VIMS Demonstrates the Importance of Proper Fish Handling

Nov 2, 2017 | Bluewater Perspective, Featured, Magazine, News

By: Austin Coit

Environmentalism is trending, and fisheries conservation has proven no exception. If you’ve posted a photo of a billfish out of the water in the past two years, chances are, someone was quick to reprimand you for doing so. The millions scrolling Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter create a stage for social change. #keepemwet is a viral movement that runs the gamut of social platforms; it isn’t limited to billfish, either. The hashtag is used for inshore sport fish like tarpon, permit, and bonefish; freshwater fishermen use it referring to delicate trout and salmon. Twitter fingers feverishly type it. Vigilant followers police social media for conservation rule breakers. The vast majority of the sportfishing population, for instance, now accepts as an axiom that it is a faux pas to take a billfish out of the water for a photograph. Thanks to efforts of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who has been working for over 75 years studying everything that swims, there is substantiated cause to heed the #conservation messages seen on social marketing. Among a myriad of other topics, post-release mortality rates and stock structure dominate offshore inquiry.


While the bulk of VIMS’ research focuses on inshore species of the Chesapeake Bay and coastal oceans, plenty of useful, eye-opening data is being recorded about billfishes and tunas. John Graves, Chancellor Professor of Marine Science, has been conducting some interesting studies with his students on white marlin. In an effort to combat the amount of billfish hold ups, Graves decided he’d see just how damaging it was to remove a fish from the water, if even momentarily, and then release it.

“I felt like I was going to be burned at the stake for my experiment,” Graves laughs. He continues, “imagine sprinting a mile and having somebody hold your head underwater for a minute immediately after.” Fish were held out of the water for one, three, and five minutes, in order to get a range of subjects. Graves found that—while some fish died after a minute of air exposure, some lived after five minutes out of the water—mortality rates were over ten times more than the fish kept in the water. The most important thing, Graves stresses, “is that the fish is resuscitated in order to make it back through the water column on its own.”

A favorite anecdote of mine about reviving a billfish comes from the Gulf of Mexico last summer, where we satellite tagged a group of blue marlin caught in the area. Some of the fish were green, some were tired, some were black and, as I deemed, goners. Before putting the tags in them, we’d swim each fish for as long as necessary. It was incredible to see those exhausted, blacked out fish light up purple and start thrashing around. The survival of those fish hinged on proper care once at the boat, but also, if the fish were caught slow trolling, they were caught on circle hooks.


“Imagine sprinting a mile and having somebody hold your head underwater for a minute immediately after.”

When the circle hook got traction in the United States, billfish survival rates dramatically increased. Circle hooks are particularly important in the mid-Atlantic region because they depend on catching timid white marlin and sailfish. Blue marlin are less worrisome, Graves says, “because they eat so aggressively. Either they hook themselves on lures or, because anglers cannot help but shorten their drop back when their spool is spinning backwards at light-speed.” Graves conducted a study to see how harmful J-hooks are compared to circle hooks. Of the 20 fish we caught on J-hooks, seven of them died: 35% mortality rate. The 59 fish caught on circle hooks amounted to one death. That’s 1.7%.

Cliché as it may sound, as anglers, we have to respect the lives of the fish we love to catch. The effects of mishandling wont be felt by our generation—but will be for those to follow. That is a guarantee. Being proactive about conservation will help solidify the hope that our children’s children can go off Virginia Beach or Pirate’s Cove and catch 25 whites—as we were able to. With the aid of social media and a population of forward thinking individuals, respecting the stock of fish has begun to trend. Change is afoot. Influential tournaments, like the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament, advocate strict release and use of circle hooks, minimum kill length requirements are getting longer, and important community figures are fueling the fire. “People like [Bluewater partners] Chris and Earle Hall are hugely helpful in promoting VIMS, generating funding, and ensuring state funding continues,” Graves explains. With cautious optimism one can hope that the social network will continue to spread conservation awareness.

Science for the Bay, Impact for the World

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has a three-part mission to conduct research in coastal ocean and estuarine science, educate students and citizens, and provide advisory service to policy makers, industry, and the public. VIMS provides these services to Virginia, the nation, and the world. Chartered in 1940, VIMS is currently among the largest marine research and education centers in the United States.

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