Misguided Fears Should Not Limit World Records

A recent study on trophy fishing reflects both the study's good intentions and its profound lack of understanding of the sport of fishing.

Mutton Snapper Fishing photo

Mutton Snapper Fishing photo

Should mutton snapper be on IUCN’s threatened list? Photo by Doug Olander

The title of a recent study reflects both its good intentions and its profound lack of understanding of the sport of fishing.

"Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction: A way forward building on a history of conservation," published in Marine Policy, Volume 50, to its credit makes reference to the conservation ethic long embodied by anglers.

On the other hand, the idea that anglers are out there fishing for nearly extinct species to rack up world records (“trophy fishing”) makes us sound superficial and short-sighted to those who have little awareness of what saltwater sport fishing is. Those of us who do know the sport can appreciate how far off-base is that concern.

The University of Miami-based authors call upon the International Game Fish Association to “issue a declaration that all-tackle weight-based world-record certifications will no longer be offered for species identified by the [International Union for the Conservation of Nature] Red List as threatened.”

At first blush, it sounds reasonable enough. But let’s look a bit deeper.

Of slightly more than 100 types of fish considered threatened by the IUCN, most are irrelevant to concerns with targeted big-game-fish trophy hunting (e.g., sawfish, beluga sturgeon, various stingrays, and many others obscure or insignificant to anglers). Some on the IUCN’s threatened list will seem surprising (mutton snapper, mako, tarpon, California sheephead, spiny dogfish and tautog).

Second, consider how many anglers are seriously “trophy fishing” — fishing specifically to set an all-tackle world record. The authors offer no data to suggest what percent of anglers target all-tackle world records, using only the vague (and not terribly scientific) descriptor, “some,” as in, for “some anglers” this is important. Admittedly, I also can’t offer any quantification when it comes to how many anglers dedicate their efforts to catching all-tackle records either, but I feel safe in saying that it’s damn few.

Any edict from the IGFA announcing it won’t issue world records for species on this list would do little to alter behavior, since so many trophy fish are caught by chance, not intention.

The authors cite the pressure on trophies from millions of anglers worldwide. Again, I have to wonder how many of those millions have any idea how world records are set, or how many would hear of/understand IGFA calls to stop “trophy fishing” for threatened species.

The authors maintain that trophy fishing targets individuals that are the largest and most important (in the gene pool), so saving even a few is a worthwhile goal. But they also point out that an IUCN listing does not mean fishing isn’t going on, typically large-scale commercial fishing. You have to wonder how many of these species are killed by trophy-hunting anglers versus those caught on longlines and in purse seines.

You also have to wonder if any of these scientists did his homework regarding the IGFA. The association’s conservation director, Jason Schratwieser, has pointed out how few record applications for species on this list have been received by the IGFA in the past 20 years.

To offer a better perspective, he gives this example: Total commercial landings for southern bluefin tuna (on the IUCN list) from 1991 to 2011 were 293,695 metric tons; total recreational landings of that species submitted for IGFA all-tackle record consideration in the same period: one fish.

Is it really worth challenging anglers over “trophy hunting” to save a single fish when the commercial take runs into the tens of thousands? Schratwieser points to a similarly disparate -situation with mako sharks.

As an aside, I found amusing — but also revealing — the authors’ comment about the “perceived prestige” from securing an all-tackle world record. Perceived? Does winning a gold medal at the Olympics or the Triple Crown in racing confer only “perceived” prestige?

When it comes to their understanding that most anglers are conservationists, the authors have it right. And most anglers would willingly eschew anything to do with the pursuit of all-tackle world records if they believed that would truly make a difference, but this misguided, if well-meaning, effort offers no valid reasons to do so.