Even everyday fish have their dangers, but there are some straightforward ways to minimise the risk of injury. Sam Mossman explains…
By international standards, New Zealanders have it easy in regard to the species available here. There are few fish species swimming in our waters that are not safe to eat.
But there are exceptions. The various pufferfish, boxfish and porcupine fish are thought to be poisonous; certainly, their overseas relatives are.
Mercury accumulates in the flesh of larger game fish. Fish including kahawai, mackerel, tuna, kingfish and trevally can produce a poison called histamine that is toxic to humans if the fish are not chilled promptly and properly after capture. The most common symptoms of histamine poisoning are: tingling and burning around the mouth, facial flushing and diarrhoea. Other symptoms can include a skin rash, nausea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headaches and possibly respiratory distress. Symptoms can last for up to 12 hours but there are no long-term effects.
Although the majority of New Zealand’s fish are edible (they don’t all taste good, of course), there are plenty that can cause you physical damage, and it’s good to be aware of the correct methods of handling them.
Also called granddaddy hapuku, these are a common reef fish regularly caught by anglers. Although highly regarded by Asian fishermen, they are seldom kept for the table by Kiwis. The head and dorsal spines are quite toxic, and while they are unlikely to kill you, they can give a very painful wound. Fortunately, they do not flip around much while being unhooked. The safe grip is to hold them by the lower jaw and let their body weight hold their mouth open. The small but sharp teeth give a good non-slip grip.
The safe grip on scorpionfish by the lower jaw.
These relatively docile fish are occasionally (mostly accidentally) caught by anglers. They are excellent eating, however, and are sold commercially under the name of ‘cream fish’.
Two things to watch here: the single lockable dorsal spine (and a smaller one under the belly) and the jaws. These guys have small chisel-like teeth, but a jaw design like a set of bolt-cutters. They can bite light sprat hooks in half. Don’t stick your finger inside the mouth of these fish (or other strong-jawed species like snapper, either).
Watch out for the dorsal spine on leatherjackets.
Like any large, powerful fish, sharks can do you some damage if you are not careful. They have (of course) a decent set of teeth, skin like 60 grit sandpaper, and some species have extreme flexibility and always seem to have plenty of ‘go’ left at the boat. Grab a shark by the tail and it could whip around and bite you. Most small specimens (with the exception of the spiney dogfish) can be held by the back of the neck while you sort them out. You can bend the tail into the same grip to prevent them from winding up your arm and doing a little exfoliating for you.
Bigger sharks are more of a problem, and cutting the line is always a good option. Makos are the only ones that really seem to deliberately line you up and have a go. They are a reasonably rigid shark, fortunately. If you have a little deck space and can come in from behind them, a good trick is to put a foot on each pectoral fin and pin them to the deck while you unhook them, so long as the mako is not too big.
Makos are the only sharks that really seem to deliberately line you up and have a go.
However, you do not want to make a miss-step doing this, and I will take no responsibility for lacerated legs if you do!
Larger sharks are best left in the water, and if you are trying to retrieve a hook, use a long-handled hook-out device. Never consider a shark to be ‘safe’ – there are many instances of supposedly dead sharks biting people.
There are several species of these small ground sharks, of which the spotted spiny dogfish is the most common. These critters have prominent spikes in front of both dorsal fins that you must watch for when handling them.
They have a particular liking for whipping the tail around and nailing you with the secondary dorsal spine. This is painful and can take a while to heal. I sometimes use the cutters on my pliers to nip the spike off before unhooking them and returning them to the water. I don’t think this does much harm to the doggie.
These wretched tackle thieves have a particularly nasty set of choppers. My technique for handling them is to grab them from behind across the head, just in front of the dorsal fin, and press the gill plates in to get a grip. This secures the fish, and then it can be carefully unhooked. I did come to grief helping a bloke unhook a ‘couta in the Cook Strait one day. I went for my usual grab just as the boat lurched and put my thumb in the wrong spot. The snake only seemed to give one light nip but didn’t the claret flow!
