A group of fishermen in Cornwall, England has just successfully released a massive thresher shark, forgoing an official size record to see the fish return to the sea.  

Image: Dan Watkins/used with permission

Despite decades on the water, UK charter captain Dan Hawkins had never seen a thresher shark. The long-tailed fish are rare in these waters, so it came as quite a shock when a recent trip landed one of the biggest ever caught. 

Based on dimensions, the shark was estimated at some 368 pounds (167kg). If accurate, that number tops the UK shark-fishing record of 323 pounds (147 kg), which was set by another thresher shark in 1982. 

The International Game Fishing Association (IGFA), which governs such records, requires that candidates be weighed at an official land-based weigh station. But for Hawkins and his guests, transporting the fish (which would have killed it) was never an option. For these anglers, the chance encounter was enough. 

"I knew what it was because it jumped 20 feet out of the water," Watkins told us. "I couldn't believe it. I was like a kid a Christmas. When the shark was brought aboard I made sure there was water passing over it." 

The team measured and photographed the shark, a process that Watkins limits to about three minutes. This is the same time goal used by many shark scientists during their workups, and it helps to reduce additional stress to the animal after a battle on the line.

The hook is cut before release. Image: Dan Watkins

"Then I lower the fish back into the sea," he says. "Head first so water passes through the gills, while still holding the tail until it kicks."

While releasing the animal likely means the record application will be rejected, we have to applaud the move. As we've discussed here in detail, small changes to the IFGA's trophy-fishing policies could have big implications for threatened species.

Because the largest sharks in the sea are often female, world-record catches tend to be as well – and that means trophy fishing inadvertently targets the ocean's baby-makers. For animals that can take 15 years to reach sexual maturity, the loss of even a single pregnant female can have negative consequences.

Despite some negative public perceptions of the sport (and some sad examples of illegal fishing behaviour), there are many conservation-minded anglers out there. In fact, many scientists agree that working with the fishing community is our best chance to make a positive impact for sharks and rays.

Whether or not sport fishing is your cup of tea, we're happy to see this stunning animal live on. "The thresher swam away strongly," adds Nick Lane, who made the catch. "A wonderful sight for all on board." 

And in case you're wondering about that impressive tail, you're looking at the shark's weapon of choice. When whipped overhead, the structure can be used to strike and stun fish:


Top header image: Shutterstock