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Posted on Mar 4, 2013 in Get Reel
Vandalizing the Fish
by John Brownlee

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or have been on an extended cruise to the Arctic in the past few weeks, you probably saw the video that went viral on the Web, showing a tarpon engulfing a man’s arm in the Florida Keys.

This allegedly happened at a marina just south of my house in Islamorada, a place where tourists buy buckets of dead sardines to feed the hundreds of tarpon that swim under the dock, fish that have become too lazy to find food for themselves and resort to awaiting handouts. Some of these performing fish probably weigh 100 pounds or more.

The fellow in the video holds a bait in his hand, and as the tarpon leaps to grab it, he appears to push his hand downward through the fish’s gills, grabbing its gill plate, and then drags the thrashing fish onto the dock and falls on it as his female companion shrieks nearby. See the video below:

This video made national news, appearing in newspapers, on major websites, and it even made the ABC News show Good Morning America. Many of the media outlets reported on the event with a sort of ­bewildered amusement, a “Fish Bites Man” approach. Others took the angle of saying the fish attacked the man; the poor guy was minding his own ­business, and ­— bam! — a vicious tarpon tried to take off his arm.

But to most observers, this looked like a case of someone pulling a publicity stunt for a cheap laugh, probably at the cost of the fish’s life. If you look closely at the video, the guy’s arm was already bloody, probably because he had unsuccessfully attempted this stunt earlier. Tarpon have raspy mouths and will definitely scrape you up if they latch onto your hand or arm.

But they would do so only ­momentarily in an attempt to get a fish out of your hand. There’s no way a tarpon would ever bite someone and hang on with enough force to allow them to be hauled onto a dock. In my opinion, this was a clear case of what my old friend, the late scientist Frank J. Mather, used to call “vandalizing the fish for vanity.”

Although the tarpon incident constituted an egregious case of such vandalism, we’ve all been guilty of it in one form or another during our fishing careers. I was fishing a tournament in Mexico with Mather in the late 1980s when I first heard him use the term, in reference to ­hauling ­sailfish over the side of a boat to ­photograph them. He pointed out how that was seriously detrimental to the health of the fish, yet the other guys on the boat were determined to have their photographs taken with the fish, and so the practice went on.

It still does. Facebook is littered with photos of people hauling sailfish, tarpon, big striped bass and other fish out of the water vertically, for a “quick” photo, with the good intentions of releasing them, but many of those fish will die. This common practice led the State of Florida to clarify its rules regarding “possession” of tarpon; the rules now say that pulling a large tarpon into the boat for a photo is the same as killing it in the eyes of law ­enforcement.

We, and many others, have ­written extensively about proper release techniques, and I’m keenly aware that you start sounding like a kid’s Sunday-school teacher when you try to talk to someone about the subject. He ­immediately rolls his eyes as if to say, “Spare me from the fish huggers.”

But using common sense doesn’t make you a Pollyanna, nor does ­treating a fish with a modicum of respect if you intend to release it. If you’re not killing the fish for the table, handle it with care, lest you end up in a viral video that makes you look like the moron of the month.