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Why Take Marlin Off the Menu

 

 
Marlin, sailfish and spearfish are some of the ocean’s most magnificent fish, swimming free in the deep waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. They’re distinguished by a long bill, an extension of the upper jaw and nasal bone; brilliant colors when “lit up;” and sleek body shapes that allow them to swim at extraordinary speeds and cover great distances across the Earth’s oceans. Like lions, tigers, wolves and eagles, marlin are an important, top-of-the-foodchain predator species that keep ecosystems in balance.
 
Here are three reasons why you should stop eating marlin and other billfish:
 
1. Marlin populations throughout the world are being wiped out by commercial overfishing. Most marlin mortality is a result of incidental bycatch, in which marlin are caught by commercial fishermen targeting tuna, swordfish,  and other types of fish. With millions of hooks and many miles of nets in the water, marlin and other billfish don’t stand a chance.
 
2. Marlin and other billfish populations are not sustainable based on current demand. Their decline is being fueled by the demand for marlin meat among consumers, which corresponds with the overall growing demand for seafood both in the United States as well as throughout the world. Unlike catfish and tilapia and other “farm-raised” seafood, marlin can’t be farm-raised, and therefore can’t keep up with the demand. Besides, farming top ocean predators actually results in a net loss of available seafood because the diets required to rear carnivorous fish are comprised mostly of wild-caught fish. It would be analogous to raising lions or tigers in pens for human consumption.
 
3. Marlin may be harmful to eat. Marlin and billfish often contain unhealthy levels of mercury and other toxins that may be harmful to humans who regularly eat marlin, billfish and other large fish predators.
 

How critical is the situation? According to two prominent organizations, the International Game Fish Association and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, if we don’t stop the widespread harvest and consumption of marlin and other billfish, we may risk losing them from the world’s oceans.

According to one study, the numbers of large ocean predators have declined by 90 percent in the last 50 years. Nearly all species of billfish are overfished, some severely (white marlin and blue marlin in the Atlantic; striped marlin in the Pacific) or their status is unknown.

  
Learn more about the status of billfish populations.

 
Under-reporting Billfish Catches
 
Most billfish harvest is driven by industrial longline and purse-seine fisheries for tuna. Because billfish in reality are mainly a “bycatch species” (caught accidentally in fisheries for other species) getting reliable catch data can be difficult. Commercial catch data are compiled by the various Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs). However, catch data are plagued by chronic under-reporting, and fish that are discarded at sea, alive or dead, also are often not reported. Many billfish are recorded only if they are landed.
 
International billfish landings (catches) are compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The following represents catches of the top five species in metric tons (mt) reported by FAO in 2004. Billfish “Not Elsewhere Included” (NEI) represent catches that are not classified to a particular species. The exceptionally high volume of NEI is particularly troubling because these data cannot be used in stock assessments to determine the relative health of individual billfish stocks.
  • Blue marlin: 26,765 metric tons
  • Indo-Pacific sailfish: 25,722 mt
  • Billfish not elsewhere included (NEI): 23,658 mt
  • Striped marlin: 7,380 mt
  • Black marlin: 3,755 mt
Overall, many more billfish are harvested in the Pacific (83,677 mt in 2004) than in the Atlantic (6,753 mt). Most billfish bycatch in the Atlantic is from high seas longlining. With more than 100 million hooks annually, Japan is the biggest player, harvesting 10 percent of all white and 35 percent of all blue marlin. In the Pacific, longlines take 48 percent of billfish landings and purse seines 38 percent. However, both Pacific and Atlantic landings data are intentionally manipulated to avoid regulations, which results in high levels of unclassified (NEI) catch and underestimates of true billfish harvest.  
 
