Sunday, October 18, 2015


The fish, which may also be the largest tarpon ever caught in the United States, eclipsed the previous, 22-year-old state record of 230 pounds.

The successful angler and a friend, who was with him on the water that day, are pictured in a local paper flashing “Number One” signs to the camera as the photo was taken.  They’re standing on either side of the dead fish, which appears to be hanging on a scale, and appear very pleased with what they accomplished that day.

I’d have been very pleased with a fish like that, too—right up to the time that somebody reached out and stuck a gaff in the thing.

After that, the whole day would seem like a waste.

Tarpon just aren’t viewed as a food fish, and so there's absolutely no reason to kill them.   Sure, like a lot of things that swim, walk or fly, they can be eaten, and actually are eaten in a few places where food’s hard to come by, but it’s pretty likely that after the photo session was done, that record fish was hauled down off its rope, trucked off to a landfill and left for the flies to enjoy.

Why not just let it go?

That’s what most tarpon fishermen do these days.  

In Florida, you need an expensive, hard-to-get permit to kill a tarpon.  Even with the permit, you’re allowed to kill just one fish per year, and only if that one is a potential world record.  The state figured out that taking a bunch of big, inedible fish out of the water and killing them just for photos isn't nearly as good for the tourism business as keeping those fish alive in the water where the tourists can catch them again and again.

State regulators in Louisiana haven’t figured that out yet, and let folks kill as many tarpon, regardless of size, as they care to cart to a dumpster, bury in the back yard or dump back out at sea. 

And the fishermen apparently do kill their share.  

The same article that announced the new Louisiana record fish mentioned a “[l]egendary Louisiana tarpon angler” who managed to kill fish of 219.5 and 228.81 pounds (and who knows how many others) over the years.  I followed a link in the article to that “legendary tarpon angler’s” website, and found more than enough photos of tarpon hanging from scales or lying on the decks of various boats, apparently expired.

And that seemed even more pointless.  Even if I don’t like the idea of killing a fish just for a state record, I can understand it; being top-of-the-heap in any endeavor is a source of pride.  But killing a fish for nothing more than a photo and a few minutes of bragging back at the bar goes beyond the extremes of excusable conduct.

Maybe it was more understandable back in the day, when fish seemed abundant and anglers were few.  Today, according to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory at The University of Southern Mississippi, which refers to information provided by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,

“There has been no formal stock assessment of tarpon in any portion of the species’ range; however, multiple lines of evidence suggest that populations of Atlantic tarpon appear to have declined from historic levels throughout their range.  This species is currently listed as Vulnerable…”

Thus, there is reason to manage tarpon conservatively, with the hope of ending any decline and perhaps rebuilding the population to something closer to the historical norm.  In the Gulf, Florida, Texas and Alabama have already adopted moderately to extremely restrictive restrictions on landings to help achieve such goals. 

That’s a good thing, since tarpon are slow to mature and live a long time.  The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory says that

“At seven to thirteen years of age, and a length of about 30 to 49 inches, tarpon become sexually mature and their growth rate slows…Tarpon may live as long as 55 years.”

Fish with that sort of life history are particularly vulnerable to excessive fishing effort, and when the population declines, are particularly difficult to restore.  One can only wonder how old the big fish killed off Louisiana might have been, and how killing such big females affects the health of the population.

It’s not hard to guess that the effect isn’t good.

And what’s killed off Louisiana matters to everyone, since the laboratory also states that

“Tarpon are highly migratory…fish from Texas and elsewhere in the Gulf commonly range as far as the Caribbean and the east coast of the U.S. as far north as Virginia.  Tarpon that winter in Florida and Mexico regularly move along the northern Gulf of Mexico coastline…during summer,”

The casual killing of tarpon off Louisiana, where even SCUBA divers are allowed to poke holes in the big fish just for entertainment, isn’t merely distasteful; it can contribute to declining tarpon stocks throughout the United States and Central America. 

However, it is, unfortunately, not the only place in this country, let alone elsewhere, where that sort of waste takes place.

And tarpon aren’t the only victims.

All along the Atlantic seaboard, there are tournaments every season which see fish, particularly sharks and marlin, weighed in at the scales and then unceremoniously hauled off to a dumpster.  Fortunately, such practices aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were. 

On the other hand, like tarpon, neither sharks nor marlin are anywhere near as prevalent as they once were, either.

Maybe there is some connection…

Here on New York’s Long Island, we’ve lost winter flounder and whiting (silver hake), along with most of our cod, tautog and weakfish.  Fishing for tuna is not what it once was, and our inshore white marlin are gone.  Atlantic mackerel no longer swarm up the coast in the spring.

But after we saw striped bass collapse, and then saw fisheries managers strive to rebuild them, anglers stood up and said “Not again!” when abundance began to decline once again.

We’ve learned how easily fish stocks can decline, and how hard it is to rebuild them.  Anglers on other shores can tell the same tales; only the names of the fish will be different.

Thus, it is difficult to understand why fishermen will still kill a tarpon, a marlin or anything else, just for a photo and some fleeting fame.

After all of the problems we’ve seen with our fish stocks, and after how hard we’ve struggled to rebuild just a few, you’d think that folks would know better by now.

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