The Eye of a Marlin

by Dick Russell & Jessie Benton
Featured in our Spring 2006 catalog

"Today, the United Nations reports that 75 percent of the world's fish populations are being overfished."

Back in the '80s, when we were young and passionately fishing the "blue waters" of the Atlantic off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, there were fish to be had.

Huge schools of bluefin, yellowfin and albacore tuna roamed the deep. So did dorado, an occasional wahoo, the lonely marlin – whites and big blues – and, for those inclined, a variety of sharks including the good one to eat, the mako.

Even then we would sometimes see purse seiners net an entire school of tuna from under our noses. Hundreds of fish would be swept away, along with any porpoises who happened to be running with them. You could hear the porpoises crying. It broke our hearts.

Still, we would usually manage to find and boat other fish. Mine was a large family, and it was cost-effective for us to catch and eat, even though the gas bills were high. Our old boat would usually be the last to reach the fishing grounds, but often we would find fish that others in their haste had run right past. We would leave before dawn in order to be out there for the morning feed. It was exciting and a family affair. Our two oldest sons were the crew, and on each trip we took one or two of the younger children. They all learned the art of fishing, and spotting, and cutting baits, and the sheer power and life a fish has at the other end of a line. It takes considerable perseverance and discipline, a unified crew and captain to catch a big fish; it had always been such an inspirational moment in our lives. We were never embarrassed to cry when we finally got a big fish in.

The "buy boats" were always out there, like enormous vultures. Often there were process boats as well, where tuna would be bought, paid for – $20,000 and more for a perfect giant bluefin – filleted, and flown straight to Japan the same day. Longliners, purse seiners and sport boats were all vying for the same resource. On the surface our own days on the water still seemed beautiful and exciting, but we could not escape an increasing pressure – that somehow we were contributing to the loss of these colorful, powerful and great-hearted creatures.

As time went on, the huge schools of tuna disappeared and even to see a marlin was cause for celebration. Journeying across endless expanses of water and not finding any life was disheartening and, knowing the situation, more and more frightening.

I remember a gorgeous blue day – glassy water, silver tide lines meandering, full of flying fish. We'd managed to beat the odds and had a good catch. We were happily heading for home, toasting ourselves with a fine Sauvignon Blanc, when we spotted the marlin from the bridge. She was gliding along the edge of the tide line, her back fin cutting a slice through the still water, a lovely small white marlin.

We stopped the engines and drifted down on top of her and presented a live bait. She turned right on it and lit up into glorious rainbow colors reflecting in the late afternoon sun. And after a beautiful, jumping fight, we pulled her in exhausted. She was gut-hooked and we felt we couldn't release her, so we hauled her up on the ginpole and bled her out. There was such a poignancy, watching the life leave her and her beautiful colors turn to slate blue. White marlin is a delicious fish and we would be eating from her for days to come. We would even tan the skin and use it for decorating small things.

As we were coming into view of land, our son, who was watching off the stern of the boat, kept seeing another marlin jumping. It seemed to be following us. With a good 10 miles more to go, which would take some time in our slow-moving boat, we cut to half-speed. Sure enough, the fish was coming closer as we approached the island. At one point, it leapt not far off the side of the boat and was definitely looking at the marlin we'd tied up to the ginpole in plain view.

I swear I could see anger in its eye. Suddenly, it dawned on us that we had probably caught his mate. We watched him jump, again and again, as he pursued us into the nearshore waters that marlin rarely enter. As the sun was turning red and sinking into the sea, he made his final desperate leap and then turned to the east and back out to sea. None of us could speak. No longer could we participate in the destruction. That day marked the end of our offshore fishing.

* * *

Not so long ago, the ocean's bounty of seafood was believed limitless. Today, the United Nations reports that 75 percent of the world's fish populations are being overfished. Over 3.5 million fishing vessels scour our oceans, utilizing high-tech gear. "Factory" trawlers ensnare 120,000 pounds of fish in a single scoop of the net. Their impact on the seafloor is like fishing with a bulldozer that tears through fragile coral reefs.

Vessels that set 100,000 miles of longlines – holding nearly 5 million hooks – kill over 90 percent of the billfish. Marlin are considered "bycatch" and thrown back dead into the ocean. Both white and blue marlin will soon be on the endangered species list. The majestic bluefin tuna is on the verge of extinction in the western Atlantic, the victim of seines, harpoons and traps. An estimated thousand dolphins and porpoises a day drown in tuna nets.

In the '80s, the federal government considered sharks an "underutilized species" and encouraged their commercial fishing. Today, scientists are concerned that their sharp decline will severely impact the entire undersea food chain. The horrible practice of removing the fins for shark-fin soup is still rampant.

Nor can the once-abundant North Atlantic cod recover from overfishing. Pacific red snapper and grouper are equally imperiled. When one species is depleted, commercial fishermen move on to another.

The Atlantic striped bass have returned dramatically – but only after a five-year moratorium on keeping any. There have been other positive steps: the Monterey Bay Aquarium has published more than 4 million "Seafood Watch" guides, letting consumers know which species are at greatest risk. A new labeling law requires supermarkets nationwide to identify which country their fish comes from. The question is, can truly global cooperation come in time to make a difference?

* * *

Loading the kids in a big camper, we first came to the pristine beaches of Baja California, Mexico, almost 18 years ago. The shore fishing still seemed terrific to us, though the old-timers would say, "You couldn't sleep at night, there used to be so many fish jumping."

After a few years, we bought some property and built a house on the beach. One of our dogs would run down to the shoreline every morning to eat the sardines that the jack fish drove up. In those days a plethora of baitfish remained, sustaining the reddish-gold dog snapper, a dramatic fish to pluck out of the surf at sunset; cabrilla, pargo, occasionally even yellowfin tuna from shore.

But since the millennium dawned, here on the edge of the Sea of Cortes it has been a different story. There is no bait most of the winter. Three years ago, we watched most of our pelicans die of starvation. They always had a mate, or a friend, to watch over them and keep the buzzards away so they could die with some kind of dignity. The huge schools of mantas have dwindled to but a few. A pair of enforcement officials patrol almost 300 miles of coastline, an impossible task. Only 5 to 10 percent of the original large fish remains, fished out by longlines and floating gill nets.

We have watched two oceans dying over the past 15 years. Here, it went very fast. In my heart of hearts, I pray for the return of life, that oceans will teem with fish and whales, and that somehow we can all live in some kind of harmony. But I wonder what it will take.

About the Author

Striper Wars: An American Fish Story is the latest of four critically acclaimed books by Dick Russell (dickrussell.org). His Eye of the Whale was named a Best Book of 2001 by three major newspapers. Jessie Benton is a sportswoman, traveler, artist and writer who lives on Martha's Vineyard and atop a volcano in Mexico.