This is a fish story about a big fish. A record fish, in fact, weight-wise.
But not, as it turns out, age-wise, which is what got so many people so excited in the first place. And, in some cases, mad at the guy who caught it.
It all started when a Seattle insurance adjuster named Henry Liebman, fishing June 21 from a charter boat in the waters off Sitka, Alaska, found his bait taken by something he knew immediately "was abnormally big," according to an interview in the Sitka Sentinel.
That was understandable. He was fishing at a depth of nearly 900 feet, a depth at which rockfish can grow to upwards of 40 inches and 35 pounds. Liebman, who had been a customer of Sitka's Angling Unlimited charter company since 2009, had caught a shortraker rockfish while halibut fishing on a previous trip to Sitka, and was hoping to catch another.
When Liebman reeled it in, the rockfish on the end of his line was massive. The boat's captain, David Gross, weighed the fish on an onboard scale and the total came to 45 pounds — a number which would shatter the 12-year-old state record.
Upon returning to the dock, charter staffers raced to get the fish to the nearest Alaska Department of Fish and Game office for an official weigh-in before the fish lost any more weight. The official weight: 39.08 pounds, still enough to break the record.
But the drama had yet to begin. The ADFG's Sitka area manager who certified Liebman's catch, Troy Tidingco, told the Sentinel the fish might be 200 years old. His reasoning: The oldest shortraker on record was 175 years, but that record fish "was quite a bit smaller than the one Henry caught. That fish was 32 1/2 inches long, where Henry's was almost 41 inches, so his could be substantially older."
What? A 200-year-old fish? A fish nearly as old as the United States?
And Liebman's fish became news everywhere. It showed up in publications, a few in print and countless more, including sites you wouldn't normally associate with fish stories: New York Daily News, Today.com, MSN, International Business Times, Huffington Post, Latin Times and the Indian Country Today Media Network, to name just a few.
And, of course, with that instant celebrity came instant infamy.
Negative comments posted by readers on those online sites focused on the idea of someone killing a 200-year-old fish.
"This Alaska rockfish could be 200 years old. So, of course, someone had to kill it."
"Yeah! And if he hadn't caught it and KILLED it, it would still be living and now even older — shame."
And, of course, some of them turned personal.
"Henry Liebman is the colossal jerk who caught a 200-year-old rockfish off the coast of Alaska and killed it to hang on his wall."
Liebman, of course, had no idea how old whatever he had been reeling in might be, nor even what it was — and, by that time, the fish was almost certainly dead.
Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska region, told the Los Angeles Times that even had Liebman released the fish, it would not likely have survived, even if it was still alive at the time it reached the surface.
Rockfish, Speegle explained, have something called a swim bladder with which they control their buoyancy; upon being brought to the surface, the gas in the bladder expands to the point that the bladder will burst, killing the fish.
"When a rockfish caught in 900 feet of water is brought to the surface," Speegle said, "it usually dies."
But the blogosphere and the Twitter world were still abuzz with people upset that a 200-year-old fish had to die so some fisherman could set a record or have something to mount on a wall.
Well, as of last Friday afternoon, those concerns could also be put to rest.
After the immediate and widespread interest in the possibility of a 200-year-old fish having been reeled to the surface, state biologists in Sitka extracted its otoliths — the fishy equivalent of ear bones — and sent them to a Juneau lab to be "aged." In much the same way that the age of trees can determined by the growth rings in a cross-section of the trunk — which, of course, usually (but not always) means the tree has been cut down — the rockfish's otoliths form microscopic annual rings that can be counted.
The rings on Liebman's fish were counted.
It was 64 years old.
Still a big fish, but not quite a golden oldie.
And, anyway, it's orange.