Don't believe it. An ancient technique of commercial fishing has proved so efficient that sportsmen fear it will destroy big game fishing in a few years. Called long-lining, and used on an enormous scale by the Japanese, the practice already has begun to deplete the world stock of tuna, marlin and swordfish
January 31, 1966

The world population of big game fishes—most notably swordfish, the marlins, sailfish and the various tunas—is threatened with early decimation. A technique of commercial fishing that is centuries old but has been applied on a large scale only recently is ravaging the oceans. It is called long-lining, and it is the subject of dismayed denunciation in every big game fishing port on the coastal perimeter of the U.S., throughout the Caribbean, along the coast of Mexico, in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. It has sparked skirmishes between sport and commercial fishermen. It has alarmed marine scientists, most of whom concede its devastating effects as a matter of common sense but urgently need funds to establish scientifically the precise extent of the harm it has done to fish populations already and what its continued untrammeled use portends. Objective of the research: international controls. To many a saltwater angler the prospect that such controls can be instituted in time is dim.

Robert S. Nyburg, a Baltimore sport fisherman and advertising man who specializes in billfish, fears that "there may be no more [saltwater] sport fishing in this country" by 1970. (If you think striped bass are a sport fish, Nyburg does not know you. He thinks in terms of bigger game.) "There is a real and present danger," Nyburg says, "that, unless some fast action is taken, there will be no more marlin, sailfish, giant tuna or broadbill fishing on either coast of the United States in a very few years."

At least equally alarmed is Ed Louys, executive secretary and director of the Caribbean Gamefishing Association.

"Soon there will be no fishing in the Caribbean," he said recently in Miami. "Commercial fishermen themselves told me this in Venezuela, in Trinidad, in Jamaica—that, unless restrictions are placed on this fishing, they will be destroyed. Since the long-lining thing came out we have been answering questions from hundreds of people asking what we should do, what can we do, to prevent overfishing."

Gerald Talbert, head of the Tiburon (Calif.) Marine Laboratory of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, believes that since the Japanese are by far the most extensive users of long-lining, "our only hope is to appeal to the basic good nature and the sense of fair play among the Japanese people." "If properly approached," he says, "I believe they would understand and withdraw from the sport-fishing area. So far as I know, no official protest has ever been entered."

Though there are others who hold that the only effective recourse would be a threat of economic sanctions in areas other than fishing, Talbert's view is by no means naive. The Japanese have been singularly cooperative in game-fish tagging programs aimed at understanding and eventual conservation of the fish involved and are more aware than any other national fishery of the excessive efficiency of long-lining. But they do need enormous quantities of fish to supply the protein requirements of their national diet, as do many island peoples. To pose the importance of recreational fishing against this need may be difficult, but there is more to it than that. While long-line fishing has been profitable for them, their catches have begun to thin out under long-lining pressure and they might well be amenable to international controls if these were to be proposed with sound scientific backing.

Unfortunately, sound scientific backing does not exist. If sufficient research grants were available immediately, it might take five years or more to put together a persuasive argument of solid scientific validity. In five years, many sport fishermen believe, the whole matter may be tragically academic.

Long-lining is as simple as it is ancient. Tie a line to the handle of a glass jug, add a hook and bait to the line and toss the jug over the side. As the jug drifts free, the bait will attract a fish. When a fish is hooked it pulls against the resistance of the jug and seemingly tries to drag it under. The jug always wins. The fish is inevitably exhausted. The fisherman recovers the jug and hauls in the fish.

Multiply that single hook by thousands and the glass jug by hundreds of glass-ball floats, all connected by surface lines that, strung together, may extend 10 miles or more, and you have long-lining, the deadliest method of ocean fishing ever devised.

The long-line's basic unit, called a "basket" because the line is coiled into baskets on deck, is a main line about 300 yards long, buoyed to the surface by float lines. Branch lines, to which baited hooks are attached, extend down into the water at variable depths. About 10 hooks are used for every 300 yards or so of main line. Baskets are connected one to another until a length of 10 miles or more may be reached. Adrift in a current, such a line has the effect of a wide broom sweeping the sea.

