By Sam White
Over the last decade or so, the conservation pendulum has swung pretty far to the left when it comes to billfish. Post a photo of yourself with a dead marlin on Facebook and watch the negative comments come rolling in, sometimes by the hundreds.
It doesn’t matter that the fish came up dead or that it was a world record or that it weighed over a thousand pounds and was later eaten by the locals—the haters and keyboard commandos line up around the block to shake their electronic fists and cry foul. Print a photo of a dead billfish in a magazine and for weeks the editor’s in-box is guaranteed to be flooded with hate mail and even subscription cancellations.
But what most folks don’t understand is what goes on behind the scenes—the whys and hows behind the kill. Here are some reasons for those dead fish on the dock.
For The Research
Any marine biologist worth their degree will tell you that the opportunities to examine a freshly caught billfish are as rare as hen’s teeth. So few marlin come to the dock that when one does arrive, it’s a reason to roll out the big guns of science. Certain things like stomach contents, the ear bones and anatomical structures like the eyes and reproductive organs just cannot be studied in live specimens, and yet this research is absolutely critical to learning more about these species.
During just about every modified release tournament in the country, there are biologists standing by to take samples of any fish brought to the scales. In fact, Jim Motsko reports that during the White Marlin Open there are top scientists from all over the U.S. waiting to examine the white marlin that come in. The study of marlin on the dock has led to many new discoveries including several relating to roundscale spearfish and hatchet marlin versus true white marlin. The scientific impact is undeniable.
For The Publicity
When Kai Rizzuto landed his 1,058-pound blue marlin in 2015, he probably didn’t realize that within just a few days the story would be headline news around the world. It was picked up by CNN, Fox News and other national networks, whose headlines proclaimed that the 16-year old had bested a half-ton leviathan of the deep while fishing off Hawaii. And although the crew attempted to revive the fish, they were unable to do so.
“This fish came to the boat dead, upside down on its back, there was no chance of reviving it,” Jim Rizzuto said. “We try and release every blue marlin we can as a conservation measure, but sometimes in a hard fight the fish dies and there is nothing you can do.” Instead, the fish was treated with respect and taken to a local fish cutter, where the meat was distributed throughout the local community.
Do you think the catch would have made the national news had it been successfully released? No. We release big fish every week of every year, but because this one had a number attached to it—1,058 pounds—it was news. Worldwide news.
For The Conservation
This one might sound a little strange at first but follow along: modified release marlin tournaments are a tremendous benefit to conservation efforts around the world. It’s all about the numbers. These tournaments are some of the largest in the world, in terms of both participation and prize money (which helps increase participation, it’s a revolving circle). The tournaments also know that having healthy billfish stocks means better fishing in the long term, so they are among some of the top donors to conservation groups like The Billfish Foundation, the Recreational Fishing Alliance and others.
For The Record
For some it’s the Holy Grail: having your name listed alongside a marlin species in the IGFA’s World Record Game Fishes, also simply called The Book. Most of the marlin records are undeniable feats of angling ability. Take a look at Leo Cloostermans’ 573-pound blue on four-pound test, or Enrico Capozzi’s 735-pound black on six-pound. The late Stewart Campbell still holds numerous records, including a blue marlin weighing 562 pounds on eight, an 820 on 16 and an 872 on 30-pound tackle. Incredible. Then there are the grand-daddies of them all: Alfred Glassell’s 1,560-pound black, Paolo Amorim’s 1,402-pound Atlantic blue and Jay de Beaubien’s 1,376-pound Pacific blue marlin, the all-tackle records for each species. In just about every category listed, including the flyrod records, the catches are simply amazing and most won’t be touched for a very long time, if ever (Glassell’s record has stood since 1953). But if you are lucky enough to land a record marlin, you’ll need to weigh it on a certified scale on land, and that means putting the fish in the boat.
For The Money
Let’s face it: at the end of the day, modified release tournaments are all about the money. Hook the right fish and you could be looking at a six- or seven-figure payday (the Bisbee’s Black and Blue slogan: Become a millionaire while getting a suntan). These tournaments are popular, not to mention wildly successful, because of the luck factor. Team A and Team B can run the most professional operation on the water but along comes team C who lands a bigger fish and takes home the big check on Sunday night.
And while it’s undeniable that all-release tournament formats are popular, there’s not been one so far that offers a million-dollar prize in an all-release format. It’s still “big fish on the dock” for the biggest paydays. And it’s not even necessarily the issue of trust, although that’s understandably a big one when it comes to these large sums of money, but more about the luck factor. It does take some skill to get a big fish to the boat but that ability to get the right bite and win is a big draw for the truly high-profile tournaments around the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re dead last going into the final day, you’ve still got a shot at that brass ring. All you need is a little luck.
And sometimes the fish just dies. Fish for marlin long enough and it will happen to you at one point or another, whether it’s a tail-wrap or a heart attack, sometimes they fight themselves to death and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. At that point you have two choices: cut it loose and feed the sharks or bring it home and feed a bunch of humans.
Any way you look at it, there are good reasons to bring one to the dock once in a while. Just be careful where you post your photos