Bonefish vs. Sharks (and cudas)

On the rather long list of stuff I didn’t know about you can add the growing body of knowledge regarding bonefish catch and release mortality.

It turns out that, depending on what is lurking nearby and how long it took to take that picture, mortality of bonefish in the R part of the C&R equation can be up to 40%.  FORTY PERCENT! Holy $h1t!

(UPDATE: the study referenced here the mortality rate for bonefish that had lost equilibrium was about 30%, another study pointed toward 40%)

Forty percent… as a trout C&R angler, I’m used to thinking of that number more like 3-5%.  40% just seems totally unacceptable and I hope if you are reading this, you’d find it unacceptable as well.

How this came about… scientists, anglers, the Bahamas, bonefish… an intriguing mix that yielded some really interesting and important findings.

Whether a bonefish had or had not lost equilibrium was a significant predictor of predation, with bonefish losing equilibrium being over six times more likely to suffer predation than those that did not lose equilibrium (sciency stuff removed here). All other variables measured during the study (total length, angling time, handling time, air exposure time, bleeding, and water temperature) were not directly related to predation risk.

Fish that were preyed upon did not spend significantly more time further from mangroves than fish that were not preyed upon. In fact, following release 17 (20%) bonefish were observed swimming into open water (N2.5 m deep) rather than staying in close proximity to the shore line or in shallow water.
Longer air exposure and overall handling times were significant predictors of the loss of equilibrium in angled bonefish. Angling time, total length, water temperature, and bleeding at the  hooking site were not significant predictors of equilibrium loss.

If you want to read it straight from the abstract, you can find it here, courtesy of Cooke Lab at Carlton University (Canadian).  (Thanks Steve for the hook up on this study.)

So, what does this all mean?  It means dropping the Hero Shot is a really, really good idea if you care about that particular fish living.  If you can take a pic of that fish in the water, great… but if you do what I did on my last trip and take the fish out of the water (or have the guide take the fish out of the water) for an extensive photo shoot… well… it won’t go well for the fish and it may only have a couple of minutes left to live.

If the fish is unable to right itself when you put it back in the water, that fish is in trouble.  It could even be that these stressed fish even leave a trail of chemicals  behind them that predators like Lemon Sharks zero in on.

Jason Lozano, one of the anglers involved in the study had this to say…

With 15 seconds of air exposure 80% of the fish we released in one day were killed by lemons or cudas within 2 mins. If the fished avoided contact with the predator longer than 2 mins their chances increased substantially.

Jason pointed out that some flats clearly had more predators than others.  If you are fishing a flat with more cudas or sharks and you take that fish out for the glory/hero shot to the point it loses equilibrium when it is released, well, that fish will likely die soon.

So, to review… don’t take the fish out of the water.  It’s a bad idea if you want the fish to survive.

UPDATE: In the study referenced above, bonefish that had lost equilibrium had a mortality rate of 30%, while bonefish that did not lose equilibrium had a mortality rate of about 4%.

Bad Idea…

Bad idea

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken this picture.

Good idea…

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  1. Enjoyed the post on the handling of bonefish. The grip and grin shots give bones and tarpon a great chance of being shark bait I believe.

    Years ago I use to go on forums and complain about tarpon photos. It would result in lots of people “beating” me up saying I was spoiling someones great day on the water/internet.

    I cant tell you how many times I have seen boats dragging tarpon around trying to revive them, also have seen many guides following hooked fish which wears out the fish and the angler burning the clock and chumming the water with a stressed fish.

    Well now its against the law to handle a tarpon in florida unless you attach a kill tag to the fish. There is even one internet video that you can view by a guide who laughs out loud as a large shark chases a bridge hooked tarpon!

    In my boat “now” no tarpon is pulled out of the water for a photo any more as well as bonefish. With large tarpon I simply grab hold of the shock leader and pop it off leaving the hook in, and I use steel small diameter hooks. I believe leaving the hook in and not handling the fish is the best solution and my clients allways agree with me later, after all we all know what a tarpon and bonefish looks like!

    Capt Dave Hunt

  2. Dave, thanks so much for the comment and for your perspective. I think guides play a really crucial role here. As a newbie, I had no idea that handling a bonefish was any different from handling a trout (which are remarkably resilient, according to the science I’ve read on the topic). Now, I know better, but there are so many out there that would come in with the same assumptions I’ve made. Thanks for being out in front on all this.

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