common thresher shark underwater
Stock image of a common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus)

Thresher shark rebuttal (and some perspective)

 29th July 2021      Bill Brazier 

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On Sunday 25th July, well-known Irish international sea angler and renowned specimen hunter Dan Lynch hooked and landed a very large male thresher shark (𝘈𝘭𝘰𝘱𝘪𝘢𝘴 𝘷𝘶𝘭𝘱𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘴) whilst fishing off Cork for blue sharks. This is a rare fish in Irish waters and is only, to the best of my knowledge, the second ever thresher actually landed by a recreational angler on rod and line. It was also, by some considerable margin, the larger of these two fish. Dan estimated the fish at 500lbs and was over 4m long. With the assistance of the other anglers on his boat, Dan carefully brought the thresher on board to unhook it (circle hook), measure it and get some photos. The shark was quickly returned to the water where it recovered and swam off (there is a release video of this happening).

I was sent photos and video footage of Dan’s huge shark on the day of capture via a mutual friend. The following day, after Dan had himself shared his images on his own Facebook account, I decided to share it on the Off Scale magazine Facebook page . Given the rarity of the capture I knew many anglers would be interested and whilst I, better than most, understand that there are always people waiting to spew negativity on almost any angler’s capture, I admit that I underestimated the backlash that Dan and Off the Scale magazine would receive in the coming days. The capture generated massive interest on social media and essentially went viral on Twitter, thanks to the marine lobby group Blue Planet Society sharing a screenshot of the original Off the Scale Facebook post (we did not post the shark on our Twitter account). This was then picked up by several mainstream media outlets, including the Mirror and, eventually (28th July 2021) RTÉ Radio 1, where it featured on Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme .
thresher shark Ireland
Dan Lynch with his estimated 500lbs thresher shark caught and released off the Cork coast in July 2021
The consensus about the shark from the general public and non-angling fraternity (and disappointingly many anglers as well) was that the fish was taken aboard and killed – this was not the case, as was abundantly clear from the original posts and release footage, not to mention the integrity of the angler and ourselves here at the magazine. Off the Scale has rewritten the rule book when it comes to Irish angling publications by choosing to passionately promote catch and release and conservation of all fish and aquatic environments. Any of you who are dedicated followers will know we have a zero-tolerance for publication of dead fish and everything we do and have ever done (essentially voluntarily) has been to educate, inspire and generally make a positive difference to the world of angling.

A small minority of non-anglers did not appreciate this, however (understatement!), and wild, often vile, accusations have flown around the ether of social media over the past few days. Most jumped to ill-informed, often ridiculous and downright extremist conclusions about what catch and release angling actually is. Some even went so far as to compare it to trophy hunting, which is both insulting and inaccurate (trophy hunting is the deliberate killing of animals for sport). Dan chose to bring his thresher aboard his large boat, which is kitted out with a dedicated ‘hatch’ to allow larger-than-average fish to be safely brought aboard. This may or may not have been an oversight on his part given the sheer size of this shark, but surely the all-important point here is that the shark was not killed and towed back to land so Dan could claim an Irish record. Instead, he released the shark after unhooking, measuring and taking some quick photos. This is what millions of recreational anglers do every hour of every day all around the globe. This just happened to be slightly different given the size and rarity of the shark. Notably, many large sharks (including threshers) have been landed and boated before release in adjacent UK waters in recent years, and yet they received nowhere near the criticism as this capture has…

This whole situation desperately needs some more perspective: an angler caught a single, large, totally unexpected shark on rod and line and released it back alive after measuring and getting some photos. Given the infinite injustices in the world and the unfolding collapse of our biodiversity, climate and, in many aspects, society, surely these vocal protagonists have missed the point entirely? Endless vehement anger over pictures of one shark that wasn’t killed and next to nothing said (ever) about the abundant commercial long-lining, harvesting and (despite being illegal) finning of sharks – blues, porbeagle, threshers, the lot!

In fairness to Blue Planet Society, they clearly stated that the thresher shark was not killed. Sadly, many of their followers did not or chose not to acknowledge this fact and vented their evident anger and frustration at Dan and, by proxy, this magazine. The over-reaction and downright hysteria from some online over the capture is quite astonishing – bleeding-out, punctured organs etc. It resulted in the original post here being hijacked by what are clearly anti-angling lobbyists (ironic, as they were commenting on an angling page!). The magazine received literally hundreds of vitriolic and often abusive private massages across Facebook and especially Twitter. It was getting out of hand, impossible to deal with and for this reason I pulled the original post down. Whether you agree with this decision or not, I don’t need that kind of abuse in my life and wasn’t prepared to put up with it any longer. In any case, it was achieving nothing apart from creating yet more division between groups of people who genuinely care for the environment and wildlife.

If the shark had been killed, I would have been among the first to call out the angler and reprimand them – and so would almost the whole recreational angling community. Incidentally, shark catch-and-kill angling competitions are still commonplace in North America and these should rightly be condemned by anglers and non-anglers alike. Our seas are dying before our very eyes and sharks, at the top of marine food webs, are suffering more than most from over-fishing, finning and ecological cascades. Catch and release angling is not a significant threat to these creatures and anglers are among the only ones actually fighting for their conservation and highlighting these issues. If you don’t agree with C&R angling then that is your prerogative, but how anyone can even think for a second that recreational angling is worthy of more attention and concern than the raping and slaughter of our oceans is inexplicable.
Whilst finning for sharks is illegal in European waters (since 2013), the practice still goes on an almost unbelievable scale. For example, a Spanish trawler was caught by the Irish Navy in Irish waters in 2018 with 164,250kg of blue shark, 98kg of mako shark and 1,250kg of unidentified shark fins on board (see here ). Added to this, enormous numbers of sharks are killed globally, mainly through commercial by-catch from long-lining and netting (>100m annually). There is currently no legal protection for any shark species in Irish waters.

Thresher sharks are not classified as endangered but are listed as an IUCN Vulnerable species (Rigby et al., 2019). (edited 30/07/21) However, massive declines in the last 20 years have led to a likely status of ‘critically endangered’ being applied to North Atlantic populations (Rigby et al., 2019 supplementary information ). Like almost all shark species, their overall populations are declining due to commercial (not recreational) fishing pressures (primarily by-catch), including the deplorable, barbaric act of finning – which happens in Irish waters on an all too frequent basis. There are no management or conservation plans currently in place for thresher sharks (anywhere) and data on the species is notably lacking.

For the uneducated, I refer you to the latest science on thresher sharks which should provide more perspective. An extract from Rigby et al., 2019 (IUCN assessment data ) reads: “The species is highly valued by big-game recreational fishers, and although many practice catch and release, recreational fishing could be a threat due to post-release mortality that has been estimated for the Common Thresher as 78% for tail-hooked and 0% for mouth-hooked animals (i.e. all mouth-hooked animals survived) (Camhi et al. 2008, Sepulveda et al. 2015). At vessel mortality of 66.7% was estimated on Portuguese longlines in the Atlantic (Coelho et al. 2012).

I think we, as anglers, should use this debacle to highlight the plight of sharks and our marine life, and lobby for at least some form of legal protection for these species and their habitats. A key example would be to contribute to the public consultation on ‘Expanding Ireland’s Marine Protected Area Network’ which closes at 5pm July 30th 2021– submit your thoughts here

Bill Brazier,
founder/editor, Off the Scale magazine