Revered by Ernest Hemingway and other anglers, Atlantic blue marlin is among the most sought-after fish in the sea.
It’s also traded on the black market at levels that federal investigators can’t define.
“We don’t know how big of a problem it is,” said H. Jeff Radonski, who is in charge of policing commercial and recreational fisheries from Texas to Virginia for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Found off the coasts of North America, South America, Europe and Africa, Atlantic blue marlin can grow to 13 feet and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Its reputation was forged in “The Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a man who struggles to catch one and bring it to shore.
While valued as a sport fish, marlin are sold in sushi restaurants and at roadside stands as barbecue fish-on-a-stick. Intense fishing pressure led regulators to ban the sale of Atlantic marlin in the United States. Other countries, such as Japan and Cuba, do not prohibit the commercial fishery.
The U.S. allows recreational anglers to catch Atlantic marlin and permits the import and sale of marlin from the Pacific and Indian oceans. That enables people to mislabel and sell Atlantic marlin disguised as their Pacific or Indian counterparts, Radonski said.
The crime, which authorities attribute mostly to recreational anglers — they can make thousands of dollars selling their catch to unscrupulous restaurants or smokehouses — is punishable by criminal and civil penalties.
NOAA has investigated possible illegal marlin sales on the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, but the law is difficult to enforce because papers designed to trace where marlin come from are easily forged, Radonski said.
“It’s an enforcement nightmare,” he said. “Those documents can be created anywhere.”
There are dozens of charter boat operations in Virginia Beach that offer deep sea excursions, including marlin fishing. John M.R. Bull, a spokesman with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said there is little, if any, black market marlin sales in Virginia.
The Outer Banks in North Carolina, which juts out into the Atlantic, has long been a haven for marlin fishing. Radonski, who previously worked for NOAA in North Carolina, said the agency routinely receives complaints from the area.
To help NOAA and other law enforcement agencies, researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point last decade devised a genetic test that enables scientists to differentiate between the meat of Atlantic and Pacific marlin.
The institute, part of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, announced earlier this month that it had improved the test. Scientists now have 80 percent chance or better of detecting Atlantic marlin, VIMS professor John E. Graves said. Previously it was 40 percent.
“We now have a very good chance of catching these operations,” he said.
The population of Atlantic blue marlin, listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is not as healthy as other big fish, such as most tuna and swordfish, Graves said. Therefore, he said, it’s important to make use of any available method to protect them.
Radonski said NOAA agents could begin using the new test as early as next year — a tool he hopes to replicate with other fisheries.
“It’s not just the marlin that this happens to,” he said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times