BLUE PLANET SOCIETY

The harmful practices of trophy fishing

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By Manuela Rio Tinto

While much is talked about the impact of commercial fishing on fish populations and the ocean’s health, recreational and trophy fishing also play a role in contributing to marine biodiversity decline. These don’t usually get the same conservation spotlight as people might feel there are more pressing issues when it comes to protecting the oceans. Supertrawlers, illegal fishing, ghost nets… those are urgent matters which need attention and immediate action. However, when we look at fishing as a whole, there’s, unfortunately, more to worry about.

Image credit: Striped Marlin Kate Crandell, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons 

Recreational fishing, also called angling, is one of the most popular outdoor activities around the globe and has been around for centuries. Like hunting, fishing originated as a means to provide food before becoming a pastime. There are references to angling dating from 2000 BCE, as well as in ancient Greek and Roman writings. Techniques and equipment have evolved since then, leading to a new sport category: trophy fishing.

Trophy fishing targets the largest individuals of a species aiming to obtain an award and, in some cases, large sums of money. Since its launch in 1939, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), the biggest organisation of its kind worldwide, has been tracking saltwater records. Besides regulating the sport, its purpose was to help conservation efforts. While this still is an IGFA pillar, it’s a flawed one as it fails to understand the risks it poses to biodiversity and to protect vulnerable species.

To begin with, record-setting individuals must be weighed in an IGFA station as record certifications are issued based on mass. This demands a transportation process that can be lethal to many fish species, especially large pelagic ones, which are caught farther from shore and have specific physiological requirements. As it’s extremely hard to land a world record, many near-record-sized fish are killed in failed attempts. While this might not pose a problem for healthy populations, endangered ones can struggle to recover and potentially start to decline.

Image credit: Ernest Hemingway with his family and four marlin in 1935, owned by John F. Kennedy library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another major issue is that different from commercial fishing, recreational anglers are often permitted to fish for endangered species. The IGFA has issued world records for 1,222 species, including 85 listed as Threatened with Extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. Unfortunately, even though IUCN’s assessments are made by a respected team of scientists, they don’t carry the force of law.

At last, the biggest problem is at the core of the sport, which is targeting the largest animals of a species. According to research on trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction, led by shark biologist David Shiffman, this practice can severely and disproportionately impact the whole population. “For example, removing just one large 61-centimetre-long red snapper from the population is the equivalent of removing over 200 smaller 41-centimetre-long red snappers,” Shiffman states.

Many fish exhibit sexual dimorphism, in which females are larger than males, making them more susceptible to trophy angling, especially when gravid. Fecundity, larval quality, and offspring survival are directly linked to the size of the fish. Bigger individuals have higher energy reserves and consequently can invest more in their young. Fish also experience infinite growth, so the largest ones are older, more experienced, and extremely valuable for population dynamics. These issues are extremely concerning especially for species of large fish that have a slow development time, taking many years to reach sexual maturity and months to gestate pups like the scalloped hammerhead shark for example. Even a small number of catches can impact a whole fish generation in these cases. 

Image credit: by Michael Worden on Unsplash

Considering all these points, the 2014 research mentioned above recommended that the IGFA stopped awarding world records for species identified as Threatened with Extinction in the IUCN’s Red List. This small but significant change would reduce fishing pressure on those while still allowing trophy fishing for more than 90% of the species in the IGFA records. Another suggestion made by the experts was to develop non-lethal alternatives to the current requirements, including length-based records and high-quality photographs allowing the catch-and-release of threatened species.

The advice wasn’t welcomed by Jason Schratwieser, who was IGFA’s Conservation Director at the time and is currently the organisation’s President. He claimed that the record submissions for threatened species are “rare events”, not considering that even a small number can have a disproportionately high impact on those populations, as previously explained. Also, he failed to recognise the unknown number of near-record-sized fish that might be killed in the process.

Schratwieser also pointed out that “commercial landings for many of these species are an order of magnitude higher than trophy fishing efforts.” The impacts of overfishing on marine biodiversity are well-known and well-documented – and weren’t the focus of this study. Shifting the blame is pointless and counterproductive, especially for an organisation that, in theory, has conservation as one of its values. We can’t reverse the damage that’s been already done; however, we can change current policies and ensure the protection of threatened species for a better present and future.

By failing to protect endangered species, IGFA incentivises competitions to do the same. The White Marlin Open is one of the biggest fishing tournaments, taking place every year in Maryland, US. It prides itself on being the ‘World’s Largest and Richest Billfish Tournament’. By the time this year’s 50th edition finishes in mid-August, it’ll have paid more than $100 million in prizes. Of the eight species fished in the competition, two are listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN’s Red List: Blue Marlin and Sailfish. The Bigeye Tuna, targeted in the contest alongside Yellowfin and Bluefin Tuna, is also listed as Vulnerable.

Some of the White Marlin Open sponsors are big corporations like Mercedes Benz, Garmin, Under Armour and many others. It’s extremely concerning that companies are willing not only to support but to provide for a competition that incentivises and rewards people to catch endangered wildlife. This is only possible due to the lack of respect and protection warranted for marine animals. As consumers, we make choices based on needs, values, and desires. Would you still choose to support a brand knowing its practices are harmful to biodiversity?

The misconceptions that natural resources are endless, that fish are less sentient beings than land animals and therefore we can treat them as we please, and that their populations can thrive regardless of human actions, are outdated and have been proved wrong time and time again. This wishful and naïve thinking doesn’t agree with the biodiversity and climate crises we are facing.

While trophy fishing is a controversial activity in its own way, there are no arguments that could justify the lack of protection for endangered species. Even more so when these represent only a small number of the over 1,000 species that are currently fished for world record awards. When an international regulatory body refuses to make a small change to a policy that could help so many species at little to no cost, it’s time to rethink the sport as a whole.

Sign the petition to put pressure on the IGFA to stop awarding weight-based world records for fish species threatened with extinction.

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Blue Planet Society is a global pressure group campaigning to protect the world’s ocean. By utilising effective activism, minimising the use of resources and applying the highest ethical standards, we believe our approach is the future of marine conservation advocacy.