Billfish Conservation Act Becomes Law

In the 1980s, along with some ocean activist friends, I made the rounds of a number of seafood restaurants in the Boston area. If we found any that served marlin on the menu – even if the fish came from a far-away place – we made a big stink. We demanded to see the manager and not-so-politely informed the restaurateur that marlin along the Eastern seaboard were endangered and that they should stop buying marlin from anywhere and take them off the menu immediately.

Generally, the restaurant manager was apologetic but defended himself by claiming that these were striped marlin from Hawaii – not white or blue marlin being taken from the Atlantic. We continued to insist, because after all, how could you really tell the difference? Besides, it was a matter of good conscience. Why create a taste for this beautiful billfish, where there hadn’t been one before?

Massachusetts did end up outlawing any sale of marlin caught in the Atlantic Ocean, and we considered that a big victory at the time. In 1989, sale of Atlantic-caught billfish was prohibited by the Federal government, and later so was any sale of striped marlin caught off the West Coast. But America remained the largest buyer in the world of foreign-caught billfish – importing a staggering 30,000 Pacific marlin and other billfish every year, along with black market fish taken from the Atlantic. These continued to be sold in mainland restaurants and seafood markets.

And populations of marlin continued to plummet. A global assessment made in 2011 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed white, blue, and striped marlin as threatened species. The only way they could recover, said the IUCN, was to reduce fishing pressure.

The U.S. has finally taken a step to do just that. Remarkably, bipartisan support in both houses of Congress resulted in passage of the Billfish Conservation Act. President Obama signed the Act into law in October, effectively banning the importation of any and all billfish into the continental U.S.

Ken Hinman, whose National Coalition for Marine Conservation had organized a nationwide “Take Marlin off the Menu” campaign, called this “a tremendous victory for these highly migratory species. Marlin, sailfish, and spearfish do not know country boundaries and travel through three of the planet’s oceans. Giving them greater protection in the United States sets the stage for better protection worldwide.”

It took more than twenty years since my friends and I invaded the restaurant scene, but what we helped put in motion finally happened. In Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, the aging fisherman Santiago had said of the huge marlin that he’d battled: “Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother.” Now, thanks to the action taken by our federal government, the noble marlin and its brethren may yet survive the greed of humankind.