 percent of its maximum sustainable yield. Any number below 100 percent means the species is over-fished, and a number below 50 percent indicates the overall population is shrinking.

"At this rate of decline, the species will become functionally or ecologically extinct well within the foreseeable future - in less than five years - unless dramatic remedial action is taken both nationally and internationally," Chambers says.

After reviewing the petition for several months, NMFS officials decided that it contained enough "substantial information" to require action. The agency held 11 hearings on the East Coast and Gulf Coast.

NMFS can decide the marlin is threatened or endangered for reasons such as:

Habitat or range is being destroyed or modified;

It is being over-fished;

It is being depleted by disease or predators;

Existing laws are useless.

Many U.S. scientists say there's little reason to doubt Chambers' research. In 1997, the federal government listed white marlin as "over-fished."

But overseas, the commercial fishing industry is rallying around the tired old cry of "bad science." Of course, that's to be expected. Commercial fishermen are responsible for 99.89 percent of the white marlin kills, the vast majority committed by overseas fleets.

Using long lines that stretch as much as 80 miles with 1,000 baited hooks (Chambers' petition calls them "underwater minefields"), the commercial boats catch anything with a mouth large enough to swallow a 2-inch hook.

The quarry is high-price tuna and swordfish. Marlin are the unlucky byproduct.

What's disturbing is that the agency that has responsibility for monitoring and policing the fishing fleets of 31 member countries has done nothing - zippo, zilch, nada. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas has taken no action, even though its own research has reached essentially a similar conclusion.

Why?

Chambers says it better than I can: "It is clear that this is a case of the fox guarding the hen house with predictable disastrous results for the resource. In its 35 years of existence ICCAT has succeeded only in documenting the demise of all those species over which is has claimed conservation and management authority."

Jill Stevenson, the deputy director of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources, says part of the problem is ICCAT's structure.

"It is by consensus only. If one country disagrees, it all goes down the drain," she says. "There's so much work to be done on setting quotas and there's a number of [fishing] crises to be handled and ICCAT only meets once a year."

The one group virtually blameless in this mess is U.S. recreational anglers, whose catch-and-release ethics result in 98 percent of hooked fish being put back into the ocean.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance, a lobbying group based in New Jersey, is in favor of additional protection for white marlin but opposes listing the fish as endangered or threatened.

James Donofrio, the alliance's executive director, says making the white marlin an endangered species would most likely have a chilling effect on fishing for other billfish and tuna because they all live in the same waters.

Make no mistake, saltwater sports fishing is a huge part of the $2.3 billion recreational business along the East Coast. Ocean City touts itself as the "White Marlin Capital of the World." Its marinas are filled with private and charter boats that roar to the fish-filled canyons to chase the billfish, tuna and dolphin.

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