Feds say keep hands off when releasing billfish
Hooking and fighting a billfish is one of the most exciting experiences an offshore angler can have. For some, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Many anglers would agree that protection of billfish is important, and try to comply with catch-andrelease laws and procedures.
In conflict with that is the angler's need for bragging rights, or proof. If the fish is released, the only proof is a photo. For some, to get a photo of angler and fish together, the fish must be taken out of the water.
Therein lies the problem.
According to federal law, the fish may be taken out of the water only if it is kept. If it is released, it must be left in the water at all times.
According to Randy Blankinship, this law applies to all species of billfish, shark, swordfish, and all species of tuna except blackfin.
Blankinship is a fishing management specialist in the Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
All of those species fall in the highly migratory category, and so require an HMS permit to keep them.
Blankinship said the law requires that the fish be "released with a maximum chance of survival," which entails removal of fishing gear and hooks, and revival of the fish. Revival is generally accomplished by holding the fish alongside the boat, with the boat in gear, and gently allowing water to flow through its mouth and gills. As the fish is revived it regains color, strength and activity.
By the end of a fight, according to Blankinship, if anglers are able to lift a fish of 100 pounds or more, that fish is dangerously exhausted. If the fish is not completely subdued, then there is a danger of it being dropped on the deck or transom, causing internal damage, which can be a cause of death after release. Just pulling it on to the boat could cause enough injury to prevent its survival, Blankinship added.
Another reason to leave a fish in the water involves its slime. Fish have a slime coating that serves as an immune system, protecting them from bacterial infections. The more a fish is handled, the more slime is removed, and the more likely a later infection will occur. The heavier the fish, the more handling is required to bring it on to the boat.
NOAA also recommends the use of circle hooks. The law mandates their use in Atlantic billfish tournaments when natural and unnatural baits are used in combination.
According to the Billfish Foundation, at www.billfish.org, "Studies have shown that the use of circle hooks with natural baits in place of the more traditional J-hooks can dramatically increase a fish's chance of survival."
John Price, a long-time Port Aransas angler and board member of the Corpus Christi Big Game Fishing Club, homeported in Port Aransas, said that it is also important not to fight the fish too long. Using heavy enough tackle will help get the fish in sooner. An extended fight "will exhaust the fish and cause a buildup of lactic acid that will cause the fish to die a day or two later," Price said.
Bottom line: Taking a fish out of the water may well cause its death. Leaving it in the water is not just conservation, it's the law. If anglers mean to kill and keep billfish, size requirements must be met. Federal HMS permits are required for all HMS species, as well as appropriate state licenses.
For more information and links to HMS fishing regulations and size
requirements, go to www.nmfs.noaa. gov/sfa/hms. prepped