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October 03, 2013

Should Anglers Release or Keep Record Billfish and Sharks?

A judgment call on setting new world records or letting go.

If you doubt just how much attitudes in the sport-fishing community have changed, consider that just 15 years ago, I was sure to get blowback for being a politically correct environazi by suggesting anglers should release large sharks. Today, I suspect I’ll get nailed for suggesting there could by any justification for not releasing a large shark.

Still, I’m about to do just that.

This past June, six guys — who just happened to be filming a TV show — brought a mako boat-side off Southern California that they believed could be a new all-tackle world record.

They were right.

Back on land, the monster weighed in at 1,325½ pounds. If approved, that will handily beat the current IGFA all-tackle record of 1,221 pounds.

But I suspect they hadn’t counted on the uproar that news of their catch touched off.

Not surprisingly, criticism was scathing from some in the environmental movement. Killing large sharks is “really something you see more in Florida than California, where we have more of a conservation ethic,” sniffed one green sort to the Los Angeles Times.

But some of the most brutal comments in forums and elsewhere came from recreational anglers, disparaging the group for not releasing their mako.

Granted, the guys who weighed in their catch hardly did themselves any favors by referring in interviews to the shark as “a killing machine” that was “looking to reap horrible terror on anything it comes across.”

Give me a break.

Still, even though I know the admission will open me up for criticism, I can’t altogether condemn these anglers for landing their catch.

Years ago, in an editorial entitled, “What Would You Do?” I asked just that, specifically regarding billfish: If you caught what appeared likely to be a new world record, would you release it? To be fair, I attempted to answer my own question, ultimately admitting that I’d be hard-pressed to say for sure unless I were ever actually in that position. But, I noted, hopefully I’d opt to let the fish swim away after photos rather than be haunted by the vision of a magnificent fish I killed hanging dead from a gantry. (This was written before the IGFA offered length records, by the way.)

I acknowledged that if there could be any justification for killing a large billfish, the idea of setting a new world record had some merit. Ditto for large sharks, and particularly when a new all-tackle (versus line-class or junior-angler) record is the benchmark. (Also, scientists at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and elsewhere did tell the Times that the chance to study such a large mako truly represented a golden opportunity.)

Some in the angling community will say absolutely, these are reasons enough to keep a fish like that mako; others will insist neither a world record nor the opportunity for scientific analysis should ever justify killing such a fish.

My reluctance to unequivocally condemn these anglers does not mean I enthusiastically condone their actions. I have been a consistent supporter over the years of releasing billfish and large sharks (though I see nothing wrong with keeping a small mako to share among anglers).

Simply put, when it comes to releasing or landing a new all-tackle-record catch, I think the decision has to be up to the angler.