U.S. is Largest Importer of Billfish
 
If obtaining reliable catch data isn’t difficult enough, quality trade data also are sorely lacking. FAO trade data are typically thought to be the most complete at the international level, but it likely underestimates trade due to product mislabeling and underreporting. Still, FAO data provide the best available mechanism for looking at international trends in billfish trade. The following were the top five exporters of billfish based on the average annual quantity of exported billfish between 2001 and 2005.
  • Taiwan Province of China: 8,169 metric tons/year
  • South Africa: 407 mt/year
  • Maldives: 176 mt/year
  • Costa Rica: 213 mt/year
  • El Salvador: 25 mt/year
The top five importers of billfish over the same time period were:
  • United States: 166 metric tons/year
  • Sri Lanka: 95 mt/year
  • Japan: 40 mt/year
  • Singapore: 36 mt/year
  • France: 32 mt/year
FDA data indicates that U.S. billfish imports may actually be 7 to 8 times higher. In addition to the FAO data, United States Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) customs clearance slips can provide a better idea of how much billfish the U.S. is importing. According to FDA data, between 2003 and 2006 the U.S. imported approximately 1,260 mt of billfish annually. This figure is substantially higher than that reported by FAO and underscores the underreporting that plagues international trade data. 
 
FDA data identified the following five leading exporters to the U.S.:
  • Costa Rica: 342 metric tons/year
  • Ecuador: 245 mt/year
  • Vietnam: 221 mt/year
  • Republic of South Korea: 132 mt/year
  • Philippines: 121 mt/year
It is worth highlighting that FAO data reports that Costa Rica has a total export of 213 mt, while FDA data reports that Costa Rica exports 342 mt annually to the U.S. alone. This again demonstrates the underreporting inherent in the FAO data and the need for better international trade data. 
 
In the United States it is currently illegal to commercially harvest marlin, sailfish and spearfish and importation of Atlantic billfish harvested by other countries is prohibited. Any billfish product that is imported to the United States must have a Certification of Eligibility (COE) that attests that it was harvested from the Pacific. The problem is that there is no requirement for this form to be submitted to any governmental agency, or for it to be retained by dealers. Thus, there is no mechanism for tracking billfish from the country of origin to the consumer’s plate. Moreover, it has long been thought that the laxness of the COE process facilitates a black market for Atlantic billfish. An investigation of FDA data has confirmed this as there are records of billfish entering the U.S. from countries that have no Pacific coastline. While it is extremely unlikely that these were transshipments of billfish that were caught in the Pacific, there is no way to know for sure. 
 
Economic Impact
 
                        © Bill Boyce
One would think that the United States’ position as the world’s largest importer of billfish would signify that billfish harvest and trade is a lucrative business. Economic impact analyses were performed on the U.S. billfish trade to determine what the total impact was and its relation to the rest of the US commercial fishing industry. In the U.S., there are two distinct segments of billfish product flow: domestic harvest and consumption in Hawaii, and imported billfish product consumption in the continental U.S.  
 
The results of the analysis indicated that Hawaiian billfish harvest and consumption alone is responsible for 346 jobs, $12.5 million in direct income and $24.9 million in total output. Put in perspective, the Hawaiian billfish trade is only 0.03% of the average income of $32.9 billion for all commercial fishing in the U.S. In the mainland U.S., secondary wholesaling of billfish imports was responsible for 328 jobs, $11 million in income and $18.5 million in total output. Taken collectively, the entire U.S. billfish trade (Hawaiian and mainland) represents only 0.07% of the total income of all commercial fishing in the US. Put another way, billfish harvest and trade is not a prominent economic component of the US commercial fishing industry. 
 
Hopefully the information you just read has got you thinking. First, worldwide, billfish stocks aren’t in great shape. In addition, the economic value of the U.S. billfish trade is, for lack of a better word, “peanuts,” in relation to the rest of the U.S. commercial fishing industry. 
 
Harmful to Your Health
 
Most people also are unaware that marlin have been documented to accumulate harmful levels of mercury. The United States Environmental Protection Agency health guidelines for fish consumption indicate that any fish with a mercury level greater than 1.5 parts per million (ppm) should not be consumed in any amount.   Marlin, especially large specimens, have been found to have mercury levels as high as 15 ppm, and a recent study reported an average mercury level of 4.08 ppm for blue marlin sampled in Australian waters.
 
Eating Marlin Doesn’t Make Sense
 
So, based on what we now know, what can we say about the U.S. billfish market? How about: “Stocks are in bad shape and it does little for the economy, but at least eating them is bad for you!” It just doesn’t make sense, does it?
 
 
Read the Executive Summary of "Economic Analysis of International Billfish Markets" for more detail on billfish harvest, imports, shipments and economics.  PDF, 8 pages, 539 KB.
 
 
 
National Coalition for Marine ConservationInternational Game Fish Association