Ethics and The Nature of Ethical Angling #3 — Catching an 80-pound bluefin tuna in the surf #2

Ken Jones

Staff member
Round 2—Bluefin Tuna—Poacher?
People are still figthin’ over this one. What is the right thing to do?
Fishing Ethics...Guilt, Shame, Etc.

Date: October 2, 2002
To: PFIC Message Board
From: Ken Jones
Subject: Fishing Ethics...Guilt, Shame, Etc.

The following passage is taken from the excellent book by Paul Quinnett titled Pavlov's Trout, The incompleat psychology of everyday fishing. It is a book I highly recommend.

Guilt, Shame and Ethics —

Fishing gives the average bloke the perfect occasion to measure his own integrity. The rules are easily broken, the temptations great, the witnesses few and the justifications for wrongdoing ample. What better circumstances to plumb the depths of one's character? Or is it the shallow of one's character?

I have often looked hard into the nature of people and often found a great deal less nobility than I'd hoped for; sometimes more, but frequently less; a scruple here, a virtue there... It seems many Americans, including fishermen, have stumbled down that slippery slope where one's code of conduct is no longer governed by guilt, but by shame.

There is a big difference between shame and guilt. Shame is what you feel when they catch you doing something wrong; guilt is what you feel when you do something you know is wrong, period. One requires law enforcers. The other requires only the presence of that still small voice deep in the old nervous system. Both can be wrongly conditioned for in a psychologically dysfunctional home, and you can, through no fault of your own, end up feeling guilty over nothing and shamed for the wrong reasons. Still guilt and shame and their associated emotions of fear and anxiety are the only known internalized tools for self-control.

With an operative, guilt-affected conscience, you need never look over your shoulder to see if the law is watching as you angle along a stream catching fish. You are the law. And as a law-abider, if you respect yourself, you will respect the law. This is a simple formula. An ethical angler needs a game warden like a trout needs a parachute.

Shame is another matter. To be shamed you have to be caught and at least threatened with punishment or embarrassment. Some people are able to stay on the straight and narrow out of fear of shame, but as the odds of getting caught go down, so does the effectiveness of shame. Shame works, but it takes at least two people.

Legal Versus Ethical —

Being legal is not the same as being ethical. To equate ethics with legality is to adopt the morals of a swindle...As ephemeral as they are, ethics go where laws dare not...

As of this writing, it is lawful to gill net on the high seas and clear-cut above salmon and steelhead spawning streams. It may be legal to take spawning northern pike while they are vulnerable in the early spring, but it is ethically wrong to take even one if the fishery can't stand it, or if you don't need the fish.

These days sportsmen complain about the complexity of fishing regulations, but without tighter external controls to protect the fisheries, unscrupulous anglers would clean out the streams, haul away the spawners, and otherwise decimate the wildlife, something mankind has a bloody history of doing very well.

In a perfect world you would need no laws, just the following guideline: Enjoy yourself, but please do not harm the fishery. Here and now, to protect a threatened fishery you need either biologically sound regulations and strict enforcement of those regulations, or a highly ethical fishing public.

The fishes need ethical fishermen. More, they need ethical fishermen to defend against the stupidity, arrogance, and the unmitigated greed of the unethical. We cannot legislate morality and ethical behavior any more than we can legislate the human heart, so it is up to each fisherman to take a long and sometimes painful journey, not to points of the compass, but inward.

Posted by pescare

I love that!

Posted by lucy

VERY well said!!!

Posted by mola joe

Excellent!! Not even sure what all the fuse is about. I think Surfstriper said it the best. This is a rare occurrence and should be treated as such. In my mind this is not even in the same league as poaching. Sorry folks, I would shake the guys hand any day on a extraordinary catch. Not even sure if I could sleep at night knowing that I pushed a dead bluefin into the surf to rot and go to waste. Personally, I would probably be on the phone to DFG or Fisheries Management to find out what they recommend to do. Seems from the article that Fisheries Management wasn't too worried about this isolated catch. Take one look at some of the overseas fish markets that move tonnage of bluefin taken from those waters each day. This guy a poacher? Not in my book.

Posted by kaster

I 100% agree with you mola! Everyone making so much fuss about one tuna when so many are killed each day — Kevin

Posted by corbinaman1

Right On Mola Joe! I didn't expect my thread on that Bluefin to morph into some kind of “poacher witch-hunt” on that guy. Technically, he “poached,” but most poachers knowingly and willingly take mass quantities of illegal species (ex...buckets of undersized abalone, dozens of undersized bocaccio, numerous undersized halibut, etc.) and will repeat the "poaching" many more times in their lifetimes. The circumstances are different here because this is truly a once in a lifetime “freak” catch of a highly migratory species, is only one fish, and will NEVER be repeated again in his lifetime! Truly, a catch of a lifetime from shore!

Posted by Ken Jones

Can't agree on this one...The fact that he caught a great fish, a once-in-a-lifetime migratory fish, is irrelevant. He broke the rules by keeping the fish and probably knew he was breaking the rules. Those are the only facts that matters. Unfortunately his action in keeping the fish tarnishes his truly remarkable angling accomplishment—as seen in discussions such as took place on this board. What if a boat angler had caught a world record size marlin but marlin were against the law to keep. And suppose it was obvious to the boat's skipper that the marlin was not going to live. Would that justify keeping the fish? I think not.

