Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Catch and Release Me From Your Sense Of Morality

"If the fisherman loves the fish, why does he catch them in his net?" ~ paraphrased
When I was a kid growing up in suburban Boston, I was a fisherman of single-minded addiction. There wasn't a brook, river, pond or lake within bicycling distance that I didn't visit on a regular basis. More often than not, my return trip home was complicated by a balance-busting pendulum of slimy, spiny fish destined for the pan.

In those days before cable television, I had no sense of the argument for catching a legal-sized fish and voluntarily releasing it. It just wasn't something I considered. Fish were for eating. Then the New England Sports Network found its way into the idiot box in our living room and I started watching the likes of Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston and Bill Dance catch giant largemouth bass by the boatload and LET THEM GO! At first, my 12-year-old brain just couldn't process what it was seeing. I thought they were all fools. I mean, who would go through all that trouble to drive down to Lake Okeechobee, catch a 7-pound bass, let it go and be satisfied to return to the dock empty handed?

Spring 2010. I let it go.
Of course, being the impressionable young sportsman that I was, I eventually started letting my fish go too. According to my TV heroes, it was all about conserving the resource for the future. I wasn't the only one letting my fry pan go empty in the name of those fishermen to come. An entire generation of American anglers has grown up with a catch-and-release mantra ringing in its ears.

The tao of catch-and-release angling is stronger than ever. It's a simple sacrifice anyone can make to help them feel like they're practicing good conservation and protecting the resource. Over the years, however, I find myself starting to come full circle. I don't go fishing nearly as often as I used to or I'd like to. When I do, it's often with an unapologetic attitude of filling the cooler up. Of course, I follow all state and local regulations - keeping only fish of legal size and never taking more than my allotted limit (or fewer if my blood lust is satisfied early). I suppose this path I have chosen, to feed myself and my wife with as much natural and wild food as possible, has a lot to do with my current fishing philosophy. I have also been swayed by more than a few voices who argue the act of tricking a fish to bite something it believes to be food, wrestling it from its habitat and damaging its overall health by sapping its energy reserves and improperly handling it, only to release it so that you can do it again may be a bit, ummm... misguided. The polar opposite of catch-and-release would be the Swiss and German fisheries management philosophy that all fish brought to the net must be kept and utilized by the angler. Let it be known, I disagree with these mandates wholeheartedly, but I think it's interesting to see the other side of the coin.

I am slightly amused by those who believe practicing catch-and-release alone is an adequate strategy for preserving fish populations. I was recently directed to check out the group Greenfish, which seems to suggest this is the case. The web site makes some mention of "other conservation measures," but the overriding mission is to convince recreational anglers catch-and-release is the answer to all evils. (It should be noted that Greenfish is an apparel company that is out to make money. The boast that it donates a whopping 1% of profits to non-profit groups that tout the shared catch-and-release philosophy to the masses is rather unimpressive to me).

Food for thought should include the growing evidence that fish released by good-intentioned anglers suffer mortality rates due to their brief human encounters. A very short list might include these results for striped bass, trout and marlin. Note that the authors of these articles (and others, should you choose to investigate further) are often using the data to argue for or against catch-and-release fishing. In almost every study and species, the mortality rates are related to water conditions, how the fish were handled and what type of tackle they were caught with.

The point I'm trying to make is; while there is no doubt practicing catch-and-release is a tool for the conservation of many gamefish species, it is but a screwdriver in the box. Far more important are efforts to protect and preserve valuable fish habitat from development and pollution and maintain high water quality throughout the environment. If letting a trophy bass go back into the pond so it can spawn and produce future generations makes you feel good, keep doing it. If your passion for fishing goes beyond providing the raw materials for trout almondine, pursue it. Understand though (are you listening Greenfish?) there is a lot more to fisheries management and conservation than releasing your catch to fight again another day.
For some fishermen, catching a mess is a worthy goal, and that's A-OK with me.


