Though seriously overfished, white marlin stocks have not declined enough to warrant banning catches of them in American coastal waters, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared yesterday.
The service, which regulates offshore fishing, rejected a request from a Maryland man to place the large, far-ranging billfish on the federal endangered species list.
"We determined that although the species has greatly declined from historic levels, it is not currently at a level that warrants listing" under the Endangered Species Act, said Bill Hogarth, assistant administrator.
Placement on the list would have barred U.S. recreational anglers from catching the popular sport fish and would have made it difficult for them to catch other fish, such as tuna and dolphin, that inhabit the same areas. Most white marlin caught recreationally in this country are released.
The agency's refusal to list marlin was applauded by Maryland officials, who opposed a fishing ban, and in Ocean City, which calls itself the "White Marlin Capital of the World" and is the site of the world's largest white marlin tournament.
"White marlin are part of our DNA," said Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr.
The government was petitioned last year by James R. Chambers, a Kensington man and retired federal fisheries biologist, and by the Colorado-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, which argues international fishing fleets are indiscriminately killing large numbers of white marlin while trying to catch tuna and swordfish. Estimates are that eight times as many white marlin are caught as global guidelines recommend.
"At this rate of decline, the species will become functionally or ecologically extinct well within the foreseeable future - in less than five years - unless dramatic remedial action is taken both nationally and internationally," the petition said.
In 1997, the federal government listed the white marlin as overfished. Two years ago, the international agency that monitors 29 nations' commercial fleets adopted conservation measures, but it is unclear if those have made a difference.
Natural resources officials from 10 states, led by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources secretary, J. Charles Fox, sent a letter late last week to the Bush administration, asking that the white marlin be made a conservation priority in international negotiations.
But Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on fisheries conservation, said he will press ahead with a bill that calls for trade sanctions on nations that refuse to follow global regulations.