In late March, Florida Keys charter boat captain Nick Stanczyk took a Cape Coral couple out for what could have been a routine fishing trip.
Charter fishing is a family business for Stanczyk, one honed by his father and uncle before being taken on by the son. Most days, he goes out on a boat with a family and orchestrates their deep-sea fishing. They will bring up snapper, mahi and grouper, but swordfish, he says proudly, is their “specialty.”
On March 31, something a little bit different happened. A fish pulled at the line soon after Stanczyk’s introductory talk, a swordfish, it turned out, that would break state records for its weight. The fish engaged in an 8-hour long struggle with Stanczyk and his clients, one that carried the boat for about 20 miles.
When Stanczyk and the couple finally reeled the fish up to the boat, they snapped a picture showing the swordfish’s immense size. Tied by its tail, the fish’s bill stretched far past the group’s legs while its back side went far above their heads. The photo shows the group looking jubilant and proud, emboldened by their catch.
But when the story of the boat’s record-breaking catch went public, many wondered about the ethics of pursuing a fish for hours on end and ultimately killing a creature that had amassed such a weight.
“A fish that fights for 8 hours deserves to be set free,” wrote James Askins on the Tampa Bay Times’ Facebook post.
“This breaks my heart,” wrote Vanessa Charles. “That poor living breathing creature fought for its life for 8 hours just to be killed for sport.”
Stanczyk defends the catch, though he admits “the battle” is part of the experience of deep-sea fishing. Swordfish are not a federally endangered species in the United States. Even by recommended protections, like the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species, swordfish fall in the “least concern” category.
In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries unit regulates which fish can be caught from the ocean and how that process can occur. In the case of swordfish, recreational fishers must have a valid permit and use proper equipment, but otherwise their catch is legal.
NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Allison Garrett confirmed that Stanczyk both had his permit and that the boat used appropriate gear when dealing with the swordfish. Regulations require a minimum size for any swordfish catch, but the 757.8 pound weight fell far above that.
The swordfish population in the United States is “healthy and sustainably managed,” Garrett wrote in an email last week. The catch was legal and met all of the necessary criteria.
In fact, the U.S. is routinely not reaching its quota for swordfish catches, said the director of shark research at Mote Marine Laboratory, Bob Hueter. Fisheries across the globe are given North Atlantic swordfish quotas by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. The U.S. can fish about 3900 tons of swordfish each year between 2018 and 2021, according to ICCAT’s most recent guidelines.
But two scientists the Times spoke with are divided on whether the catch would be considered ethical, although they both unequivocally agree that it was legal. Both say the fact that Stanczyk and the couple ate the fish makes a difference, rather than releasing it back into the sea from a fight it would likely not have survived.
“If they were intending just to release it, then fighting it for 8 hours would have probably killed the fish,” Hueter said. “Fishing for sport is okay as long as it’s done ethically and measures are taken to increase the survivorship of the animal, but if you’re fishing for food, what does it matter as long as you’re doing it legally?”
But David Shiffman, a postdoctoral fellow studying shark fisheries at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, said the issue comes down to killing a swordfish that didn’t have to be killed.
“I am not going against fishing, I am against unnecessarily harmful practices that harm species,” Shiffman said. “It’s not illegal, they did eat it rather than take a picture and dump it overboard for no reason, but it didn’t need to have been killed.”
Stanczyk knows there has been backlash to the catch. He has gotten the feedback, the good and the bad. Some wrote in to say they were impressed by the size of the catch. Others had thoughts on the methods and the act of killing a fish that large during such a long struggle.
“We see a lot of ‘greenies and tree huggers,'" Stanczyk said of his online foes. "I don’t know what all these people eat--do they all eat leaves and vegetables?”
He reiterated his central thesis: This is a fish.
“People think this is a unicorn,” Stanczyk said in an interview this week. “It’s just a fish. We eat them all the time. Any grocery store sells it.”
The debate over the ethics of the swordfish catch could essentially come down to one question: Do fish feel pain?
It’s a question scientists have struggled to answer. Hueter said studies indicate that, in most cases, fish do not understand pain in the way humans do. What fish do experience is physiological stress, a process that can make it difficult for them to supply oxygen to their muscles and can lead to death.
This can render a misnomer of the fishing method of “catch and release,” where fishermen catch their fish, unhook them and release them back into the sea. When fish reach a severe level of physiological stress, they often die when returned to sea, even if they are alive at the moment of release.
After an eight-hour long struggle, Hueter said, it is unlikely this swordfish would have lived on had they let it go.
“I kind of salute them for hanging in there and finishing the job, because they were intent on getting it to shore and filleting it and eating it,” Hueter said. “It probably passed the point of return sometime through the fight, and not necessarily at the end.”
Eight hours is not the typical fight for a fish, Stanczyk said. Often, it’s between an hour to four hours for a big catch, but swordfish are a unique species.
“Eight hours is a very long time,” Stanczyk said. “Swordfish are one of the strongest fish and people have fought them for 24 hours before and sometimes lose them.”
But Shiffman said fishermen often use gear that emphasizes the chase and doesn’t try to minimize stress, as gear used by scientists for research might. He has heard fishermen say hammerhead sharks can’t be caught in less than two or three hours. But, he said, he’s been able to land one in about three to four minutes.
“Fighting a fish in the battle is part of the experience,” Stanczyk said. “Sure, I’d rather catch it quicker. It’s less stressful for me, but we can’t control it.”
But that eight-hour long chase, a clear struggle, hearkens back to hunting and animal cruelty incidents that have exploded into the public sphere. Take Cecil the Lion, an animal killed by a Minnesota dentist with an arrow. The lion was being studied by researchers from Oxford University. It recalls the shark-dragging incident in Tampa Bay, where a group of young men dragged a shark secured by a rope behind their boat.
What makes this different? The catch was undertaken legally, the animal itself was not endangered and the swordfish was eaten.
When the fishing was complete, Stanczyk had an almost 760 pound meal to bring back to family and friends.
“If you’re going to kill something, using it is better than not using it,” Shiffman said. “But perhaps not killing it would be better still.”