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Anglers' high marlin catch in Cabo San Lucas raises concerns

December 31, 2008 |  1:34 pm

Deckhand Hernando Gonzalez works to free a marlin hooked aboard the yacht Ni Modo off Cabo San Lucas.

Outposts has been touching on the phenomenal marlin bite at the Golden Gate Bank north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific side of the Baja California peninsula.

Just how good has the bite been?

Tracy Ehrenberg of Pisces Sportfishing boasts of the capture of more than 7,000 striped marlin this season, and of a 98.6% release rate. This is just from her fleet, so the overall tally must be incredible.

"After talking to captains with more than two decades' experience, they agreed that they have never seen fishing so good so long in one location," Ehrenberg reports.

Perhaps. But there's a troubling trend off Land's End. Crews aboard the top boats have been aggressively trying to out-perform one another, catching and releasing marlin as fast as they can, striving to make theirs the high boat for a given day.

Captains too. The more marlin flags they fly, the bigger their reputations become.

One-day, single-vessel counts have been as high as 30. When the marlin are bunched up that tightly they simply become too vulnerable.

Undoubtedly, many stripers die after being released. Certainly, most of those that are gut-hooked perish. If you've caught lots of marlin, you've seen at least a few disgorge their entire stomachs during the battle.

Out of curiosity, I asked Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, to comment on this phenomenon. The researcher e-mailed back this morning:

"Most anglers believe that the stomach throwing is a natural event and that the everted stomach is retracted/swallowed after release. It's possible that billfish have evolved a mechanism for disgorging prey items that they wish they hadn't eaten, or get rid of bones from large prey (bones may be hard to digest).

"After about a decade of studying billfish with satellite tags, I can say that a disproportionate number of marlin that have thrown their stomachs die after release. I can't say exactly why these fish die, but I have a hypothesis: Fish that are captured with a thrown stomach have been gut hooked and gut hooked fish often die.

"I think the hook actually pulls the stomach out; when the hook/stomach reach the mouth the hook can lodge in the mouth. I have a picture of a black marlin that I took in Australia, the fish is jumping, the stomach is out and the hook can be seen in the corner of the mouth.  When you zoom in on the head you can clearly see a tear in the stomach. I tagged the fish and it died."

A striped marlin goes berserk moments after being hooked.

Thankfully, marlin are now dispersing from the Golden Gate. But they'll be back next winter. Hopefully, the same serious marlin fishermen (and captains) who became powerful advocates of catch-and-release will give up the numbers game and exercise reasonable restraint.

Consider this a New Year's wish.

-- Pete Thomas

Photos: Deckhand Hernando Gonzalez works to free a marlin hooked aboard the yacht Ni Modo off Cabo San Lucas (top photo). Credit: Pete Thomas/Los Angeles Times. In second photo, a striped marlin goes berserk moments after being hooked. Credit: Chic McSherry.