  1. I'm with ya, Jamie. If I go through the trouble to catch a legal, edible fish, I intend to eat it. Why else would I put myself and the poor fish through the contortions?

    It brings up an interesting dichotomy, by the way... at least in my muddied mind. Why is it not only OK, but often preferred, to catch and release a fish when similar excercises on mammals are roundly decried?

    For example, there was an organization who decided it would be great sport to shoot African big game with paintballs. Besides the potential danger to the participants, there's very little danger to the animals themselves. Sure, a paintball can sting (I've felt it many, many times), but it's a passing and harmless discomfort. Immediately the outcry rattled the rafters. "It's cruel!" They said. "It's inhumane to cause pain and fear in these poor, innocent beasts for no other reason than a few minutes of excitement!"

    I can't say that I disagree with the naysayers, although maybe not as vehemently. The whole idea reminds me of nothing so much as exotic cow tipping...much more fun in the idea than in the reality.

    And then there was the organization here in the States that thought it would be great good sport (and excellent merchandising) to create a televised, big-game hunting competition using tranquilizer darts instead of bullets.

    Or a step further, and look at the public reaction to fur trapping. Is catching a fox in a leg-hold trap that much different than putting a hook in a fish's jaw and making it battle for its life?

    Yet Bassmasters and "Professional" fishing are still big business while the trapping industry has floundered.

    How did this line get drawn between humane treatment of fish and the treatment of furred or feathered animals? More importantly, is the line valid?

    This is not something about which I tend to get militant, but it's an inconsistency that's bugged me for years.

  2. Phillip - though I came to the party only recently, I see merit in all your points. Quite honestly, I have nothing against catch and release fishing, but only because I'm willing to live with the reality that some percentage of the fish I let go to "fight again another day" might swim up under a rock and die, and, in doing so, died for the simple act of providing me with a few seconds of excitement.

  3. Don't get me wrong, Jamie. I'm not especially opposed to catch-and-release fishing, and I certainly release any fish I don't intend to eat. I don't, personally, get the point of travelling around and spending the time and money to catch a bunch of fish I'm not gonna eat, but it's not for me to understand. Just because I don't grok it doesn't necessarily make it wrong.

    What gets me is the arbitrary delineation between animals that it's OK to "harm" for sport and those that it's not. How is it perfectly OK to induce the pain and flight response in a fish for just a few moments of excitement, but it's apparently not OK to do the same with wildlife.

    Either ALL life is sacred or no life is sacred. Which is it, and who decides?

    I know I'm not making much of a point here, but there's this thread of thought in here that I can't help plucking at.

  4. (Sorry... left off the last part of my response.)

    I'm really not trying to change anything here, or make anyone question their behavior (necessarily). Just exploring some thoughts, and this seemed like a good topic for a little philosophical spelunking.

  5. I guess I'm just trying to find out if anglers who practice catch-and-release and organizations that preach it as a major component in fisheries conservation are doing so with eyes wide open. It's true, most of the fish you release will live, but some of them won't and what price does one put on fish harassment? Again, I am an angler who let's some of my fish go, and I don't intend to stop fishing.
    Taking your thoughts a step further Phillip, how about bird watchers who use song playbacks on their Ipods to draw out hard-to-see species during the breeding season? Or bull riders (cow tippers too)?
    There are thousands of activities humans participate in that interfere with the welfare of other species, for the sole purpose of our entertainment.
    Thanks for your thoughtful contemplation here Phillip.

  6. mammals, fish, dogs, cats, bees, snakes. None equal to human beings IMHO. If you want to start a cat fishing thing, have at it. ( I doubt getting them off the hook would be much fun, but I have wondered what they'd taste like grilled...)

