By Ric Burnley
Sickle fins to the right, bills to the left, two fish boil in front of the boat, a white marlin crashes the bait on the right flat line, another plays with the left short. We’re surrounded. Where? Venezuela? Bahamas? St. Thomas? Believe it or not, we’re 50 miles off Virginia Beach.
Over the past five years, white marlin numbers have exploded along the mid-Atlantic. In 2006, anglers registered only 232 whites for trophy citation with the Virginia Salt Water Fishing Tournament. Last year, the number jumped to 1,253.
And it’s no fluke. A perfect storm of favorable environmental conditions and effective management measures has resulted in some of the best white marlin fishing in memory. Comments Virginia Beach native, Capt. Mike Standing , “We haven’t seen white marlin fishing this good in 15 years,” “and we’ve never seen these numbers.”
Standing attributes the good fishing to a variety of causes: an abundance of bait, favorable water temperatures, good weather and even technological advancements. “Can you imagine how many marlin we could have caught in the ’80s if we had modern electronics?” he asks.
In fact, numbers from the VSWFT show that white marlin fishing also peaked in the late ’70s and again in the early ’90s. So, the remaining question is: Have management measures had a positive effect on white marlin numbers?
“Hell, yes,” answers Dr. John Graves, the U.S. chairman of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and a member of the federal highly migratory species advisory panel. “The increase in apparent abundance and the increase in size are consistent with less fishing pressure.”
The No. 1 contributor to the white marlin rebound, according to Graves, is the regulation of the longline fishing industry, a major source of mortality for all billfish species. Closing swordfish nurseries to longliners put many smaller operations out of the industry. In addition, 10 years ago ICCAT adopted a binding measure requiring longliners to release all live billfish. “As expected,” Graves says, “reported landings of white marlin decreased by 67 percent.”
Recreational fishermen are doing their part too. Mandatory circle-hook use in all billfish tournaments made a significant impact on white marlin numbers. Graves explains, “Even outside the tournament scene, many anglers are using circle hooks as they fine-tune their rigging and angling technique.”
Standing agrees, “We’ve switched to circle hooks exclusively, because our hookup ratio is greater.”
According to Graves’ research, 98 percent of white marlin caught with circle hooks survive release, while only 65 percent of whites taken on J-hooks live. To understand the impact, consider that anglers released 4,000 to 8,000 white marlin in the late ’90s before the circle-hook regulations took effect. “Assuming all of those fish were caught on J-hooks,” he says, “35 percent died after being released. While no one can say that these measures are solely responsible for the increase in local abundance, I think there’s an awfully strong case for good management.”
No question conservation has helped, Standing says, “even if the fish do run in cycles.” He hopes that conservation measures continue producing more fish through the tough times. “The lows won’t be as low and the highs will be higher than ever,” he predicts.
But will the boon last? Graves is optimistic: “Hopefully we will keep the same level of protection,” he says, “then the outlook is good for us.”
However, dark clouds hover on the horizon. ICCAT’s measure requiring the release of all live white and blue marlin expires next year. Depending on stock assessments, those regulations might not be renewed. “There has been considerable push-back from the nations with pelagic longline fleets,” Graves says.
One thing remains sure: White marlin fishing has been better than ever for mid-Atlantic anglers. Last summer, Standing and his crew released 250 whites and averaged 10 fish per trip in September. “A lot of those fish were caught fly-fishing too,” he adds.
So, will next year’s fishing improve? “That depends on a lot of things,” Standing says. “We’re just happy we got what we got.”
About the Author: Ric Burnley is a father, teacher, writer, photographer and outdoorsman based in Virginia Beach. For the latest on what’s happening in the mid-Atlantic, check out his website: www.fishcrazy.info.
August 12, 2011
Five Fishery Bright Spots
Five U.S. success stories — fisheries that regained health through conservation