It was heralded as the biggest fish taken from our waters, but should the 1,000lb-plus shark caught – then killed – be cause for celebration?
As ends go, it was just about as ignominious as it gets. Under almost symbolic slate grey skies on a deserted dock somewhere in the Shannon Estuary the magnificent beast, which up until a few hours previously had spent its entire and lengthy existence peacefully roaming the depths of the ocean, hung lifeless from a rope attached to a fork lift truck.
The captor, all smiles and macho pride, stood beside it, his triumphant expression in stark contrast to the pitiful look on the fish he had just caught and then killed. Fresh blood ran from the creature’s mouth, collecting in crimson pools on the concrete, while the cameraman continued to snap away as he took the pictures that ensured angling history was made.
Only the resulting pictures don’t simply act as a visual record of the heaviest fish ever caught on rod and line in British or Irish waters. No, they do much more than that – they cast a shadow over the sport of angling.
It is a measure of the huge leaps we’ve made collectively in the last 20 years that images like this are now something of a rarity. Shots of huge sharks, marlin, sailfish and tuna strung up on quaysides are no longer considered politically correct and, in this country anyway, there is an acceptance that to publish them is to do untold damage to fishing. To put it another way, they give the antis easy and unnecessary ammunition.
While no-one has a problem with killing for the table – that notion stands at the very core of why Man began to fish in the first place – to kill merely in the name of personal gratification is increasingly, and correctly, becoming marginalised.
So it’s for precisely that reason that pictures like this now sit so awkwardly with so many.
Of course, many will argue that the captor of any sea fish, so long as it’s legal, has the right to take it – and that’s especially true if he wishes to remove it for the table. After all, Joe Waldis – the angler in question – had paid the Irish charter skipper to help him catch a giant. And when that was delivered, it was down to personal choice what should happen next – either release the shark unharmed but unweighed, or kill it and bring its carcass to shore where it could be accurately recorded.
Those same people who use the choice argument will also claim that vindication of the shark’s death comes in the fact that history has been made. It is impossible to weigh fish of that size afloat, so the only way to ensure accuracy was to do it on stable ground. Without Joe Waldis’ decision, we’d have never known that a shark of this size was swimming around in our waters, and another chapter in the sport’s record books would have remained unwritten.
But is that really what angling has become – a sport where success is dictated by pounds and ounces alone? Surely Waldis could have enjoyed the thrill of the scrap, cherished the sight of the beaten beast by the side of the boat and satisfied himself with an estimation of its enormous weight while allowing it to fight another day? That is put into sharp perspective when you learn that another angler on the same boat some time earlier hooked and beat an even larger creature but chose to release it instead.
There can be no great consolation either in the fact the giant shark was subsequently carved up to be eaten. No-one in the Irish port of Carrigaholt – the place where the fish was dismembered – needed food that badly.
Very slowly sea angling in this country has dragged itself into the 21st Century, with many skippers now operating a catch-and-release system that ensures the sustainability of our most vulnerable species. Fish are still taken for the pot, but bigger specimens are returned, the angler happy to enjoy the unforgettable adrenaline rush of the fight, while keeping one eye on conservation by returning their adversary to provide sport in the future.
It took a while, but eventually a more environmentally-aware society came to condemn the big game hunters, those that paid fortunes for the privilege of being able to shoot wild animals to the brink of extinction. It’s a practice that’s become so unpopular, those few that still do it are largely shunned by the western world. Recreational angling, in any guise, is a long, long way from that prospect, but we have a duty to all fish that swim in our oceans to act in a responsible manner.
No, the six gilled variety may not be as rare as other members of the shark family, and nowhere near as endangered as the marlin and sailfish hunted by big-game anglers. But the arguments that justify the death of any creature so big are being increasingly - and rightly - silenced by those voices fighting under the banner of conservation.
Angling history may have been made last week, but somehow the sport seems all the poorer for it.