The operational definition for a billfish: A big fish that people love to kill. Search for the word “billfish” on Google, and almost every link that comes up will have to do with tournaments in which people compete over the biggest billfish that they can pull out of the water. Search for the word “billfish” in Google Images, and you’ll find mostly photographs of these fish in the air on the end of a fishing line, jumping and twisting their bodies in a struggle to be set free.
Billfish are some of the biggest fish in the oceans, a group that includes swordfish, sailfish and marlins. They’re a popular sportfishing target, and well-liked seafood even though they’re chock full of mercury.
In fact, billfish are so popular that they’re disappearing. Estimates are that their populations have been reduced by 90 percent over the last 50 years. Even 10 years ago, billfish were labeled as “fully exploited” by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, an organization that provides rather lax regulation of fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean. Billfish conservation efforts, like almost all conservation efforts, were met with delay and interference during the Bush Administration.
When I learned about the endangered status of billfish, I began a search for information about billfish conservation, and came across some difficulty. There are a lot of people who write about billfish conservation, but then go and encourage people to go out and kill the fish themselves. It seems that fishing for marlins is so popular that people find it difficult to suggest that sportfishing these endangered animals might not be a good idea. In one article by an angry sportfisherman, the writer attacks catch-and-release operations for killing too many of the fish through procedures that are too rough, but then defends fishing that’s designed to kill the fish outright.
The Billfish Foundation seems to go with the flow. Instead of fighting sportfishermen, the organization identifies industrial fishing as the real problem and encourages sportfishing plans rather than sportfishing bans. They try to get sportfishermen to look at themselves as conservationists who can support some controls on commercial fishing.
The National Coalition for Marine Conservation, on the other hand, focuses on consumption, encouraging seafood lovers to stop ordering swordfish or billfish, and asking restaurants to stop buying and serving the fish, through its Take Marlin Off the Menu campaign.
The general impression I get about the status of billfish is that while there are signs of big trouble with the big fish, it’s been a struggle just to get adequate information. For many species, information about population health has yet to be assessed, much less acted upon.