There are four main types to watch here. The two stingrays and the eagle ray are well known for the barbed bone spike (or sometimes spikes on large specimens) on their tails. The short and long-tailed stingrays are a little more dangerous than the eagle ray as their barb is set further back on the tail and they consequently have more reach. Swimmers and surfcasters get nailed every few years when they accidently stand on one. The best technique to avoid this is to shuffle your feet along the bottom, rather than take steps.
The barbs are coated in a black mucus that seems toxic and causes wound infections.
A thrashing ray can cause a lot of physical damage, and just before the Second World War a swimmer was killed near Thames after being stabbed in the heart by a large stingray. More recently, the unfortunate death of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin from a stingray strike to the chest in Australia is well known.
Turn stingrays over (or if in a boat, turn them so the back faces the side of the boat) so they cannot strike at you with their tail spine.
These are not great table fish, and it is best to just cut your hook off rather than muck around. Lightly gaffing them in the leading edge of the wing will hold them without doing much serious harm. Then turn them over (or if in a boat, turn them so the back faces the side of the boat) so they cannot strike at you with their tail spine.
The related skate is not a bad eating fish, and does not have the dangerous barbs, just modest spikes.
The fourth ray to watch is the much less common electric ray. These have a round, disk-like body (distinct from the diamond shaped stingray and delta-wing eagle ray) and can deliver a decent electric shock of 50 volts. In the occasional case where a fisherman has had a zap, the ray has been dropped into water on the deck which has transmitted the charge to those standing on it with bare feet or wet footwear.
Besides an odd fleshy trunk (used for detecting food in the sand and mud) and big translucent pectoral fins, elephant fish have a wicked dorsal spine with a serrated tip. It can be raised or lowered at will and can give a nasty wound.
Keen elephant fishers can be identified by their scars and the patchwork repairs on their nets. The spine in front of the dorsal fin is obvious. Be careful when you handle them.
Elephant fish have a wicked dorsal spine that can be raised or lowered at will and can give a nasty wound.
One of the best piscine weapons around is the bill of a marlin. Besides being near-solid bone, they are extremely rough, and would make good wood rasps. The lower jaw is just as bad. Always wear gloves when handling a bill or your hands can get badly ripped up.
The bill is a very convenient handle to grab to control the fish while you are unhooking it, but apart from dodging the hook/s, be aware of two other things: one, never stick your fingers down the bill so far that the fish can close its bottom jaw on them. They are very strong-mouthed and quite capable of giving a bad crush injury. Two, never point the bill directly at yourself, as it is very hard to fend off if the fish lunges forward. Internationally, several people have been speared by marlin over the years, some fatally.
Unhooking marlin is not to be taken lightly. It is dangerous (particularly when two-hooked rigs are involved) but can be made less so by using a long-handled hook-out device.
One of the best piscine weapons around is the bill of a marlin. This modest blue punched its bill straight through the transom door of Tongan charter boat 'Hakula'.
More everyday damage is done to anglers by common fish than anything else. It is just something you mostly accept as part of the game. Common ones to watch are tarakihi and snapper spines, blue cod gill plates and golden snapper scales. A simple way to get a good grip on a wriggling, spiny fish and avoid all the sharp bits is to use a wet rag in the manner of an oven cloth.
If you ever catch a specimen of a deep-water species called an oilfish, be aware of their scales too – they are like individual razor blades set in leather.
Fishermen get nicked and spiked by fish daily and mostly it only results in minor wounds that heal quickly. On occasion, however, infections can turn serious. I remember fishing show host Matt Watson getting a bacterial infection from a nick off the ventral spines on a jack mackerel that turned nasty and took months to heal properly. Clean and treat wounds with an anti-bacterial cream, then keep an eye out for infection.
Morays are hard to handle and have quite good teeth. They are not naturally as aggressive as congers but get a bit testy if hooked and dragged from their holes. They throw figure-eight knots up their bodies that run straight onto your line. If this sort of extreme twisting will not throw the hook, you are going to have difficulty getting it out. If you can see the hook shank, you can sometimes grab it with a pair of pliers and shake the eel off. Otherwise, just cut the hook off.
I bet you didn’t know that fishing could be so hazardous. Just wait until ACC hears about this!
May 2021 - Sam Mossman
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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