    Have you ever taken a screwdriver and tried to use it like a hammer. Bad things happen. This is sometimes the case with catch and release fishing. Too many fish caught and released in the name of "conservation" can cause some waters to become overpopulated and stunted. There is, what might be a world class brook trout stream I know of that could use plenty of harvesting. Because of a catch and release only regulation there and a lack of food per mile of stream, the fish - although they are abundant - are seldom more than 4 inches long. Catch and release shouldn't be in play here...but it is...and no one seems to realize that that kind of blanket application of a management tactic is actually detrimental to some fisheries. "catch and release" in this aspect has become the "catch all" management tool whether it's actually beneficial or not. Such is the state of our world.

    Nice write up. I agree about the greenfish thing. A clever idea that makes a big impact on retail sales of shirts with recycled fish logo's.

  7. I got a kick out of the idea that anyone could protest the use of paintballs vs. live ammo. Is it just me, or does that seem deliciously ironic?

  8. Owl - yeah man, I didn't even think about writing on places where catch-and-release is law - the absolute polar opposite of how Germany and Switzerland view things. I'm glad you agree with me on the Greenfish thing. I was all jacked up to win me some free swag, until I actually went to the web site and found out what they are about. 1% of an overpriced T-shirt is about .20 towards my favorite conservation group. Big deal. Remind me to tell you the story about the cat and the blue marlin some day.
    Anon - If someone's got a problem with plinking deer with paintballs, then there ain't much left to do but stay indoors and play Nintendo.

  9. I release a lot of fish, because it's simply not safe to eat a lot of wild fish where we live. The ponds, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay are pretty contaminated anymore. Subsistence fishermen (the very poor) are suffering HUGE increases in cancer in Northeastern cities.

    Yay Mercury! So then, the question is, to fish or not to fish, if you can't eat it. I say, go fishing.

    And you're right about CNR mortality. Maryland DNR did an exhaustive study on CNR stripers a few years ago and found that in warm salty water, CNR is fairly deadly. The figure 68% sticks out in my mind. That's why I've always railed against the ridiculous summer flounder limits (19.5", 20", etc)...because a boat full of 3 anglers is going to release 15 flounder to get 3 legal ones, and most of the 15 will die, too.

    Interesting note though - those numbers (CNR mortality) drop to near zero in cold water (we get down to 35-38), where bacteria and fungi are less dense in the water column.

  10. Swamp Thing - you bring up another point that I wish I had written about, size and bag limits. In NC, we operate with a slot limit on red drum, a management tool I think should get far more consideration for other species. Your info on mercury poisoning and striper mortality is noted, and flounder regs are ridiculous. How about deep water drops for snapper and grouper? The pressure change means just about everything that comes to the surface will die, yet in order to catch a couple of legal gags, you end up "releasing" a couple dozen shorts.
    I, like you, have no intention of quitting fishing, but again, I'm far more passionate about habitat conservation and restoration than I am about CNR.

  11. Never even thought about that. Offshore is something I haven't done much of at all.

    I stopped fishing the "trophy striper" season, when we are in the spawning habitat and slaying some HUGE cows. #1, it's idiotic. Try to catch the same fish a month later on her way back to the ocean, instead...after she's laid her eggs.

    #2 Those huge fish don't often school well, so most of the fishing is by kites, planer boards, etc. Which is not something I enjoy at all. Not for a big bass.

    I think this is all a huge challenge for our state agencies, and there's more pressure coming - did any of y'all have to get your Federal Saltwater permit for this year? We did in Maryland.

  12. Interesting, thought-provoking essay. After decades angling and hunting, these are issues I continue to think about. The unfortunate thing is that 'catch and release' has become inviolate dogma for many who have simply adopted it and never given the issues any further thought or nuance.

    As an addition, I also think that consideration of particular species should be part of the 'catch and release' discussion - certain species, such as bass, carp, etc. are actually quite hardy and capable of being caught and released with minimal mortality if done correctly. Trout, on the other hand, are quite delicate, and mortality can be significant, even when handled carefully. But again, this indicates a degree of nuance that has no place in dogma...