Off Topic: Billfish in Popular Culture

For millennia, people have scoured the oceans for leviathans and other sea monsters. Experienced fishermen have scoured the seas for proof of their existence, telling countless stories of elusive giant fish—“the ones that got away”.  Their tales of fish so large that they can sink boats have inspired many myths and even more scientific discoveries. These accounts of man-eating sharks, giant shipwrecking squid, and uncatchable fish haunt our imagination and spark our curiosity. At the heart of these stories—at the heart of fishing itself—is the repeated battles between fishermen and the elements of nature. Modern legends are told of billfish that relentlessly, valiantly resist their capture. Brushes with swordfish and marlin dominate these myths, giving the creatures a mythical status. However, the intense interest in these species also threatens their existence.

Like other large fish, all twelve species of billfish—the nine marlin, the two sailfish, and the lone swordfish—face extinction from overfishing. This is unfortunate, because billfish matter beyond the worlds of food and sport-fishing. They dwell in the realm of the arts, embodying the defiant spirit of nature in literature and film. Their legendary charisma, speed, and strength have strongly influenced popular culture, which has in turn transformed species like marlin and swordfish into spearheads of the growing marine conservation movement.

When one thinks of billfish, the marlin immediately comes to mind.  The unquestionable King of Game Fish, it is found in virtually every ocean. Of the nine species, the Atlantic blue and black are the largest and most famous species. The largest one ever captured spanned 20 feet from snout to tail and weighed more than 1800 pounds. They are also remarkably fast for their size, capable of swimming at 60 miles per hour.

The size, speed, and power of a fully-grown marlin make the fish a formidable adversary to even the bravest of fisherman. When hooked, it can fight the anglers for hours. This determination is the animal’s most famous quality. Unlike most fish, billfish are typically caught, released, and not hunted for food. Instead, the act of successfully catching one has become a rite of passage for fishermen.

Ernest Hemingway first described the marlin’s prowess in The Old Man and the Sea. Universally regarded as a masterpiece, the book earned the 1953 Pullitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. Because Hemingway’s novel generated interest in the great fish, marlin attained a mythical status in the eyes of the public. Its popularity drove artists to draw it, fueling a thirst for more knowledge about this creature and encouraged fishermen to catch it. As a result, the marlin became the mascot of recreational angling.

At the helm of the artistic front was Carey Chen, a fisherman whose career in art began later in life. Since the 1990s, he has used art as a medium for discussing the conservation of billfish. Over the past twenty years, Chen has propelled to stardom through his paintings. As a fisherman, he has received attention for his skill. As an artist, Chen is renowned for the way he uses meticulous detail and vivid colors to bring the billfish he catches to life on canvas, and on murals for parks, boats and famously for local restaurants like Flanigan’s. He does not limit himself to paint, however. The Florida native also uses glass, metal, tile, and wood as media. Chen’s works have been reproduced on T-shirts, hats, and other clothing.

Another prominent creative figure is Tony Ludovico, known for the way he photographs and videos aquatic wildlife. Since 2001 Ludovico has taken breathtaking footage of billfish. His recordings have appeared on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and countless other television programs. Reproductions of his photographs appear on Pelagic Gear, clothing made for fisherman and other seagoing enthusiasts, as well as on furniture and canvas.

Through their artistic prowess, artists like Chen and Ludovico have brought much-needed attention to the wild billfish, revealing the sport fish’s natural beauty and awesome power to the public. They have also used the appeal of their artwork to discuss the plight and future of their aquatic subjects on television and in the press.

Over the past two decades marlins, sailfish, and swordfish have dominated television. Common sights on fishing networks, billfish are also frequently filmed for educational programming. One such example took place in 2002, when the Discovery Channel introduced to the world the documentary Blue Planet. Marlins and sailfish took charge of the screen in the episode, “Open Ocean”. In 2009, the Discovery Channel captured billfish on film again in a TV series called Extreme Fishing. Another show, Man Vs. Fish, pits its star Matt Watson against monster sport fish every week. A sister channel, Animal Planet, revealed the dangers of sport fishing in a 2011 episode of Untamed and Uncut, “Marlin Fishing Gone Wrong”. Also on Animal Planet, marlin and sailfish appeared in the 2002 “Speed Demons” episode of The Most Extreme. Also on TV, networks like NBC Sports Channel and Sunshine Sports air programs dedicated to catch-and-release fishing tournaments nearly every day.

Sport fishing is ruled by billfish, especially in Florida. The sailfish’s popularity as a game fish landed it the honor of being Florida’s State Saltwater Fish, while the marlin’s enviable strength earned it the valuable position as mascot for Miami’s eponymous major league baseball team. The Miami Marlins’ new stadium, in turn, has been completely decorated with billfish art. Marlins games, which are nationally televised, also convey through the airwaves the influence of billfish on Florida’s culture. As more continues to be learned about these great leviathans, science reveals that more must be done to protect them.

That is why organizations like the Billfish Foundation advocate for the conservation of billfish and the communities like those in Florida that depend on a healthy sportfishery. Rest assured that the great billfish—the marlin, the sailfish, and the swordfish—will continue to impact human society.

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