It's not every day that you get an invitation to meet a president. Oh, you might meet a few dozen "presidents" of companies during the course of a year, but this particular invite concerned meeting the president of an entire country? Peru.
Dr. Russell Nelson, a fisheries consultant for The Billfish Foundation, sent me an e-mail this past March asking if I'd like to join him and TBF president Ellen Peel down in Peru to witness the signing of a historic billfish conservation document by President Alan Garcia of Peru.
Unfortunately, they wanted me to come during the first week of April, a near impossibility with my schedule. I was just about to call and tell him no when I received another e-mail from Nelson saying that the government specifically asked for Marlin to be there, that we'd get to fish off Cabo Blanco for three days and they'd have to invite another publication if I couldn't attend. Now, I don't know if Nelson was just pulling my chain, but the threat of having some other magazine cover a major piece of billfish news just didn't sit right with me, so I booked the flight.
Only then did I hunker down and find out what all the urgency was about. An Argentinean named Daniel Winitzky, a semi-retired conservationist who does more work before breakfast than I do all day, started the conservation ball rolling due to an incident he witnessed as child. "My father took me fishing to Punta Sal, Peru, when I was 8 years old, back in the late '60s. It was adventure tourism at the time. We would fish for snook from shore and for dorado from the rough fishing boats. On one of the trips the crew speared a big black marlin right in front of me. It became a big memory for me, but an unpleasant one. The wonderful creature deserved a better fate in my tender eyes. That night, in my tent, I read what Captain Ahab said to his crew in Melville's Moby Dick. I noticed an ominous resemblance: 'And I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up! And this is what you've shipped for, men! To chase that white whale in both sides of land and over all sides of Earth till it spits black blood and rolls fin out!'"
In November 2007 one of Winitzky's friends, Rich Devane, from the non-governmental organization, Tropical Nature, told him that he knew a couple of folks at TBF. Devane put him in contact with Ellen Peel, who invited Winitzky and the Peruvian cabinet member and minister of production, Rafael Rey, to the Miami Boat Show.
"When we first met Ellen and Russell," says Winitzky, "right after saying hello, I asked Nelson, 'Can billfish populations be restored?' And he said 'Yes!'" That was the moment that both Rey and Winitzky knew that Peru's marlin fishery could come back. They also got an eyeful of the money being spent around the world to support boating and fishing industries that bypassed Peru. Rey came back to Peru energized and armed with a fresh marlin initiative worked out by Nelson, Winitzky and others. He started working on getting support for a presidential decree that would help restore his country's billfish stocks.
Rey's ministry contains the departments of Fishery, Industry and Commerce, and he had recently overseen efforts to drastically reduce the commercial quota of anchovies off the Peruvian coast from 8 million tons to 5 million - the lowest levels since Alfred Glassell's glory days off Cabo Blanco during the 1950s and '60s. This measure alone will probably do wonders for the billfish populations off Peru, but Rey and Winitzky wanted more.
But first, Rey needed to elicit the help of some of the other cabinet members to get the president's support for a Decreto Supremo, or Supreme Order, to protect marlin and sailfish. Rey saw the benefit of trying to get Peru's sport fishery back to its prime, and the project became a personal issue for him. He first approached the minister of tourism, Mercedes Aroz, and from her positive reaction to the initiative, he brought it to the attention of the rest of the cabinet and finally to the president, Alan Garcia. Much to his credit, Garcia agreed to sign the Supreme Order, and he did, just 45 days after Nelson and Winitzky started the process rolling.
What It Says
Not only was the document put forth and signed in record time, it also contained five critical points that all countries, including our own, should adopt: 1) Commercial fishing of all marlin and sailfish is prohibited. There are no exceptions and no bycatch allowances. If you land a marlin, you face a $2,200 fine per fish. If you are caught a second time, the fine increases severely, and on your third offense you lose your fishing license. 2) The decree prohibits the sale and commercialization of black marlin, striped marlin and sailfish. If you serve marlin or sailfish in your restaurant, you're punished, and again, on the third offense, you risk losing your business. 3) It allows the catch-and-release of billfish for sport. The government also plans to issue special licenses for crews seeking to take marlin for world-record attempts. 4) The decree establishes an order to continue the systematic research of billfish populations by IMARPE (Peruvian Institute of the Sea). 5) The conservation of these billfish species now becomes Peruvian state policy, which means that Peru will lead an international effort to convince more countries to adopt analogous restrictions.
Presently, the United States imports a large majority of the billfish products caught in Central America from countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador. Hopefully, these countries, including our own, will follow Peru's lead and see the value in fostering a vibrant sport fishery. As a matter of fact, due to the recent tourism and fishing boom in Costa Rica, it's hard to understand why they haven't. During our visit with the president, the tourism minister mentioned that there is over $500 million in investments going to developing Peru's coastal amenities.
Ecuador already enjoys a good blue and striped marlin bite during our winter months; however, it also hosts a huge commercial fleet that targets these species as well. I can only imagine what kind of sport fishery Ecuador could develop without those commercial boats harvesting tons of billfish and tuna each year.