Sports fishermen better known for battling marlin with rod and reel now are defending their beloved game fish by launching a high-profile campaign to convince diners not to order marlin at restaurants, under the slogan: "No Marlin on the Menu!''
With stocks of the spike-nosed marlin becoming smaller and harder to find even in the Pacific, many anglers have turned to keeping only one fish per day, per boat, to preserve the population and are now focusing on commercial fishing of the species.
"We have decided to take it to the next level, an aggressive, proactive stance where we will have a lot of media brought to the attention of the status of the species, and then start with mailings and advertisements,'' said Ellen Peel, president of the Billfish Foundation, a Miami-based anglers group.
Previously confined to pressing individual restaurants to take the fish off the menu, Peel expects the broader public campaign to get in gear by summer.
But it is already being taken up by fishermen in Cabo San Lucas, considered by many the marlin capital of the world, after sportsmen here waged a bruising battle to limit commercial shark-fishing boats that scoop up marlin, Dorado, swordfish and sailfish, all of which are reserved by law in Mexico for anglers within 50 miles of shore.
They say the biggest threat to the marlins' home turf — the wild blue waters off the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula — are commercial boats that say they're going after low-value, increasingly rare shark, but actually scoop up marlin and other game fish as so-called accidental "bycatch.''
"We all know there are hardly any sharks left in this area, so they're going to come in with shark permits and the incidental (bycatch) becomes their objective,'' said sports fishing boat operator Tracy Ehrenberg.
New rules and incentives
The Mexican government recently proposed new regulations that would forbid shark boats from using drift gill nets and regulate the use of long lines of baited hooks and other predatory sharking practices. The rules were praised by environmentalists, but they included no limits on bycatch.
Sportsmen realized that in order to limit "accidental'' catches of game fish, they had to eliminate the incentive to catch them, by making the fish unsellable.
"The sports fishing community is heading up the non-commercialization of marlin. If they can't commercialize it, nobody's going to buy and nobody's going to sell it,'' said Minerva Saenz, president of the Cabo San Lucas union of sports fishing boats.
Commercial fishing groups did not respond to requests for comment. But Raul Villasenor, a director of the national fisheries commission, said that between 2005 and 2006 two commercial boats had been found carrying high percentages of game fish.
He said an estimated 1,200 kilograms of game fish were found on one of the boats, "but if you look at that amount in terms of the volume (of fishing), it may be irrelevant.''
Pacific marlin ban sought
Besides pressing local restaurants not to serve Pacific marlin and diners not to order the dish, the activists also are seeking a ban on the sale of Pacific marlin, similar to one in place for years in the United States for Atlantic marlin.
The Baja California state government already has endorsed such a ban, and some restaurant owners are in agreement. Mauricio Sevilla, who runs Cabo San Lucas' iconic The Giggling Marlin Bar & Grille, said he never has sold marlin, and never would.
"Here, people leave marlin for the sports fishermen, because they're the town's attraction,'' Sevilla said.
To save game fish, Baja California Sen. Luis Coppola has proposed a ban on all fishing for sharks, whose populations are in steep decline and which don't yield much money anyway.
'Big giants are gone'
While data shows that Atlantic Marlin are seriously overfished — white marlin are at about 13 percent of population levels considered healthy — much less is known about Pacific Marlin, in part because its range is so big, including much of the Pacific.
But fishermen say they are becoming scarcer. "We have to go further and further to catch marlin, and the sizes are smaller,'' Ehrenberg said.
When New Zealander Martin Hutt began fishing off Cabo San Lucas 16 years ago, a 10- or 15-mile fishing trip would net him marlin and tuna, but now he has to go much farther out.
"We've been sliding. My fishing distance today is an average of 60 to 70 miles,'' Hutt said. "The big giants are gone.''