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Fish Tales

 

Releasing versus You Know What

 

There are two sides to every story in life. One of the wonderful things about our society is that we can actually listen to both and make up our own minds. SCMO encourages all fishermen to be active participants in the debate over billfish conservation. So we are happy to present this thought-provoking piece from Marty Morris, Tournament Chairman of the Marlin Club of San Diego. Post your comments and opinions at the Marlin Club.


During the 1996 Marlin Club Invitational Light Tackle Tournament one of the participating teams hooked what appeared to be a fairly large marlin. Attempting to be competitive and fishing within the rules of the tournament they elected to take the fish which weighed in at 186 pounds, significantly more than the points allowed for releasing (130). But at the peak of their exultation over their conquest and mixed in with the usual congratulations from those in their immediate vicinity came an anonymous voice saying, "There's another dead marlin for San Diego." In effect, this unidentified, self-appointed spokesman for Conservation was condemning the taking of this single marlin.

Out on the high seas, individuals totally committed to releasing have attempted to brainwash the fishing community into believing it is almost a sin against God to kill a marlin. No concern is being raised over halibut, bonita, tuna and others. But, because of their size, beauty, wild gyrations and photogenic qualities, marlin have been singled out for the magical "R" word. Concern has been raised over the conservation of species and scientific studies tend to indicate that the worldwide stocks of many species are probably declining. As a result, conservation is a matter of concern to one and all. Thus, the releasing of one of the major sportfishes, the marlin, has been taken up on a worldwide basis, almost as a crusade. However, it is yet to be determined whether the taking of sport-caught marlin has any effect whatsoever on these populations, particularly when compared with the far greater number of marlin taken commercially worldwide.

In the local Southland fishing community, as elsewhere, we find many proponents of the marlin releasing program, often almost to the point of hysteria. Many individuals are virtual zealots when the subject comes up, with passions reaching the boiling point. Most anglers have differences of opinion about various subjects in the sport and can discuss, even debate the topics in a gentlemanly fashion. But when the subject of releasing marlin is mentioned, someone will jump to their feet shouting, "Conservation!", rendering calm, rational discussion nearly impossible.

In truth, there are several sides to the issue and no facts to support any of them. Many released fish likely survive, but it is impossible to determine what percentage actually do. The actual percentage that do survive has a lot to do with the condition of the fish at the time of the release and the manner of the release. If the truth were known, there are probably many fish in poor condition that should not be released but are as a matter of convenience or to inflate the numbers. "We're out for the weekend, and don't want to run back in to drop the fish off", "we limited out and couldn't keep another one", "it's a release tournament, so we released it", "we're up for the High Release Boat Award".

On the other side of the discussion are those who believe it is not a sin against nature to kill a fish. Just as no one thinks twice about eating tuna, halibut or dorado, they regularly utilize marlin for the dinner table. If they don't use the fish, they turn them over to individuals less fortunate who are more than grateful for a valuable food source. And is there anyone who believes that even if all the marlin caught in Southern California were taken and properly utilized that it would have any significant impact on the marlin bio-mass? But if even one of those marlin is brought in, weighed, photographed and then discarded then those who advocate taking fish must sneak away with red faces, for there is no defense for such an outrage. In addition, when we see undersized fish being taken, we can only shake our heads as to the judgment of those anglers. Can there be any justification other than the condition of the fish for killing a 55-pound marlin? Sadly, 1996 saw the Marlin Club in San Diego weigh in 42 fish under 100 pounds and 6 of 70 pounds or less. Of course, some had legitimate reasons - "we couldn't revive the fish", "it was hooked in the eye", "it looked terrible".

A commonly heard excuse is "It was the angler's first fish". The answer to this is complicated and goes back to the education of new anglers. If a lot of fanfare is to be attached to a first fish, then we are remiss in how we approach the feat. Much can be added to the act of releasing (cannons, photos, release boards, etc.), and eventually we will probably see permanent fish mounts replacing the traditional dead carcass. We must teach newcomers that a picture is a picture whether the portrayed fish is a carcass or a true-to-life mount. What is important are the individuals in the picture and the board with all the details of the catch, and if you take your children along you will have an invaluable record of their growing up.

But there were other reasons as well - "it was a button fish," or "it was the angler's qualifying fish". This would be easy enough to eliminate by changing the club's rules to permit releasing in accordance with established guidelines to serve as such a "qualifying or "button" fish. But many clubs still have requirements that demand the killing of a fish to achieve active status or progress his standing in the club. Most clubs have awards for released fish, but they are minor compared to the list of buttons, trophies and awards given for killing fish.

But when it comes to the promotion of killing fish, no one does a better job than the International Game Fish Association. Heralded throughout the world as leaders of the fishing community, the IGFA has a poor record with regards to conservation and promoting the releasing of not only marlin but all fishes. In the Major Objectives of the IGFA, they mention "conservation of the species," and their Philosophy mentions "conservation practices." But do they practice what they preach? In their annual publication, "World Record Game Fishes," they list over 3500 records for all species, both fresh and salt. Each record indicates the weight for the fish - and weight means a dead fish. And every attempt to break a record means another dead fish. The IGFA sponsors an annual tournament that recognizes the three largest of each species - not records, just the three largest. They also sponsor 5-1, 10-1 and 20-1 "clubs" which continue anglers to kill, kill, kill more fish. 4 1/2 to 1? 9-1? 14-1? Try again. This is how we promote conservation? And while the IGFA does list a Worldwide Inventory of Tag and Release Programs for Marine Fishes, there are no records or awards whatsoever for releasing.

So what's the answer? There isn't a clear one. The bottom line is that the decision to either release or take a fish will not have a significant effect on our Southland waters. It is simply a matter of individual choice. There are areas where the fishing pressure is so much greater (i.e. - Cabo) that releasing must be an integral part of the fishing scene, but our situation is far less critical. There are many fish tagged in our local waters each year, but few are ever recovered locally. Either there are so many fish present as to dilute the numbers, or very few of the tagged fish are surviving. But, again, nobody has the answer.

As far as "Catch and Release" versus "Tag and Release," the true conservationists feel that tagging helps study the migratory patterns. Opponents to tagging feel that it is harmful to the fish and that tagging studies help the longliners track down the migrating species. I suspect that the longliners have forgotten more that we will ever know. The solution? Again, let your conscience be your guide. Simply release your opponent and wish him "Vaya Con Dios." If you believe in tagging and can do it quickly without harming the fish, do it. If the fish appears to be in bad shape and you know that someone will use it, don't feel guilty. Slip it on the step and go get another one.

So when a fish is taken - when several fish are taken - so what? The only real criticism is when fish are wasted or anglers kill just for killing's sake. The taking of marlin under 70 pounds is inexcusable. 55 pounds? That's sad.

And when some anonymous jerk who doesn't have the guts to give out his name gets on the radio and declares, "there's another dead marlin for San Diego," he ought to take a long look at his own glass house and, if he must throw stones, try throwing some of his club's buttons to the seals.