A big blue marlin caught off Exmouth was killed, but that's OK

A big blue marlin caught off Exmouth was killed, but that's OK

A big blue marlin caught off Exmouth was killed, but that's OK

Updated 5 January 2018, 12:00 AEDT

The killing of a record blue marlin by two anglers off WA to claim a game fishing record sparks online outrage, but this seems excessive when you consider the legacy this single fish will leave.

The 1089.7 pound (496.3 kilogram) blue marlin landed on January 1 out of Exmouth, WA, by angler Clay Hilbert with game skipper Eddy Lawler and his crew from Peak Sportfishing Adventures will go down in the record books as the first "grander" blue caught in Australian waters.

It has also put game fishing in the spotlight, with many critics using social media to put forward the view that "trophy" fishing is unsustainable and ethically dubious.

Social media and mainstream press attention about the capture of this massive blue marlin has also resulted in the local and international game fishing community getting pretty hyped up. A catch of this significance hasn't been recorded for more than 50 years.

The last time there was this much hoo-haa about a big fish getting caught was back in 1966 when Cairns-based angler George Bransford weighed a 1064lb black marlin, the first grander ever caught in Australia.

As social media was non-existent back then, the excitement about Bransford's big black marlin was likely more subdued than it has been with this more recent catch.

Still, that particular fish is notable in that it kick-started an entire industry based on the now world-renowned — and very lucrative — Cairns heavy tackle game fishery.

There's every opportunity for Hilbert's big blue marlin to do the same for Exmouth as Bransford's big black marlin did for Cairns.

Already well regarded as a diverse and appealing sport and game fishery, this remote WA town now has the potential to lure in well-heeled international game fishermen keen on trying their luck — and spending their bucks — for the chance at a genuine thousand-pounder.

There are only a few locations around the world offering legitimate shots at grander marlin.

Thanks to Hilbert's big blue, Exmouth now joins an elite coterie of game fishing hotspots including Cairns, Hawaii, Brazil, Maderia and Tahiti.

You have to kill it to weigh it

While most marlin these days are caught and released, the economic potential of the Exmouth blue as a genuine "grander" was doubtless a key factor behind the decision to bring it into port to be weighed.

This process had to happen in order for the fish to be considered for records and for verification as an "official" grander.

Hilbert and Lawler could have elected to release it. But then it wouldn't be a "grander" — it'd just be a really big fish.

International game fishing rules are very strict. If you want to claim it, you have to weigh it.

The good news is that a measurement system has been developed to allow catch and release (C&R) records for "trophy" fish. This system is in its early days, but with a growing trend towards C&R and other "low impact" forms of fishing it seems likely measuring rather than weighing will be the way of the future.

In this case, however, Hilbert and Lawler made their choice and weighed the fish in. As a result, they have copped significant online flak — most of it emotive and not particularly well informed.

Record puts Exmouth on the map

On the plus side, the fishermen have put Exmouth fairly and squarely on the international game fishing map.

As mentioned above, this presents significant socio-economic potential, important for a town which, like many other coastal communities, relies heavily on recreational fishing tourism as an economic driver.

To put things into perspective, thousands of tonnes of marlin — including granders — are caught and processed every year by industrial fishing fleets working in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. About 15,000 tonnes are taken from the Indian Ocean alone.

The Exmouth blue taken by Hilbert and Lawler weighed about half a tonne. Its potential economic worth to Exmouth would significantly — no, astronomically — outweigh the dollar value of a similar sized fish cut up and sold in a market in Korea or Taiwan.

The point here is that big fish get caught around the world every day.

In Australia, commercial long-line fishermen can legally target and take striped marlin. Any black or blue marlin on their lines must be released, dead or alive.

About 300 tonnes of striped marlin are sold in or exported from Australia every year. Significant numbers of blues and blacks, some of which are grander size, are also caught and released. Many survive, some die.

Game fishers release 96pc of marlin

Recreational game fishers, on the other hand, release 96 per cent of all the marlin they catch. Tagging programs reveal survival of released fish is high at more than 90 per cent.

Even though the recreational sector takes very few marlin, the money invested in the fishery is significantly greater than that generated by the commercial sector, which kills far more fish.

Yet recreational fishers like Hilbert and Lawler, who predominantly practice catch and release, are persecuted for taking a single fish?

Based on the above, it has to be said that the social media outrage over the Exmouth blue marlin does seem somewhat excessive, especially when you take into consideration the benefits this fish will provide to the Exmouth economy.

So while that particular marlin is gone, it certainly won't be forgotten. The fish is currently being moulded and will be on permanent display at the Exmouth Game Fishing Club, where its sheer size will doubtless inspire generations of awestruck anglers and non-anglers alike.

Perhaps more importantly, its body will provide fisheries scientists with valuable research data, particularly relating to age and reproductive capacity.

From a game fishing perspective, Hilbert and Lawler have proven there are still giants out there to be caught (and more than likely released) by keen and dedicated anglers.

As an interesting aside, Eddy Lawler is a leading tag-and-release angler, with more than 1000 billfish tagged.

Recaptures of tagged fish, including those tagged by Lawler, provide fisheries managers and scientists with important data on fish movement patterns and growth rates.

The take-home message here isn't the demise of one big fish, no matter its economic worth or the hysteria surrounding its capture — rather the challenge lies with doing what's needed to ensure that these giant fish continue prowl the deep blue currents.

That means focusing on the big picture, which is all about managing fish stocks and marine environments for diversity and abundance.

Overfishing (mostly by international industrial fishing fleets), pollution, destruction of marine habitat and climate change are recognised as the major problems facing top order pelagic predators like marlin.

Consider the good game fishers do

Inspired and motivated by the mighty catches of the past and the present, modern anglers are in a unique position of influence when it comes ensuring a positive future for fish and for fishing.

Anglers and angling groups such as The Billfish Foundation, the International Game Fishing Association and the Game Fishing Association of Australia lobby and work behind the scenes to try and convince governments to do what is needed to ensure our marine environments remain sustainable.

Limiting long lining and gill netting are just two of the various international fishing industry and environmental issues in which key angling bodies like TBF and the IGFA are heavily involved. These groups operate via support from anglers and the angling industry. Anglers support these organisations because they want clean oceans filled with fish.

The fact is most anglers will never have the opportunity — or even the desire — to target 1000lb+ marlin. But we all feel good knowing those fish are still there.

And that knowledge — exemplified by the amazing grander blue caught by Hilbert and Lawler in Exmouth this week — inspires the vital work of dedicated, conservation-minded anglers and angling organisations around the globe in doing what is possible to make sure those fish stay there, now and into the future.

Jim Harnwell worked as a fishing magazine editor and publisher for 20 years. He is now employed in the fisheries management sector.