Tuna constitute 85% of the Japanese catch in Pacific waters, the remaining 15% being billfish. The boats put out individually and in fleets, some accompanied by a mother ship, aboard which the catch is processed and canned. There is one major fishing firm which operates two mother ships and 112 catcher boats, each of them long-lining. At 10 miles to a line, though actually some lines are shorter, these 112 boats would represent 1,120 miles of fishing line in simultaneous operation.

Long-lining can deplete the sea itself. It has done just that in the Indian Ocean, which is the world's third largest and second deepest sea. Long-lining so drained it of yellowfin tuna—the catch dropped from 12 fish per 100 hooks set to about five per 100—that the Japanese all but quit fishing for them there. They switched to marlin and sailfish and in 1956 began to concentrate on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in ever-widening scope. Now the Japanese seem to be fishing themselves out of the Atlantic. With declining catches there, half the Japanese Atlantic fleet has been ordered back to Japan. The bankruptcy inherent in long-lining is being seen in the Pacific, too. According to the Sport Fishing Institute in Washington, "Marlin harvests by Japanese long-liners fishing off the Pacific Coast of Central America" were poor in 1965—only three or four fish per boat, compared with catches of hundreds per boat in 1964. Average weight per fish was about two-thirds of what it used to be, a fact confirmed by sport fishermen, who note that along the Pacific Coast marlin once averaged 110 pounds and now are down to 60 or 70 pounds. Mexican resort owners, largely dependent on sport fishermen, are in a state of panic.

The Sport Fishing Institute, which is largely supported by tackle manufacturers and provides research grants for scientific institutions, observed in its November Bulletin that "bluefin tuna stocks in the Atlantic Ocean also may soon be in trouble." Not just long-lining but purse-seining threatens the Atlantic tuna population, to such an extent that O. V. Wells, deputy director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said last summer that "the rational utilization of tuna resources in the Atlantic Ocean requires urgent international attention." During 1962, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found, U.S. fishermen landed a mere 40,000 pounds of tuna at Middle Atlantic ports. Two years later the U.S. figure had jumped to 6 million pounds, and the fishery had become so attractive that purse seiners were moving in from as far away as the Pacific coast.

The Japanese are by no means the only long-liners. The Norwegians are in the Atlantic, off the U.S. coast, concentrating on sharks but getting a share of swordfish and other gamesters, too. Swedish sportsmen are decrying the fact that long-lining has begun to affect their salmon catch. Canada has some 250 vessels in the summer and 25 in the winter long-lining the Atlantic for swordfish, once taken mostly by harpoon as they lolled on the surface. The U.S. fishery has a score or so of long-lining vessels in the Atlantic, and these have been averaging 300 swordfish a trip during the peak fall season. Red China is long-lining, but no one knows to what extent, and the same is true of the U.S.S.R., which has just announced a new five-year plan aimed at increasing its catch more than 50%. Cubans are long-lining for marlin. And the Spanish are at it, too.

But all these, separately and together, are minuscule in comparison with the Japanese operation. Its growth from 1956 to 1963 was astronomical. In 1956, when 164,000 hooks were set by the Japanese, they caught seven metric tons of striped marlin (100 fish) and 50 metric tons of blue marlin (400 fish). By 1963 they had more than 50 million hooks out and took 8,236 metric tons of striped marlin (126,700 fish) and 9,413 metric tons of blue marlin (75,300 fish). Not to mention countless other billfish and tuna.

Today Japan has 625,935 persons engaged directly in the fishing industry, a decline from the 790,000 so occupied in 1963. The decline was due largely to the fact that expansion of Japanese industry and higher wages on land pulled many a fisherman away from the sea.

Japanese boats, ranging in size from 300 to 800 tons, fish through the South Seas and deposit their catches in southeast Asia, then move on through the Indian Ocean to unload their next haul in Mediterranean ports. From the Mediterranean their course takes them into the South Atlantic, down through the Caribbean—some to the east coast of South America, others through the Panama Canal and out into the Pacific again, where they deposit their catches in Samoa before sailing back to Japan. This marketing system somewhat compromises the theory that the Japanese are seeking protein only for home consumption. Thirty percent of the fish taken by their wandering fleets, in fact, is sold to foreign countries.

