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But you should see the size of the ones that got away
March 3, 2014 6:06 AM   Subscribe

"Adjusting for time of year, and after checking and measuring 1,275 different trophy fish, she found that in the 1950s, the biggest fish in the photos were typically over 6 feet — sometimes 6 feet 5 inches long. By the time we get to 2007, when Loren bought a ticket on a deep sea day cruise and snapped this picture ...... the biggest fish were averaging only a foot, or maybe a little over. That's a staggering change. The biggest fish on display in 2007 was a shark, and sharks, Loren calculated, are now half the size they used to be in the '50s. As to weight, she figured the average prizewinner dropped from nearly 43.8 pounds to a measly 5 pounds — an 88 percent drop. Radiolab reports on how the average trophy fish caught at Florida's Key West has shrunk considerably since the fifties."

The story is based on research done by Loren McClenachan (PDF), using historical fishing photographs from Key West's Monroe County Library. Because the same trophy board had been used since 1956 and was still in use in 2007, when McClenachan did her research, she was able to make accurate measurements using these pictures.
posted by MartinWisse (32 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Visual example of over-fishing. And I wonder how long it is before the Key West Fishing and Tourism board starts trying to suppress this information because it will be bad for business?
posted by Old'n'Busted at 6:15 AM on March 3


Shame that we can't redirect that stupid competitive energy into something useful.

Trophy Composting!
Trophy Volunteering!
Trophy Minimizing Environmental Impact of Lifestyle-ing!
Trophy Straightening of the Lorenz Curve and Reducing of Gini Coefficient!

but nope, it's all killing animals and causing CTE through head trauma.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:21 AM on March 3 [19 favorites]


ack.

similar but different I was reading the New Yorker article about ITER and there's a line casually dropped about the impending ecological collapse that awaits around 2100. I mean, come on guys, I gotta get out of bed mornings and you're making it very very very fucking hard.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:25 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]


So now, a thing that jumped out at me: those giant fish in the early photos are a species called goliath grouper, which is now protected. It can't legally be caught as a trophy fish. There still are goliath grouper, and they're still (as far as I know) pretty big. Did anyone parse this story better than I could and separate out the whole "we are no longer legally able to catch the super giant fish, what does this mean for the average size of catch" thing? I can certainly believe that regular fish are shrinking, but I was wondering how she controlled for the goliath grouper factor.
posted by Frowner at 6:31 AM on March 3 [17 favorites]


leotrotsky: "Shame that we can't redirect that stupid competitive energy into something useful."

Where I live they've been trying to redirect it into killing INVASIVE fish, with big state-sponsored tournaments for most caught, biggest caught, best-tasting cooked version, etc., and also licensing people to fish with swords and bows and whatever stupid-ass thing they want as long as they're killing Asian Carp.

Those photos are pretty amazing, though. I've hardly ever seen a fish bigger than 18" around here except the stupid carp which get to around 2.5 feet. I guess I sort-of hazily thought that fish were all mostly salmon-sized unless you were talking about sharks or whatever. I saw some aquarium-kept local catfish that were more than six feet long and I did not even know they could get that big. It was like a literal monster, I had no idea.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:31 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Based on the comments here and there I'm pretty surprised at the obvious oversight that these are different kinds of fish. Isn't Radiolab known for being better than this?
posted by cellphone at 6:35 AM on March 3 [3 favorites]


Based on the comments here and there I'm pretty surprised at the obvious oversight that these are different kinds of fish.

The point is that where you'd used to be able to haul in a catch of monster groupers on a daytrip, now the only thing you can catch are a half dozen yellowtail, which are really common and not that impressive. It's an indication the entire area has been fished out. Looking at those trophy pics, it's no wonder why.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:41 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Shame that we can't redirect that stupid competitive energy into something useful.

Trophy Composting!


You are clearly unfamiliar with English allotment gardening culture. I'm pretty sure they even have competitive rain-barrel filling.
posted by srboisvert at 6:43 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


This kind of news makes me wonder why I recycle cans and bottles. What's the point if we're ignoring these signs of impending fishery collapse?
posted by etherist at 6:58 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Here in New England, the striped bass fish stocks utterly imploded in the early '80s - with a concerted political effort by recreational fishermen, they've rebounded nicely.

