The introduction of tag and release into the game fishing fraternity occurred back in the 1960’s when fisherman realised that bringing everything back to the gantry probably wasn’t the best idea in supporting a sustainable fishery. During the past 40 – 50 years thousands of game fish are tagged and released on an annual basis for purposes of conservation, research, education and responsible fisheries management.

Tag and release, game fishingSince the introduction of tag and release, a number of organisations and programmes have been initiated within gamefishing scene, but none are more internationally recognised than The Billfish Foundation. The late Winthrop P. Rockefeller founded the Billfish Foundation in 1986 with a mission of conserving billfish worldwide. The Billfish Foundations tagging program was begun in 1990 and today, it has grown to be the largest and most comprehensive international billfish-tagging program in the world.

More recently, more sophisticated tag and release technologies have been developed in the form of pop-up satellite tags. Through GPS locating technology and release or ‘pop-up’ devices, satellite tags gather information about post-release mortality rates, oceanic movements and preferred water temperature, clarity and currents to provide new insights into some of the planet’s least understood pelagic fish.

Although satellite tags are obviously the more expensive option and they’re obviously not that suitable from a recreational point of view, they remain as by far the best option for gathering relevant information for our industry.

Within New Zealand, NIWA and the Ministry of Fisheries are the main providers of fisheries research and annually they provide thousands of yellow ‘staple’ tags to fishing clubs, fishing organisation and recreational anglers for the purpose of research and recording data… it’s about here that some of my enthusiasm for tagging and what it stands for in New Zealand diminishes… but more on that soon!

tag placement, game fishingWhatever the tags of choice or target species, the best area of tag placement is generally along the shoulder or dorsal area. Obviously, the shoulder and back is the fleshiest area on any fish and it’s also considered to cause the least amount of irritation to the fish post application. This is certainly no new revelation in the world of gamefishing, but it’s something that I generally have mixed feelings about and will go into a bit more detail during the article.

From a chartering or professional perspective, I always like to be prepared when we do tag billfish. I always like to have at least one spare tag and tag applicator handy. If the tag gets knocked off the applicator in the confusion or the applicator itself gets damaged, you have the ability apply a new tag quickly and efficiently. More importantly, the fish can be released in as healthy condition as possible.

This is obviously pretty important during tournament time when accurate tag shots are vitally important and at times some tag shots can be worth quite a bit in prizes. A good crewman or tag-man will usually have a couple of spare tags tucked into their deck belt, ready to go if needed.

Some tournaments held overseas have penalties for any tag shots that don’t hit the shoulder area, although this doesn’t really relate to many New Zealand recreational fishermen, it’s just an example of what’s expected of crews in some big money tournaments overseas.

I, like most charter skippers around, prefer to use quite a long tag pole to ensure the fish is tagged early and released in good condition if need be. Another thing I like to consider with tag poles, is to make sure they’re rigid and that they don’t have not to much drag through the water as this can make deeper tag shots a little tricky, especially if the boat and fish are moving at speed.

I guess it’s always important to consider tournament rules and regulations on tag poles lengths and applicator lengths, as many good skippers have been caught out in this situation before.

As far as tagging technique is concerned, I try to teach crews just to hold the tag pole extended over the back of the boat and pointed directly at where you want to place the tag, i.e. the marlin’s back. If you’re extended and pointing at where you want the tag placed, if a tag-shot arises, you’re right there. I’ve worked with some crew (and I guess I’ve probably done it myself in the past) where they seem intent on holding the tag pole up at shoulder height in a ‘cocked’ position, looking somewhat like a Zulu warrior. In my experience, they usually end up either totally missing a tag shot, hitting the fish extremely hard or tagging the fish in areas such as the head, eyes, gill-plates or stomach region… obviously not doing the poor old fish any good at all.

Tags and tag-pole applicators are pretty sharp, so there’s really no need for the big Zulu warrior tag shot. Basically, good tag-men will have the tag pole held low in position and the tag can usually be applied with minimal fuss, even when the fish and boat are moving at speed… sometimes it’s easier said than done, but hopefully you get the picture.

The tag itself is usually held in place with a rubber band around the shaft of the pole, I like only having the tag held under just one or two strands of rubber band. Any more and the tag can be held on to tight and it won’t apply as easily. Once again, this isn’t hard to work out for yourself, but it’s just a little error I see some crews making at times.

From a recreational or trailer boat point of view, many may like just to take a little more time so they have better control of the fish and place the tag more accurately… this too is a point that I hope to cover a little later in the article.

Now in the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of writing opinionated material (well, from my point of view anyway), but I feel there’s certainly a few aspects, practices and attitudes towards tagging fish within the New Zealand scene that go totally against what tag and release is meant to be about. Considering the practice of tag and release is all about fish conservation, research and welfare of our gamefishing stocks, sometimes I feel we seem to get a bit sidetracked and perhaps we could and should learn a few things from our overseas friends.

In few ways, I feel that the New Zealand industry is a little off the pace and we possibly need to take note of what’s going on overseas. As fisherman, we should always have the fish’s welfare and overall conservation in the forefront of our mind, although some of our tagging attitudes and practices don’t particularly back this up.

