Thursday, June 30, 2016


For as long as I can remember, and for many years before, “50” was a meaningful number for striped bass fishermen.  A 45-pound bass was just a “good fish,” but a fish over 50 was something else, a desired trophy that was held in special regard.

I did a lot of striped bass fishing when I was young, spending part of most days on the water.  Sometime during my 19th year, I decided that I had to put my own 50 on the scales before I turned twenty. 

My chance came on July 10, 1974, 26 days short of my self-imposed deadline, when I found bass pushing bunker along a familiar section of Connecticut shore.  Things all came together, and before 8:00 a.m. I hung a 51-pounder on the tackle shop scales.

Let’s be honest—I was elated.  The only thing that I cared about was getting the fish to a taxidermist as soon as the rush-hour traffic would allow.

But time has a way of cooling folks down.

Not long after I killed the big fish, it became all too clear that the striped bass were having real problems.  Recruitment was down; few small fish were entering the population.

By the time that I hung my bass on the wall, it was as much an object of guilt as of pride.  As the population slid toward collapse, I started asking myself just why it had to die, realizing a bit too late that protecting the big, older fish mattered.  As my ethics developed, the mounted striped bass served as a rebuke and reminder of something that I should not have done.

Today it remains, a sort of personal albatross that doesn’t hang ‘round my neck, but instead lies on a basement table.  The taxidermist I used was not very good; skilled only in small fish, he botched the big job, producing something to ugly to hang on a wall.  Yet as my first 50, I can’t throw it away.

So yes, I understand the impulse to kill that first, really big fish, and under most circumstances, I’m not inclined to criticize someone who does it.

Still, there are boundaries.

Down in Louisiana, they grow some big tarpon, fish that can weigh over 200 pounds.  Tarpon are an esteemed gamefish, strong and prone to making spectacular leaps.  However, their sporting qualities don’t carry over to the table; although they are technically edible, they’re not generally killed for food, except in the sort of primitive, backwater places where anything that might contain protein is valued.

At the same time, the tarpon population certainly isn’t getting any bigger.  While there is no formal assessment that reveals the health of the stock in the Gulf of Mexico, there is plenty of evidence that suggests it is shrinking.

Thus, killing a tarpon just to show it off doesn’t make too much sense.

Even so, last fall, a Louisiana angler killed a 246.1 pound tarpon for no better reason than celebrity—to claim a “state record.”  While an angler might be excused for killing one such fish in a lifetime, reports indicate that he killed at least two more of the magnificent animals, tarpon of 228.81 and 219.5 pounds.  That’s a lot of fish wasted for no better reason than claiming 15 minutes of fame.

In the same neighborhood, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo is billed as “the oldest fishing tournament in the United States.”  In a world where catch and release tarpon fishing is the norm, the Grand Isle tournament is probably the largest, and one of the very few, kill tournaments for tarpon remaining in the United States.

A quick review of the standings for the last few years tells its dismal story.  In 2015, tarpon of 165.875, 154.5, 129.375, 96.875 and 93.625 pounds qualified for prizes, along with another prize for the first tarpon killed and weighed in, with no indication of how many other fish were dragged dead to the scales but failed to earn a place on the leader board.  In 2014, prizes went to dead tarpon weighing 175.25, 168, 138.25, 119.75 and 99.375 pounds.  In 2013…  Well, you get the idea.

That sort of mindless killing, for nothing more than a dead fish photo and a prize, was common during the early days of sport fishing, when people believed that the ocean’s bounty was limitless, and that recreational fishing would never harm the stock.  We should know better by now.

Except, of course, we don’t.

I’m an active offshore fisherman, who chases shark and tuna, and occasionally marlin, almost always from my own boat in my home waters off the South Shore of Long Island.  When I think of some of the things that go on in the offshore arena, the Louisiana tarpon fishermen don’t look all that bad.

While we’ve grown past the days when giant bluefin were trucked off to landfills (because now fishermen kill them to sell), and sharks were regularly hung up for photos then dumped into the sea (in part, because many “inedible” sharks such as duskies have grown so scarce that regulations prohibit killing any at all), a lot of abuse still goes on. 

These days, it mostly happens in the tournament context.  In far too many cases, part of the planning for an offshore event involves reserving a garbage truck or dumpster that can be parked, discreetly, not too far from the scales, to receive whatever sharks and billfish might be weighed in.  

The somewhat responsible tournaments try to minimize the waste by setting high minimum weights for sharks and billfish, and/or limiting the species of sharks that may be weighed in.  But with substantial cash prizes on the line, along with side bets called “calcuttas” that frequently range well into six figures, the incentive to kill fish remains high.

At a time when most pelagic species are facing threats on multiple fronts, it seems an irresponsible waste, particularly when release tournaments have been conducted for sailfish and marlin for quite a few years.  They have proven very successful, making it reasonable to ask how anyone can continue to justify running an event where fish such as blue marlin are killed and carted off to the dump.

To be fair, it’s not only the big-fish crowd that gets out of hand.  In my part of the world, there are striped bass fishermen who kill far more big fish than they can possibly consume, and spend a lot of time running to tackle shops to weigh in their fish and get their photos hung up on the wall.  The smart money says that a lot of those fish are being illegally sold; some are also given away, and some find an ignominious, freezer-burnt end in a trash pail some months after capture.

At ports such as Montauk, that cater to vacationers as much as to serious fishermen, it’s far from uncommon to see tourists get off a charter boat,  get their grip-and-grin photos with big striped bass, then leave the fish behind because they’re staying at a hotel and have no way to take them home.  

When such tourists are thick, some charter boat captains will leave a big female striped bass hanging in the sun all day, hoping that, along with the flies, it will attract another bunch of tourists who will re-enact the same sort of waste on the following day.

Whether we talk about tourists or tournaments, about state or world records or mere bragging rights, there is something elementally offensive about killing fish just for some fleeting glory, and not for food.  Folks do it thinking that it validates their standing as anglers, but in the end, it only casts doubt on their status as sportsmen, who have a responsibility to think of the future as well as themselves.

It’s not that tournaments, or record quests, are essentially bad.  I’ve fished in my share of events over the years, but always in contests where the bigeye, mako or anything else I might catch would be destined for the table rather than the local landfill.  I’d nave no problem fishing in a fluke contest today, knowing that even if I stayed off the leader board, I’d still still have the prize of fillets.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11, St. Paul reportedly wrote

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Although it would not have been the saint’s intent, those words carry a lesson for anglers.

Killing fish merely to win a tournament, set a record or get your photo in a newspaper or on a tackle shop wall is something that was done in a different time, when salt water sport fishing was in its childhood, fish were abundant and anglers believed that the ocean’s bounty was limitless.  

Once a symbol of innocent excess, such actions now demonstrate nothing more than an immature impulse to find validation in the eyes of the crowd.

The sport has grown up since then.  It is time for anglers to grow up as well, and leave the kill tourneys—the records, the transient glory--behind.  For the cost of such glories may be our fisheries’ future, and that is too much to pay.


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