Behind the explosive expansion of the long-line fishery is the development, in 1955, of the tuna hot dog, which has become widely popular in Japan. This sausage made possible the exploitation of the bigeye tuna, which had been held in low regard until then, the yellowfin and bluefin being preferred. Then the marlins began to be used for sausage and the billfish kill became a valuable adjunct to the tuna fishery. The Japanese also like marlin raw as sashimi, an appetizer. (North Americans seldom cat marlin, though it is esteemed in Latin America.)

Last year the Japanese fleets did not do too well, especially with tuna, but it is impossible to say whether the decline was due to overfishing, as sport fishermen insist, or changes in water temperature, available food and salinity, as some marine scientists suspect.

There is no reason to suppose that it was not both. There is every good reason to believe that overfishing, by purse seiners as well as long-liners, is the leading villain. The 1964 annual report of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission recalled that in 1962 Dr. Milner B. Schaefer, then its director of investigations, was able to assert that "the maximum average equilibrium catch" of yellowfin tuna would be in the vicinity of 183 million pounds. In other words, overfishing would begin at this point. The catch in 1959 was 145.4 million pounds, jumped sharply to 234.2 and 239.8 in 1960 and 1961 respectively, fell off for a couple of years, then rose again to 197.8 in 1964.

On the other hand, some few commercial fishermen, perhaps responding to long years of warfare with sport-fishing interests, profess to see no threat to the tuna-fishing industry from long-lining. One of these is August Felando, general manager of the American Tuna Boat Association in San Diego. Felando points out that the Japanese are primarily interested in bigeye tuna, which are deep swimmers and unimportant to either the U.S. commercial fishery or sport fishery. The yellowfin has become a secondary prize (20% of the total catch in the eastern Pacific), and bluefin tuna are only occasionally taken by the Japanese in the Pacific.

But Felando does concede that his association's boats see increasing numbers of Japanese long-liners fishing off the Mexican coast and that these are working primarily for swordfish and marlin.

Bruce Barnes and Bill Poole, partners in a San Diego charter-fishing operation, believe that the decline in the marlin catch out of San Diego during the 1965 season could well be attributed to the more extensive use of the long-line technique off the Mexican and South American coasts. In 1963 the confirmed count of marlin at San Diego docks was 1,500. In 1965 it had dropped to 400.

There is something approaching terror on the Atlantic side of the Mexican-Central American land strip.

"This year [1965] is the worst Jamaica has had," says Ed Louys. "In the blue-marlin tournament only five fish were caught and the biggest weighed 162 pounds. But a Japanese vessel which needed medical attention for one of its crew put into Montego Bay in late September. It was loaded with blue marlin."

Sportsmen like Louys are not impressed by the fact that the Japanese and other long-liners are harvesting protein. The profits derived from sport fishing, they feel, are a source of life, too, for those engaged in boatbuilding, tacklemaking, resort maintenance and allied servicing of sport-fishermen. In the U.S. alone, salt-water sport fishermen spent $626,191,000 in 1960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Talbert notes that in 1960 1.7 billion pounds of edible fish were caught commercially, but marine sport fishing brought in almost as much—1.4 billion pounds. So, say the sportsmen, their kind of fishing is a rich source of protein, too, and does not deplete the available stock.

But the high seas are free, whether they be considered to begin three miles, 12 miles or 200 miles out from shore. Besides, it is not just coastal overfishing that threatens the sportsmen. The pelagic fish he most esteems are far-ranging wanderers, and it matters not a whit whether they are destroyed five miles out or 500.