Game Fishing TagsFirstly, we’ve all read articles and had discussions at fishing clubs regarding the effectiveness of the yellow NIWA or Ministry of Fisheries ‘staple’ tags. Well, I can inform you that New Zealand is one of the very few countries in the world that persevere with staple-headed tags, a majority of the countries around the world have moved onto nylon or plastic headed tags. Not only have our overseas friends moved on, but they did so quite some time ago.

The short and simply answer is no, ‘staple’ tags are not suitable for use on pelagic fish, but for some reason we seem to persevere with them in New Zealand and I certainly don’t expect any change in the foreseeable future. Staple tags are rejected by the fish’s flesh so they generally don’t last that long in pelagic fish. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve all read articles, had discussions and a few of us have witnessed it for ourselves, where tags have become over grown with oceanic matter and flesh has formed a large ulcer around the tag itself.

Nylon or plastic headed tags are a lot more user friendly, they seem to last a lot longer in pelagic fish and they’re certainly not as dangerously sharp as the staple tags. I’ve witnessed some tag shots using a staple tag that skew-off causing unnatural cuts or lacerations to the fish… and this is apparently all for the sake of conservation and fish welfare? Some may argue that basically more care and time is required when tagging, and although this is probably true in a lot of cases, generally you don’t encounter this problem at all when using plastic headed tags.

In Australia, staple tags are purely used for tagging sharks, where their sharp characteristics are obviously an advantage for piercing sharks extremely tough skin. In fact many of our Australian friends refer to staple tags as ‘shark’ tags… go figure!

We could argue about this until the cows come home, but I think the most important point to consider is that nobody else in the world perseveres with staple or steel-headed tags and pelagic fish… perhaps we need to take note and move on. I can’t work it out myself, I can’t work out whether it’s pure ignorance or if it basically comes back to the cost factor of changing.

This whole argument about taking your time with tag shots is certainly fair enough in a majority of cases, but in some cases I feel it’s taken abit too far… in fairness this is certainly not isolated to the New Zealand scene.

We commonly see photos of proud anglers holding a striped marlin’s head out of the water boat-side with tag in place. Yes… a majority of these fish do survive, but as charter skipper I’m always thinking of the fish, if we choose to let it go, we do our best to make sure it’s released in as healthier nick as possible.

Tiring a fish out for the sake of tag and holding it by the bill to revive it really does nothing for me. No, this doesn’t mean backing around like a madman, drowning everyone in the cockpit just to release it. It does mean that with good angling and good crew work fish can be released in good health to live another day and the team can be back fishing again… everyone’s happy, including the fish!

Some tournaments have rules stipulating tagged fish must be clearly photographed prior to release. In my opinion, this goes totally against what tag and release is meant to be all about, it totally negates good teamwork and handicaps good crews who are capable of releasing fish quickly and efficiently.

Tagging fish can be hard enough some days, let alone having to subdue a fish enough to get an accurate photograph of a tag in the shoulder. Once again, we should always consider the fish’s welfare whether there be big prize money available or not. Surely there’s a better option than tiring a fish out to photograph a tag!

The way the photograph rule stands a lot of unnecessary disqualifications occur and generally these fish have to be tired-out a lot more so a photograph can be taken accurately. I realise a lot of prize money is on offer now at these tournaments, but do we have to tire fish out now for the sake of prize winnings? Isn’t this totally against what tag and release is all about?

If tournament organisers are so concerned about dishonesty, surely an on-board observer or judge may be a better option.

Many of our overseas friends don’t even bother tagging fish outside tournament times these days due to a few differing reasons. Firstly, and above all else, many captains are trying to release fish in as healthy condition as possible and are not overly concerned about the amount of feedback they get from the respective tagging programmes. In many of the world’s fishing hotspots, if they’re interested in gathering information and data, they’ll undertake a concentrated program of satellite pop-up tagging. This gives them the ability to gather more valuable and precise information over a shorter time frame.

This whole attitude in New Zealand that your fish doesn’t count unless the tag goes in is something else that doesn’t sit that well with me… doesn’t count? It may not count in a tournament, but it if you’re just out for a days fishing and the marlin is released in good health, who’s to say that you didn’t catch it, just because it wasn’t jabbed in back with a little yellow tag. I’m all for supporting our fishing clubs and the NZBGFC, but once again, the fish needs to come first!

I’ve even worked on a boat in past and the captain insisted on putting two tags in the fish… one NIWA tag and one Billfish Foundation tag… give me a break! Or more to the point give the poor fish a break!

Another example was while on charter; fishing at the Noisey’s in the Hauraki Gulf we caught a tagged snapper. This snapper was all of 25cm long but it had a 14cm yellow staple tag placed in its shoulder. Not only did the tag appear to be far to big for the fish itself, but it was also covered in a substantial amount of growth. Once again, I’m all for research and conservation, but surely there are better tags available to use on fish of this size than the standard yellow tags issued by NIWA… I’ll let you be the judge!

I certainly don’t expect all of what I’ve written to sit well with everyone, but hopefully it’s something for people to think about this summer when releasing fish in good health.

It’s also just an indication of our attitudes to tagging in New Zealand in comparison to our overseas friends. Perhaps it’s time we looked at what’s going on overseas, developing or changing the tags we use, reviewing some of our tournament rules and considering our own practices and attitudes towards releasing fish in good health.

It’s just something to think about… Good Luck!