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October 26, 2001

What Would You Do?

If You Caught a World Record Billfish

I've never been really big on hypotheticals like, "What would I do if I had a million dollars?" After all, I don't have a million bucks, and any off-the-cuff response now probably would have little resemblance to what I'd really do if I were a sudden millionaire.


But during a day of billfishing recently, a hypothetical question came up that has been nagging at me: What would I do if I caught a probable world-record marlin?


While the million-dollar question could have a seemingly infinite number of possible answers, when it comes to this world-record conundrum, I can think
of just two: either release it (assuming it's in good shape) or kill it to bring it in for weighing.


But having only two obvious choices doesn't help me much, since it's not easy to absolutely rule out either one.


If you'd asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I think there'd have been little question of how I'd answered. In so many words, I'd have said, "Whaddya, kidding me?"

How many times does a world-record billfish come around in a lifetime? Gaff it and bring it back to the dock! That's a no-brainer.
Now? I'm not so sure. And I find myself wondering if my hesitation reflects a sea change in attitudes of many who pursue big-game sport fishing with great passion.

Times have changed in the way many of us think about billfish and how we view fishing for them, of that there's no doubt. A glance at our Letters pages in this issue will show seems to be a growing mantra among Sport Fishing readers: We should not kill billfish.

Still, if there can be an ultimate justification for killing a billfish, for many fishermen, it would be setting a new world record. That's especially true now, as heavier and heavier records get harder and harder to break each year. It's tough to imagine a better reason.

However, anglers do still kill marlin, regularly, for a variety of reasons. In many less-developed nations (but also in Hawaii), once billfish caught for sport are at boatside, they become a commodity to be sold and eaten. And, of course, most tournaments still kill marlin. True, they're likely to have high minimums. On the one hand, that means far more fish released alive, but on the other hand means we're removing genetically superior individuals not only from the "big pond" but also from the gene pool.

It's also true that the paltry number of billfish killed by anglers pales in terms of longline catch and bykill around the world. That's the prevailing argument from those who say, "I shouldn't feel like a criminal if I do kill a billfish." It is logical though perception (when dead marlin are brought back by sport boats) can play an important part in creating a misleading reality.

But my point here is not to climb on a high horse as much as to put into context my sudden introspection to what I'd do if I caught a likely world-record marlin. The fact remains that I don't think I can be sure how I'd react unless I were in that situation - and I don't figure I ever will be.
But I'm increasingly convinced of how I hope I'd react: Instruct the crew to grab a tag stick rather than a gaff.
Why? Because I'm sure that every time I looked at a framed certificate on my wall for a world-record marlin, what I'd see is the blank stare of that magnificent, huge, battled-scarred marlin, an apex predator that ruled the ocean for years, hanging dead back at the dock. It's a vision that would haunt me forever, I believe.

What would you do? I won't insist there's a universally right or wrong answer at this point, but I hope to hear what some of you figure you'd do if faced with this situation and why. It's a thought-provoking question that ought to make any angler search his soul to answer.