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PERSPECTIVE

Fish in hand, he was on the hook

Catch of the day turns into a freezer full of guilt.

September 21, 2012|Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

It sat in a corner of my freezer for weeks, a reminder of my indecision. Or my lousy Spanish accent.

I'd flown to La Paz, Mexico, earlier this year for a fishing trip with a friend. We'd been hunting a few times before and had always made it a point to eat whatever we brought back, and this trip was no different.

In search of smaller species like dorado or mackerel that are relatively plentiful, we were supposed to go on a 20-foot craft that would stay relatively close to shore. There might be tuna too — something I generally avoid because it's overfished but figured an exception could be made if I caught it myself.

Sure enough, we each hooked 40-pound tunas the morning of the first day. After half an hour of struggling to get the fish into the boat, we told our guide to go closer to shore. We sat back, very pleased with ourselves, discussing in great detail how we'd eat the fish and debating the merits of having a beer from the cooler, even though it wasn't yet 10 a.m.

Then my rod came to life, the line whizzing as something struck the lure.

I instinctively set the hook, pushing back against the side of the boat with my feet to make sure whatever was at the end of the line didn't get away, when something very large jumped out of the water.

"Marlin," my friend said, the unmistakable fin and long beak shining in the sun before it crashed into the water again.

"Oh no," I said.

::

I used to like eating fish like marlin.

I'd often order swordfish when my parents would take me to a seafood restaurant as a reward for good grades. I stopped as a teenager, partly because of articles about large billfish being endangered and partly because I discovered steak.

So as I fought the fish, I told the guide in breathless Spanish that I wanted to release it.

He gave me a strange look, wondering what kind of gringo goes on a fishing trip and doesn't want the fish. He recommended at least bringing it in for a photo.

Well, don't fish sometimes die on the line from stress? Maybe it would be better to release it.

It was unclear if he understood; my Spanish undoubtedly got worse while tugging on a fishing rod while also trying not to trip on the slippery deck.

"Córtalo," I gasped, telling him to cut the line, but the guide still looked puzzled.

Then the line suddenly stopped moving, although it was still heavy.

What happened?

"Maybe it died," the guide said.

It took another half an hour to reel in the fish; sure enough, it wasn't moving and floated belly up. We tried to perform CPR by pulling the fish, which our guide said was a striped marlin, backward and forward, moving fresh water over its gills, but to no avail.

Then I realized that, after not consuming billfish for almost 20 years, I was about to eat a ton of it.

::

Thirty pounds of it, to be exact, according to the airport scale when I weighed my ice chest. My friend took a few fillets back to Baltimore and we gave the rest, probably close to 50 pounds, to the guide.

I emptied half of my freezer to make room for the marlin, but couldn't bring myself to actually cook it. Instead, I'd stare at it, kicking myself for not cutting the line myself.

But, in the end, I figured throwing the fish away or letting it go bad would only compound my error. So, looking for a little guidance, I called biologists at a few aquariums. They all agreed that releasing the fish would've been the best thing but said not to worry too much. Striped marlin in the Gulf of Mexico are overfished, but a single fisherman with only one pole isn't going to cause an environmental collapse, they said.

They warned against giving it to any pregnant women, since large predatory fish tend to have high mercury levels.

I asked Dana Roeber Murray, a Heal the Bay scientist, if she ever ordered swordfish. After a long silence, she said "no."

"But it's good that you're not wasting it," she added quickly, probably not wanting me to feel any guiltier. "That would be the worst thing to do."

I made some of the fish for friends, who were warned about the menu before they came, smoking a few pounds and cutting the rest into steaks. Sensing my unease, my guests claimed everything was delicious.

The remaining fish was cubed and made into fish burgers, which became an occasional quick weekday dinner.

But as I grilled the last of the burgers a few weeks later while rummaging in the refrigerator for some cheese to melt on top of it for flavor, I came to another realization.

Marlin's really bland, at least to me. Perhaps because I never wanted it in the first place.

Still, I was glad not to have wasted any. Another fishing trip is in the works, and this time I'll be ready to cut the line if I hook another marlin, saving us both.

jason.song@latimes.com

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