Billfish - Giants Among Fish - by Ann Hayden

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 13            March 30, 2000

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For years, the amazing and diverse ecosystems of Belize have attracted large numbers of tourists in search of exceptional wildlife and adventure. Some are drawn to the jungles and waterfalls of Cayo, while others visit the cayes to dive and snorkel the magnificent coral reef.  Still others are attracted to Belize because of the country's reputation as a sportfishing paradise. Perhaps one of the most popular deep-sea recreational fish species in Belize, as well as along the Atlantic coast of the United States, are the Billfishes. These immense fish (weighing up to 2,000 pounds), include the Blue and White Marlin and are found far beyond the reef. Sadly, yet not altogether surprising given the current state of the environment, most fishermen will tell you that sightings of these fish have greatly diminished over the past few decades.

    Billfish is the general name for these giant fish that have a rounded and elongated upper jaw, similar to a bill that is slightly jagged. This group of fish is characteristically dark on top and light underneath, with rough and pointed scales. The blue marlin is cobalt blue on top and silvery white below, while its close relative the white marlin, is lighter in color, has pectoral fins that are white and rounded, and spots on its dorsal fins. Most blue marlin can weigh up to 2000 pounds, while the white marlin is smaller and rarely exceeds 180 pounds. The largest of Atlantic marlins is over 11 feet in length and exceeds 2000 pounds! It is not surprising either that these gigantic fish are often entered into contests, with almost all trophy winners being female marlins (males rarely exceed 300 pounds).

    Over the past few decades, populations of this fish, particularly along the Atlantic coast of the US, have significantly declined. Some estimate a 60-80% decline worldwide, a reduction that has undoubtedly affected the population of marlin in Belize. One of the greatest threats that marlin face is overfishing, most importantly, of juvenile species, preventing the population of this fish to increase. Furthermore, commercial longlines and gill nets used to catch tuna are notorious for catching "bycatch," or marine animals that are unwanted, and thus discarded. The US Billfish Foundation estimates that over the past 30 years, more than 500,000 marlin were killed annually due to longlining.

    Despite its popularity as a sport fish, as well as its current threatened status, very little is known about the marlin. By examining the stomach contents of this creature, it is known that it feeds on squid and pelagic (deep-water) fish. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that the marlin makes transatlantic migrations, however, spawning patterns are still unknown. In an effort to gain more information on the marlin, over the last few decades the National Marine Fisheries Service has been involved in a tagging program. Information about the age, growth, migration patterns, and distribution of the billfish is transmitted from a tag inserted under the skin of the creature to a satellite. The goal of the tagging program is to provide information useful in the development and maintenance of an international plan to protect the billfish.

    Currently in Belize, research is being conducted in the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve in Southern Belize. Information and knowledge are critical when it comes to conservation. Not only do we need to learn more about these creatures so that recreational fishing can continue to thrive, but also to ensure that a healthy marlin population exists to maintain species diversity of the ocean world.
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