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Vol 47 | Num 14 | Aug 3, 2022

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Article by Capt. Mark Sampson

One winter, while down in the Florida Keys I was on a reef fishing with a bunch of clients for snapper and grouper. We also had a kite up in the air with a live ballyhoo under it just in case there was a barracuda tooling around the area that might want to play. Part-way through the morning something hit the ballyhoo and twenty minutes later I was amazed when the angler cranked in not a barracuda, but the biggest king mackerel I’d ever seen.

Most of the kings we catch down there run from eight to about twenty pounds - with really big ones sometimes making it to thirty. This mackerel was about five feet long and over 60-pounds, so large that at first glimpse I thought I was looking at a large wahoo! As a matter of fact, I was wishing it was a wahoo, because Florida’s king mackerel season had just closed two-weeks prior.

So, rather than grabbing the gaff I went for the dehooker. Unfortunately, before I could get the fish released a four-foot barracuda rushed in, bit the mackerel at the base of the tail and swam away. The mackerel died instantly leaving us with a big dead fish that we couldn’t legally bring back to the dock.

Fresh king mackerel makes for a tasty meal so you can bet that my six clients were really hoping I could come up with some kind of “creative” idea on how they could bring that fish home. Of course there wasn’t one so all we could do was drop the very dead mackerel back into the water and watch as it sank to the bottom, its destiny to become a meal for crabs and sharks.

The episode ignited some interesting discussions on the boat, as a few of the clients had a problem with what they considered “wasting” such a good fish. These guys were all hunters and the thought of killing something and not properly making good use of it was very much against their ethics. Someone even made the comment that the regulations should somehow allow fish that are going to die anyway to be kept, so that the meat doesn’t go to waste.

I could certainly see their point, but the bottom line was that there was no way we could legally bring that fish home, and if we were caught with it, explaining that it died and we didn’t want it to go to waste wouldn’t have won us any sympathy from the Florida Fish & Game Patrol.
So we just let our catch of a lifetime become crab food, and we all felt pretty bad about it. But did we really do anything wrong? Did we really “waste” the fish? I can honestly say that if we had known that the barracuda was going to come along and kill the mackerel we never would have put the extra bait out in the first place. It was just one of those freaky things that happens now and again that no one can predict or prevent.

I'm periodically reminded of that little episode whenever I hear either recreational or commercial fishermen complain that they should be allowed to keep fish they catch that, for one reason or the other, come in dead because it would give the fishermen a way to make good use of the catch rather than it being dumped overboard and wasted.

"Good use” usually means that instead of the catch becoming crab food at the bottom of the ocean it should be able to be eaten by the angler or sold at market. This argument is nothing new, and has probably been pitched ever since the first catch limits were ever imposed on fishermen, and at first glimpse it might appear to make sense - why let it go to "waste"?

Of course we all have our thoughts on such matters and I'm no different. I have a real problem with that sort of rationale, and it correlates directly to our incident with the king mackerel. First and foremost is the assertion that if we accidentally kill a fish that shouldn’t be killed, that eating it, or selling it somehow makes things right. Whether it’s a commercial fisherman looking to make a few bucks, or a recreational fisherman who will end up with a few extra fillets in their freezer, the argument I always hear is that it’s better to bring the fish home rather than letting it “go to waste.” To which I will argue the notion that a dead fish lying on the bottom of the ocean is going to waste is simply man’s definition of what goes on after a fish dies. Certainly none of the critters that come out to feed on the carcass are going to consider the death of the fish “a waste,” to them it’s a life-sustaining smorgasbord!

How arrogant are we to think that the wrongful death of a fish is somehow made better when a fisherman is able to benefit from the death? Maybe it can make the fisherman feel better if he or she is able to bring the fish home for dinner, but as far as conservation goes, it really doesn’t make a difference if the fish gets eaten by humans or crabs, when the fish is dead it’s dead, it’s out of the gene pool, not going to produce any more offspring, it has passed on, crossed over, kicked the bucket, bit the big one, eaten its last meal – it’s done!

Commercial and recreational fishermen always have, and always will have, situations when unintended mortality occurs. Fish die from swallowing hooks too deep, after being brought up from great depths, getting chomped-on by sharks, and sometimes from exhausting themselves during a long fight. They die in commercial nets, on long-lines and in traps. Killing fish or game and not making good use of it goes against the ethics of most sportsmen, but unfortunately it happens. Rather than accepting the unintended mortality, the best a fisherman can do is resolve to make an honest effort to minimize their by-kill by changing their gear (circle hooks are a good start), avoiding areas where there’s a high incidence of interaction with unwanted species, quit pulling fish up from great depths, move away from shark zones, or to just quit fishing for the day if that’s what it takes. §

Coastal Fisherman Merch
CF Merch



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