The conservation acronym POOP ('protection only on paper') recently came into my life and I love it (big 'ups' to Dr Chris Parsons). The message 'POOP' drives home (yes, I just said that) is that more often than we realise, 'fix-everything' conservation plans don't actually make a difference to threatened wildlife. This is because complicated large-scale policy changes are especially tricky to enforce. 

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A world record goliath grouper. Image: Florida Keys--Public Libraries/Flickr

So, what if, by focusing our attention on a few small changes, we could help conserve not just one but 85 different fish species? In an attempt to do just that, a group of scientists led by shark biologist David Shiffman has suggested that the world's largest trophy fishing organisation, the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), make some changes to their programme.

One of the primary functions of the IGFA is to certify the official world record sizes of fish caught by trophy anglers, which often involves taking the fish to a land-based weigh station (a.k.a imminent fish death – something the team is also trying to change). To prevent putting pressure on species that can't afford to lose numbers, the researchers suggest the IGFA stop issuing these records for species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List – and it seems like a no-brainer.

If sport fishing is your thing, don't freak out just yet. Although the scientists' suggestion comes at a tense time for sport hunters (in the wake of the Kendal Jones debate and the Rosie O'Donnell shark-fishing debacle) the paper is not a condemnation of trophy fishing as a sport. Rather, it is an attempt to include anglers in the future of conservation. 

"Recreational anglers can be extremely conservation minded and have been powerful allies in many environmental discussions," explains Shiffman. "The IGFA in particular pride themselves on promoting ethical angling practices. Given that, it troubled us to see them promoting the killing of IUCN Red List Threatened species, particularly the largest individuals, which are so important to population recovery."

Of the 1,222 species of fish currently on the world record list, 85 are on the Red List (including 15 that are considered critically endangered and several that are listed by CITES). But despite these brow-furrowing numbers, the researchers' suggestions were not welcomed by the IGFA.  

" ... [The authors'] conclusion that [eliminating] IGFA records for IUCN threatened species would 'result in an instantaneous reduction of fishing pressure ... and would promote the recovery of their populations' lacks biological credibility," IGFA conservation manager Jason Schratwieser said in an official statement.

Schratwieser's retort centres around two main points. First, he considers IGFA record submissions for threatened species to be "rare events". He explains that a total of 15 world record applications have been received for threatened species in the past 20 years (a seemingly small number). What he seems to be missing (and what the authors of the study outline in great detail), is that even a small number of catches can have a disproportionately high impact on threatened populations.

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Hammerhead trophies past and present. Images: Florida Keys -- Public Libraries/Flickr & [salsus]/Flickr

"Fish species with healthy populations can withstand the impact of trophy fishing," writes Shiffman in a blog post. "But for species with already reduced populations, selectively removing the largest individuals can impede population recovery or even contribute to decline."

Many fish exhibit sexual dimorphism (one sex is larger), where females are larger than males. Larger mothers also have higher energy reserves and are able to invest more resources into their young. What this means is that by targeting the 'biggest and baddest' specimens, fishing-record seekers unintentionally target the best baby-makers.

"For example, removing just one large 61 centimetre long red snapper from the population is the equivalent of removing over 200 smaller 41 centimetre long red snappers," Shiffman adds. Factor in the slow development time of many large fishes, and a small number of catches can turn into a very big problem.

The endangered scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) is a great example of this (and my favourite shark). According to the IUCN, it takes 4-15 years (depending on location) for a female scalloped hammerhead to reach sexual maturity. When that finally happens, she will gestate her pups (many of which will be eaten by other animals before they reach adulthood) for another 9-12 months . Think about that. If even one world-record catch is made, that's an entire generation – up to 16 years in the making – gone. 

Schratwieser's second argument focuses on the fact that "commercial landings for many of these species are orders of magnitude higher than trophy fishing efforts" (in other words: commercial fisherman take more fish than record holders do). Overfishing is well recognised in the paper as one of the greatest threats to marine biodiversity, and Schratwieser's response ignores the authors' attempt to work with anglers to alleviate some of the pressure on fish populations and therefore help improve the already-dire situation.

"It does not matter what originally caused the population declines in these fish," clarifies Shiffman. "What matters is their populations have declined so much that an international team of scientific experts says that they are threatened with extinction (and therefore, we believe, ethical trophy anglers should no longer target them)."

Top header image: Vik Approved/Flickr