Since no practical means of controlling the long-liners has yet been devised, or even proposed, a few frustrated sport fishermen have been taking matters into their own hands. Long-line sets have been destroyed in the Atlantic. Off Acapulco, sport fishermen, persistently wreaking havoc on long-lines off their coast, forced one Japanese vessel to abandon the area as too expensive. U.S. sport-fishing boats sailing off the shores of Baja California play a game called "ocean skeet." They shatter the long-liners' glass buoys with shotguns.

The damage inflicted by such means is, of course, a mere nuisance and will have little or no effect on the enormous enterprise that long-lining has become. But when a Japanese long-liner ran aground last September on the southernmost tip of Baja California gleeful Mexican fishermen indulged in soul-satisfying fantasies to account for the wreck and take credit for it.

The 350-ton vessel crashed onto a reef at about 2 a.m. The 18 men aboard all got ashore safely. Some commercial and sport fishermen went aboard and found the boat equipped with the very latest in navigational and fish-finding equipment, from radar to sonar. Stacked in her freezer locker below decks were an estimated 140 tons of tuna, 40 tons of marlin and an unknown quantity of shark meat, in addition to dolphin, wahoo and sailfish.

How to account for the wreck? The Mexicans wink and tell any of a number of stories:

1) Mexican fishermen turned off the light in the lighthouse. (Ah, but with all that electronic gear a modern vessel does not bother with lighthouses.)

2) They turned off the light and set up another light atop a high cliff to lead the Japanese astray. (But the radar would have indicated the huge land mass—cliffs several hundred feet high on the beach—behind the Judas light.)

3) Long-line sets are equipped with transistorized "homing" buoys that send out a signal to guide the fishing boat to where the sets have drifted. The Mexicans took one such buoy and put it on the beach. (This one is more ingenious than plausible. The Japanese navigational gear again would have foiled the plot.)

What hope is there, since even the wishful cleverness of Mexican wreckers is no match for the vast Japanese fleet? One theory, not very attractive, is that overfishing will solve itself.

"In some ways long-lining may be considered self-limiting," says Frank J. Mather III, associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and himself a sport fisherman. "When the catch declines enough it becomes unprofitable. I think there is cause for concern but don't know what can be done. Agreement among all the nations involved would be very difficult."

"We know the extent of long-lining," Mather says, "but we have no idea of the size of fish populations." Such knowledge would be essential to the establishment of meaningful international controls, but it simply is not there to be laid on the bargaining table.

There is unanimity among marine scientists that research is a sine qua non of international controls.

"We are getting more and more letters from Congressmen inquiring about long-lining," says Albert H. Swartz, assistant chief of the Division of Fishery Research of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. "Some people are advocating an extensive research program. Others are talking about an international convention—but there are no facts to bring to it. A research program would take about five years before we could go to the Japanese regarding conservation measures."

Swartz made a point that sport fishermen and their associations might consider.

"Until now," he said, "international conventions have always been on food fish. The sport fishery has never been represented. Now sport fishing should be represented. The International Game Fishing Association should have a voice."

It should indeed. And so should all sport fishermen, organized or unorganized, who know the names and addresses of their Congressmen, who, in turn, might well be persuaded to initiate preliminary negotiations with the Japanese while a crash research program is under way. The extent of this crisis cannot wait for precise scientific determination. The commonsense evidence is plentiful now. At this juncture the need for controls is clear. In the long run, controls need not deprive the Japanese of their protein supply. They could, in fact, preserve it.

Edward W. Allen recently was chairman of an international meeting which sought, unsuccessfully, to institute new controls on fishing in the North Pacific. Though he spoke in another context, in a statement to the conference he may have suggested the theme for a preliminary meeting of world sport-fishing associations and the leading fishing nations. He put it this way:

"Ocean fisheries should not be deemed to exist merely for the benefit of [commercial] fishermen and cannery operators, but should be considered to be a great trust for the benefit of humanity."


ILLUSTRATIONDON MOSS CHARTEFFICIENCY of long-lining and its devastating effect on big game species—striped and blue marlins here—are indicated by the almost perpendicular rise of the Japanese catch between 1960 and 1963.





Blue Marlin

Striped Marlin


Blue Marlin

Striped Marlin


























































Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)