Pointing out that a widely beloved aspect of American culture, recreational angling, is under threat due to careless and selfish commercial interest will make a raving environmentalist out of the most right-wing of Republicans. (See also: Ducks Unlimited).

The word needs to get out about the real situation, and this is a very effective way to do it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:04 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Isn't Radiolab known for being better than this?

Radiolab is very enjoyable, but it has always been more pop than science.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:04 AM on March 3 [9 favorites]


Etherist, because there's money to be made buying and selling recyclables, but not much in admitting that we're not managing fisheries sustainably.
posted by sneebler at 7:06 AM on March 3


The point is that where you'd used to be able to haul in a catch of monster groupers on a daytrip, now the only thing you can catch are a half dozen yellowtail, which are really common and not that impressive. It's an indication the entire area has been fished out. Looking at those trophy pics, it's no wonder why.

But isn't it illegal to catch goliath grouper? That's what I was wondering about - goliath grouper is protected now, its population is increasing - the mere fact that no one is photographing trophy goliath grouper anymore doesn't prove anything about the size of fish. If they were catching grouper and the grouper were smaller, that would show something.

Because I am just that scientific, I turned to Wikipedia, which did say that trophy fishing of grouper - and throwing back the smaller ones - may have selected for small ones and bred out the big ones, so there's that.

Again, I am totally ready to believe that fish are smaller - it seems like salmon and sturgeon used to be bigger, I've read that - but I am interested in controlling for grouper.
posted by Frowner at 7:06 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


This kind of news makes me wonder why I recycle cans and bottles.

I think that for every Prius sold in the US, China builds something like seven new coal-fired power plants, but at least it lets liberal Americans feel good about themselves. Individual acts of conservation aren't going to save the the world, we need institutional change at the highest levels of the biggest governments.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:06 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]


I've lived around and fished one of the most productive fisheries in the world - the Chesapeake Bay and the Mid Atlantic - my whole life. While collapsing fisheries are a real and serious problem, this article is definitely missing the point.

1. The groupers in the first photos are now protected; that's why you don't see them in the later photos. ( Even the first photos don't show huge groupers. Groupers can get spectacularly large.)

2. The bottom photos show much smaller species - snapper, yellowtail, pompano, etc. Much smaller eating fish that most people would rather catch, anyway.

3. Most areas have instituted limits on both sides of what is a keepable fish. Too big or too small and it has to be released.

4. Sport fishing can definitely put some pressure on fish populations, but individual fishermen are definitely NOT the ones crashing fisheries.

(That said, it is much harder to catch a doormat flounder nowadays than it was when I was a kid, so... )
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:11 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Individual acts of conservation aren't going to save the world, but individual acts of conservation are what keeps people remembering that conservation is a priority at the times when it's important--i.e., when they go to vote, when they make purchasing decisions, etc, all of which are important in the aggregate. At which point US citizens still don't get much say in what China does, but it's still something.
posted by Sequence at 7:12 AM on March 3 [7 favorites]


but I was wondering how she controlled for the goliath grouper factor

It's discussed in the research paper.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 7:14 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


Pretty much true throughout the Atlantic across a great number of commercially fished species - in the 50s it was routine to land 50# cod and 400# halibut. Today, an 8# cod is considered huge.
posted by Miko at 7:17 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


That is just nature selecting for a smaller size as a survival advantage coupled with climatic changes and pollution.
posted by Renoroc at 7:20 AM on March 3


I think that science writers ought to be legally obligated to link to the original research papers on which they base their articles.
posted by deadbilly at 7:22 AM on March 3


I say, having just seen that the paper is linked below the jump
posted by deadbilly at 7:25 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


From the PDF:

"Sample sizes were not large enough to determine species-specific changes over time."
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:36 AM on March 3 [4 favorites]


If the number of photos has increased since the 50's we'd expect regression to the mean with regards to the sizes of fish. In addition to fish depopulation I nominate sampling bias (or the increasing lack of sampling bias).
posted by GuyZero at 7:42 AM on March 3


Benny Andajetz: "1. The groupers in the first photos are now protected; that's why you don't see them in the later photos. ( Even the first photos don't show huge groupers. Groupers can get spectacularly large.)"

