As fate would have it, 1997 was our year for tuna, which is another way of saying that it was not our year for marlin. No matter what oceans we fished, no matter what lures we trolled, we caught only tuna. Big ones, to be sure, and they pulled hard, but they weren't marlin. We could blame it all on El Niqo, of course, but that wouldn't be fair. The marlin showed themselves to everyone else, just not to us. Not even in Mauritius.
Despite these recent glimmers of greatness, Mauritius is suffering from what might be described as a malaise on the big-game fishing front. Though the island's tourist industry is positively booming, with sun-seeking Europeans and Asians flocking to the island's beautiful beaches, the charter fishing business is clearly in a slump. Many of the boats belonging to the Le Morne Fishing Center, an operation based at Black River, sit idle at their moorings for days on end, despite the fact that charter rates, ranging from $300 to $450 for a full day's fishing, are among the lowest in the world.
Whatever the reason for the decreasing interest in fishing among visitors to the island, in all fairness it cannot be attributed to a scarcity of fish, though the woeful results of the '96 Mauritius World Cup - which in the aftermath of a cyclone produced only three or four fish for 30 or 40 boats - may have created that impression. For despite the all-kill policy of earlier decades, big blues (and black marlin too, albeit to a lesser extent) miraculously still do abound in the waters off Mauritius, though likely in far fewer numbers than previously. November through March is generally considered to be the height of the season, but on occasion very large fish show up as early as August.
We arrived in October, just as the weather turned uncharacteristically cool and rainy, and the fish went very much off the bite. Still, after two days of fruitless trolling (with both lures and live skipjack), on the morning of the third day we did manage to live-bait a 180-pound yellowfin, which came as a total surprise to everyone, as large tuna usually don't show up in Mauritius until much later in the year.
The yellowfin gave a good account of itself, but the battle to keep the captain's hands off the reel on the strike, and the deckie's hands off the rod thereafter (despite our having instructed them in advance not to do so), was every bit as challenging. Though certainly not alone in this regard, Mauritian crews in particular are notorious in their disregard for IGFA regulations, invariably arrogating to themselves the prerogative of striking the fish and leaving little for anglers to do but wind it in, often from a dead boat.
The standard rationalization as to why charter crews often ignore the rules, of course, is that in dealing with so many inexperienced tourist fishermen, to do otherwise would risk losing a majority of fish on the strike. But the truth of the matter is that precisely because of its fame as a first-rate fishery for giant marlin, a significant proportion of the charter operators in Mauritius, unlike their counterparts in numerous other marlin hot spots throughout the world, have for the most part failed to sensitize their skippers and deckhands to the singular needs of these "professional" anglers (or, for that matter, to hone their communication skills in any way). It may well be that one reason these people have ceased coming in the numbers they once did is because of their dissatisfaction with the situation.
Over drinks at the clubhouse of the Le Morne Fishing Center one evening, we talked at length with fourth generation Muaritian, Jean-Pierre Henry about these issues, particularly the issue of tag-and-release and its slow acceptance among Mauritians. As one of the island's major charter operators, Henry himself confessed to being culpable in this regard, saying that even many of his Italian and French fishing friends and clients, who a few years ago were untroubled by such concerns, have recently begun to dispute with him the desirability of "slaughtering so many fish." And some no longer come.
Curiously enough, Henry's advertising material suggests a strong commitment to the worthy ideals of The Billfish Foundation. "Our organization deeply encourages conservation through a tag-and-release program associated with The Billfish Foundation in the USA," states a flier of his distributed by the Bejaya Resort's sports desk (and echoed by the hotel's own computerized activities guide).
But Henry agrees with the assessment that, despite the purported success of a few limited release tournaments in the past, such declarations are for the most part mere window dressing, lip service without substance. For Henry himself admits that he has made no serious effort to educate his veteran captains in the need for -- and economic benefits of -- conservation through tag-and-release, let alone win novice anglers to the cause.
Finally, it seems that even Jean-Pierre Henry himself has seen the light. "I realize I've lagged far behind on the issue of conservation," he conceded at the close of our conversation, "and that in the upcoming years I better do something about it. I think we should simply bring our rates more into line with other marlin fisheries of similar quality, and like them start releasing fish."
A good idea indeed, and better late than never!