Posted by SD Fisherman

Look at it this way...whenever I go fishing, whether it be from a pier, shore, rocks, full day boat, etc., I always make it a point to fillet my own catch and return the carcasses to the sea, where a myriad of wonderful creatures may have the opportunity to nourish themselves....~Don aka SDF~

Posted by SD Fisherman

One more point...when I mention my “catches” in the above post, I am referring to legal catches that I choose to keep to feed myself and my family. I mostly practice catch-and-release these days anyway. In my humble opinion, if the law requires that a fish in a condition such as this one be released, it would be great if the authorities in charge would be kind enough to tow it out to deeper water. This would ensure adequate disposal per my above post. ~Don aka SDF~

Posted by carlos

Exactly Ken... there would be no more fish to catch if everyone would just claim the fish was gonna die when they caught it and kept it no matter how big it was or how rare, I don’t usually get into these discussions but I had to speak up on this... I Respect Your Opinion Ken!

Posted by corbinaman1

You are right that technically he broke the rules, however I can't assume for certain he knew he was breaking the law since he never caught a bluefin from shore. Sounds like from the article, he was waiting for someone to come by so he could just get a pic of the fish...his intent may have been to release the fish based on this. I know the size of an “illegal” fish probably doesn't matter, but an 80 pound bluefin would feed a lot of people, and in your marlin example, it would seem a terrible waste to release a thousand plus pound marlin that would surely die (and rot), rather than donating the fish to charity to feed hundreds or thousands of homeless/impoverished people to help mankind and society. It is a tough issue with many opinions based on the long threads, and that is my two cents worth.

Posted by Leapin Bass

Again...”he was waiting for someone to come by so he could just get a pic of the fish...his intent may have been to release the fish based on this.” I thought catching a fish (that wasn't a shark or ray) from a tube that was over 50 pounds was quite an accomplishment. Sure, I would've loved to get a picture of it (with me in the picture) but that would've surely meant its death. And like I said before I wasn't sure of what kind of fish it was, I wasn't sure if it was something I could keep, so I released it.

Catching a bluefin from the surf on the East Coast is not totally unlikely. It has happened on S. Cal. piers! It's probably about as likely as catching a yellowtail from the surf (or pier) in Southern California. And believe me if there was an extra stamp or something you had to buy in order to catch/keep yellowtail from the surf, pier, or float tube in California I would buy it every year. Man, just thinking of catching a yellowtail from my tube gets my blood pumping!!!!

There is also the 20-inch smallmouth I caught last summer in the Brandywine River. Which is quite a large fish for that river. In fact, if I was only a little ways downstream—in Delaware instead of Pennsylvania it would have been a contender for the state record (unfortunately Pennsylvania has Lake Erie). Keeping freshwater bass is something I will not do (ethics), legal or not I feel it is wrong. Did I wait for someone to “come by” so that I could get a picture? No. Are there people who don't believe that I caught the fish? Probably. Do I care? No.

Posted by corbinaman1

That Was A Great BSB Pete! At least you got a picture of it before you let it go which is great (for memories)...that was a "lifetime" catch as well from the float tube! From what I remember, you said that BSB was in great condition and swam away vigorously...the icing on the cake. Don't think the tuna was that lucky (it was basically dead on the beach). Both were incredible catches though. You should post that pic back here for all to see again!

Posted by Predator

But we can ALL agree on THIS — MOLA said it: That if you caught a fish like this—get on the phone with DFG and get their opinion! Most likely, they'll buy in and LET you keep it. Truly folks, who can disagree that this is not the most solid, sound, ethical, and practical solution?

“PREDATOR, a man of many words.”

Posted by baitfish

That is what happened in this case, they are not fining him and they are chalking it up to a rare occurrence, which is not why the laws were written. Anyway, I am glad that this discussion came up and that there are various opinions about this. It shows that we are not all sheep that look at each other and nod in unison. Adam

Posted by Ken Jones

No we can't all agree... If the fish was dead and you call Fish and Game they are still going to say you can't keep it. After all, what's to prevent people from saying live fish were dead? If it is alive you need to return it to the water as soon as possible so that it can live. If you phone F&G, in all likelihood by the time a decision is made the fish will be dead. Is it a waste of the fish? Yes, but so is returning some of the rockfish and other species to the water once you realize you have an illegal fish. Sounds dumb but it's the only way you can prevent fraud by some anglers.

Posted by Red Fish

I'm with you on this on Ken. Back it goes after I get a few pictures, I'm not fishing for subsistence like some others. “for all men are equal before fish…” Herbert Hoover

Posted by Predator

If they say no, then we should comply. But I would make an effort to call them and ask anyway with such an exceptional catch. Can't hurt to ask, right? If they say no, I'd comply. But what if...

“PREDATOR, a man of many words.”

Posted by Hyok

Fishing Ethics...Guilt, Shame, Etc I respect your opinion. As you said, ethics guide us in areas not covered by laws. Indeed, there are things that are legal, but not ethical. By the same token, I feel this is a case where it is illegal, but I find it difficult to call it unethical.

Indeed many people fight laws that are unethical or archaic. There are many archaic laws on the books. For example, there is an obscure law in some state that says it is illegal to make farm animal sounds on the phone. Would anyone advocate prosecuting someone breaking this law? The bluefin license requirement was never meant for someone like Striper Mike. While it may not fall into the same category as making mooing sounds into a telephone, it is pretty darn close. One shouldn't be condemned so harshly for making the call that he did.

Posted by corbinaman1

Very Well Said Hyok!