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Still more to do......

On a recent holiday to the Maldives, the resorts marine biologist (Sanya Shete) shared this picture of a Thresher Shark with me. It was originally shared on Instagram where the angler said he had played it for 2 hours.

The fish is clearly dead, due to a combination of sheer exhaustion for being played for so long and then removed from the water, which being a ram ventilator would have led to its ultimate demise.

With the fish being played for two hours it strongly suggests that the gear being used was too light. Its important to match the gear to your target species as extended fight times make recovery of the fish much more challenging, if indeed possible.

As a recreational angler this picture greatly saddened me and although I know that, in the UK at least, recreational shark angling has come a long way since it became popular in the 1950’s, there is still a long way to go to if we are to improve the levels of fish care to the that required to protect these magnificent and essential predators and continue to be able to enjoy them.

In the early days of the sport in the UK, achieving Shark Angling Club of Great Britain (SACGB) membership was highly desirable and much sought after, it still is today.

Back in the 1930’s, the Tunny (Bluefin Tuna) had provided big game fishing in the North Sea but the high cost meant it was only available to the very rich. In contrast to the Bluefin fishery, shark angling was more affordable and therefore accessible to more people, so it instantly became popular.

Membership of the SACGB required the angler to catch, unaided, a shark of 75lbs or more. This required the shark to be weighed which meant it had to be killed and brought ashore.

Although some skippers and anglers did release the smaller fish, or if they were already members, any underneath their personal best, many sharks were killed.

During this period, commercial fishing for sharks was also allowed which resulted in Porbeagle shark in particular, being targeted.

In the late 80’s, two anglers (Danny Vokins & Joe Filipe) from the Bembridge Sea Angling Club realised that shark stocks were declining rapidly and they decided to challenge the SACGB membership system. Their solution was to use a formula which used the sharks length and girth to calculate an estimated weight. This enabled the shark to be returned alive after it was measured and provided a calculated weight to be used for membership or trophies.

Initially the SACGB refused to adopt this system, fearing that skippers and anglers would cheat but by 1994 the club took the decision replace their kill and weigh system with the measure and release system, which is still in place today.

This, on its own, isn’t the whole reason why shark stocks recovered as others were doing tremendous work to introduce conservation measures within the commercial sector, but it did help.

Equally importantly the recreational sector began to take greater care with handling sharks and today the UK shark angling community would immediately disown any angler who purposely killed a shark.

In the early days “J” style hooks were used but they have been replaced now by circle hooks with crushed barbs. The circle hook almost always hooks the shark in the corner of its mouth which makes hook removal much easier. Some anglers use barbless hooks but some prefer to crush the barb so it holds the bait. The barb on a crushed barb hook is very small so doesn't interfere too much with unhooking.

In the UK today, many skippers and anglers prefer to release the sharks in the water. If they are brought aboard, perhaps to measure, remove some debris like plastic banding, or to tag it, the deck is first cooled and while the shark is on the deck it is constantly doused with cold water. It is best practise for shark boats to have a door so the shark is not pulled over the gunwale as that can lead to internal bruising of the shark. Experienced skipper and crew can bring a shark aboard, measure, tag and return in less than 90 seconds.

Photographs of the shark being held up in the anglers arms or draped over their knees are discouraged now. They are being replaced with a picture of the shark on the deck or go pro footage of the shark in the water. Sharks have no rib cage so susceptible to handling damage. The best description I ever heard was that they are a bag of “squishy organs” so care must be taken not to inflict internal injuries when handling them.

The SACGB now have three trophies for unmeasured fish released at the side of the boat. This enables anglers to compete for trophies with those fish which if boarded would compromise the sharks welfare.

The Pat Smith Database are currently working on digital imaging and other methods to better estimate the size of fish while they are in the water.

Another recent and very important development was when the British Record Fish Committee took the decision for all shark records to be based on length alone and only for fish measured and released in the water. Its very early days in this area but its an important development and has given skippers and anglers the incentive to develop ways of measuring without boarding the shark.

The Pat Smith Database is working to educate the sport on the recovery protocols for ram ventilators like Porbeagle, Thresher and Mako. Unlike Blue Sharks, these sharks must continue to swim if they are to continue to breathe. This means when the fish is brought alongside the boat, and if its clearly exhausted, it will need to be towed at a slow speed to allow the water to pass through its gills and aid its recovery prior to release. This is standard practise in the UK for catch and release Bluefin Tuna fishing.

Although in the 1950’s large numbers of sharks were killed, the SACGB did maintain catch records. Using this dataset as the base The Pat Smith Database works with a number of skippers to add to it each year. This has resulted in us having the largest continuous timeline dataset of recreationally caught sharks in the world. Analysis of these data has been used to inform ICCAT and we will continue to use it to increase our understanding of these magnificent fish.

As recreational anglers we must accept that some will not understand our desire to go fishing but provided we adhere to and continuously develop best practise, and use the catch data and other learnings from our trips to help everyone better understand the species and how to protect them we have nothing to be ashamed of.

If any one of our number ignores fish welfare then they must be prepared to be called out. Whether you are an angler or not, we all want a healthier marine environment which is the platform where angling and non angling can come together for the benefit of the sharks.

The sport of shark angling in the UK and in many other countries has come a long way since it began in the 1950’s but the trophy picture of the Thresher above confirms that there is much further to go.

If anyone would like more information on best practise handling for sharks, we would be happy to share. Equally so we would love to hear from others who have found ways to enhance the outcomes of recreationally caught sharks.

Finally, every time an angler goes fishing they are actually on a data gathering trip. Its important that data is kept. Even the simplest data like species, approx size, sex and the port from which it was caught when aggregated with other similar data is powerful. Take care who you share it with though as sadly some will manipulate data to achieve their own objectives rather than for the benefit of the sharks. If you would like to discuss our experience in data collection please contact us.

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