I came in to say this. You can't win a trophy for catching a Grouper any more.
posted by zarq at 7:47 AM on March 3


Using photo comparisons makes no sense whatsoever. In the '50s, everything was killed and brought back to the dock, and there were no limits or other fishery regulations. Along with the protections for grouper noted by others above, consider that tarpon fishing is now almost exclusively catch and release. Billfish are heavily regulated and are also almost exclusively catch and release. Every inshore species has size and bag limits. Florida also implemented a net fishing ban in '95, which was challenged & briefly overturned 2013, but has been reinstated. Fisheries are in peril worldwide. It's a serious issue that merits serious scientific study (and political action to go with it), but this is not it.
posted by gimli at 7:48 AM on March 3


Why are changes in catch due to "you can't catch them because they got so overfished that we made it illegal" a separate issue? Isn't that a relevant factor in the "smaller fish due to overfishing" phenomenon? Am I missing something? I mean if they were plentiful, they'd de-list the species right?
posted by salvia at 7:49 AM on March 3 [2 favorites]


How do you control what you catch when your hook is out of sight underwater? If you accidentally catch a Goliath Grouper of course you release it, but is it illegal to snap a photo first? Could they still not be used as a data point?
posted by sourwookie at 7:49 AM on March 3 [1 favorite]


Why are changes in catch due to "you can't catch them because they got so overfished that we made it illegal" a separate issue? ... I mean if they were plentiful, they'd de-list the species right?

Sure, but if you're measuring the size of fish using trophy pictures, and if the size of fish that can be brought home for trophy pictures is heavily regulated by the state of Florida, then your study reduces to an elaborate way of measuring the laws of the state of Florida, which are easier to characterize via direct observation.

The paper does address this -- Figure 2(b) on page five shows the decline in size when excluding species whose capture is currently prohibited. It looks like a ballpark 50% reduction over the last 50 years, but it's noisy.

Page 5 also says that other than sharks (and grouper, which are excluded for the reasons Frowner mentioned), "no significant declines in length were detected" within groups, so "declines in size of trophy fish caught in the recreational fishery were due to shifts in composition of landings rather than declines in mean size of individuals within groups." That suggests that regulation of the size within a species didn't affect the result.
posted by jhc at 8:36 AM on March 3 [5 favorites]


So the big fish are being caught less often, due generally to lower population levels among larger fish species. (I'm assuming the shifts in composition reflect shifts in population levels instead of say, a shift in preferred tourist fishing month.) This impact gets heightened when a species crosses a certain rarity threshold and becomes regulated. Why isn't that an interesting and coherent story?
posted by salvia at 8:52 AM on March 3


Isn't Radiolab known for being better than this?

Radiolab is <wait, wait, is the microphone connected> entertaining, and often covers iiiiiinteressssiiiing <descending tone> suuuubjeeects <rising tone>, but lots of people <kids voice: like me> <other kids voice: and me> think they spend more time on making a show out of science <thomas dolby: Science!> than vetting the material.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:31 AM on March 3 [28 favorites]


So the big fish are being caught less often, due generally to lower population levels among larger fish species. (I'm assuming the shifts in composition reflect shifts in population levels instead of say, a shift in preferred tourist fishing month.) This impact gets heightened when a species crosses a certain rarity threshold and becomes regulated. Why isn't that an interesting and coherent story?

It is, as far as it goes. But, it's not quite as simple as that; fish populations and behavior are not the easiest things to measure. Especially pelagic fish. For example, thirty years ago the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay was host to massive spring and fall invasions of chopper bluefish. Big bluefish are very gamey and don't have much commercial value, but they are highly sought-after sport fish. At about that time, strict regulations were instituted to protect striped bass, which seemed to be declining. Since then, striped bass have rebounded with a vengeance, but (probably due to food competition) the bluefish are nowhere to be found.

From all accounts, the bluefish still exist in very healthy numbers. They just don't come inshore like they used to. If just the catch was studied, a different conclusion would likely be reached.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:15 AM on March 3


Pick any fishing anywhere, then rewind 50 years.
2014-50=1964
Check out these facehuggers from 1964.

In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.
posted by anonymisc at 11:53 AM on March 3


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