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Faces of FADs: Billfish

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
June 2, 2014

Faces of FADs: Billfish

Our Faces of FADs series introduces you to the marine species most often injured or killed by fish aggregating devices (FADs) commonly used by fishermen in order to gain access to the U.S. market and the so-called "dolphin safe" label.

This series continues with billfish, a group of several fish species mostly from the Istiophoridae family that use their rostrums, or bills, to stun and injure prey. Tuna may be the chicken of the sea, but billfish are the lions, tigers and bears!

A popular catch in recreational fishing due to their large size and unique appearance, billfish often adorn walls of seafood restaurants or are displayed in homes. A conservation effort led by The Billfish Foundation is already underway to protect these distinctive fish. However, the predatory nature of billfish attracts them to the diverse ecosystems surrounding FADs, making these beautiful creatures victims of indiscriminate killing in international fisheries.

Victim V: Billfish

Type: Fish

Diet: Carnivore (crustaceans, cephalopods, fish)

Life span in the wild: Up to 17 years (Atlantic sailfish)

Size: Up to 16 ft (blue marlin)

Weight: Up to 1800 lb (blue marlin)

Conservation Status: Least Concern (swordfish), Vulnerable (white marlin), Near Threatened (striped marlin)

Interesting Fact: Billfish are highly migratory and can be found across vast swathes of ocean. For instance, longbill spearfish can be found from New Jersey to Venezuela, while the white marlin lives in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea.

Profile: Spearfish and various marlin species are desirable internationally for use in sashimi and other seafood products. In 2012, Congress passed the Billfish Conservation Act (BCA) to prohibit the importation of billfish in the continental United States, but implementation has languished. Because billfish migrate across international waters, jurisdiction over conservation can be muddled and assessments of stocks are difficult to estimate.

Due to billfish popularity in recreational fishing in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, current United States conservation efforts focus on protecting these fish for future leisure fishing. Catch-and-release fishing, use of circle hooks and tagging programs help to ensure billfish return unharmed to the ocean.

The BCA precludes catching billfish for importation to the US, but does not prevent billfish from being bycatch in commercial pursuit of other fish like yellowfin tuna.

Threat from FADs: FADs are designed to aggregate sealife and attract commercially valuable tuna. Species of billfish like black marlin, blue marlin and sailfish prefer to feed on tuna, which often leads them to FADs, as well. When the tuna is harvested, billfish become bycatch, often discarded overboard for their lack of relative market value.

According to a 2007 study commissioned by the International Game Fish Association, bycatch is one of the biggest problems faced by billfish, but a frustrating lack of information about stock depletion makes action difficult. The only conclusion that can be reached is that where sufficient stock assessment exists, billfish populations are in jeopardy.

The lack of data about billfish can perhaps be attributed to the lack of observers aboard the commercial fishing vessels that utilize FADs. These observers are sometimes required in some fisheries, but FAD bycatch numbers are largely reliant on self-reported by the fishing vessels. The result is that during FAD fishing, tuna is often the only species reported, while billfish and other marine wildlife are discarded without being accurately reported. Without valuable information about billfish and other bycatch, sustainability is not established and stocks cannot be monitored.