Friday, February 1, 2013

The Catch and Release Conundrum

File this one under "Throwing rocks at hornets' nests" , but keep in mind this is an attempt to start a discussion rather than an attack on a rather contentious conservation practice.

Catch and Release. Anyone who has read much of anything about fishing in the last 20 years is probably familiar with the term. Indeed , anyone who remembers fishing in the 1980's can probably tell tales of a time when C&R was a necessity to rebuild once thriving fisheries. During the 70's , 80's and even earlier fishing meant keeping , even if the fish weren't eaten. People hauled their catch in to the nearest bait store for a picture with a Polaroid instant camera and then tossed the fish in a dumpster or threw it back into the water dead. Others took them home to eat or to give to a relative or neighbor. All of this harvesting combined with ever increasing commercial harvest took a devastating toll on fisheries across the US. The effects of overfishing were experienced by a wide variety of people targeting numerous species. It was irresponsible and unsustainable.

Probably one of the most extreme examples of the effect of overfishing was the collapse of the Striped Bass fishery on the East Coast. Commercial and recreational harvest of Stripers decimated the populations of these fish to a point where their recovery was in question. Environmental factors contributed to the decline , but I'll always believe that overfishing was the main cause. When you are taking fish out of the water faster than they can reproduce naturally there will always be problems. Throw in a few cold winters when the fry can't survive and you have real problems. Harsh regulations and moratoriums curtailed the problem for the Striped Bass fishery and it is once again thriving , though the long term outlook is questionable at best due to continued overfishing of one of their primary food sources , the Atlantic Menhaden.

As I remember it (feel free to correct me in the comments) , catch and release was pioneered or at least spearheaded by bass fishermen competing in the tournament scene. With the advent of livewells and other methods of taking live fish to the scales to be returned to the water relatively unharmed , the days of tournament anglers keeping fish on stringers were a thing of the past. The ever increasing popularity of bass tournaments and TV shows featuring well known anglers in competition , quickly brought the practice to the public eye. The concept of catch and release was picked up by outdoors publications , and spread like wildfire through the collective conscious of anglers of all stripes. It was recommended by regulating agencies in many states , and soon enough required by a few for specific species in certain bodies of water. It was a game changer for fisheries management , though I question at times whether or not the utopian ideal of catch and release across the board is taking things too far.

When it becomes necessary to throw back all of a particular species , I wholly support the implementation and enforcement of regulations to reach the goal of reestablishment. Our wild fish are something to be treasured and preserved for future generations. Catch and release is a means to an end in such situations , and an effective one at that. What it can't do is replace other practices of sound fisheries management that are required to combat factors that can contribute to the decline of a species regardless of harvest rates.

There are fishermen that frown upon anyone keeping fish , no matter how healthy fish stocks are. If you spend enough time reading Youtube comments or surfing through fishing forums you will see a huge amount of rhetoric in support of catch and release. Things like " What a shame to kill such a beautiful fish " or " It's awful that you didn't throw it back so someone else could catch it" or " If you had thrown it back , it would have been bigger next year ". Of course , I'm sugar coating the comments because the C&R crowd can be bitter. I can understand why , but I can't understand their reasoning. Just because C&R is best for some species , doesn't mean it's best for ALL species. In fact , there are compelling reasons to keep certain species in certain environments.

One such situation is put and take trout stocking programs in my home state and several states across the country. The main idea behind these programs is to put hatchery trout in the water for licensed anglers to keep. That is why they are stocked. Unfortunately , some think otherwise and make snide comments about " It's a shame people won't throw them back , so we could catch fish year round". These people fail to realize that any fish not caught and kept are most likely condemned to a death by starvation in a stream with limited resources , or even worse a death by high water temperatures which would be similar to a heat stroke or at the other extreme freezing to death.

At the other end of the spectrum are the entrenched invasive brook trout threatening Yelowstone's native cutthroat trout. Throwing these fish back is folly , as they are causing big problems for the native cutthroats , but I am sure a self righteous angler has at some point suggested that someone throw them back for future generations of fishermen.

There are several situations where wild fish and even introduced fish benefit from a certain amount of harvest. One example is managed populations in small lakes and ponds. Failure to harvest larger fish can and does stagnate the gene pool , causes an increase in cannibalistic predation of their offspring , stunts growth of other fish , and generally disrupts the food chain. In small bodies of water catch and release can often do more harm than good. I'm not advocating keeping everything , but rather selective harvest to maximize potential. This even translates into larger bodies of water when there are problems with forage. I've heard anecdotal evidence of Chesapeake Bay Stripers caught that appeared malnourished since the recent decline in Menhaden stocks. Increasing limits may eventually be part of the answer , along with curbing overfishing of Menhaden.

Catch and release does have it's place in fishery management. It becomes a necessity when fisheries are in dire straits. The East Coast Striper fishery would be a memory without it. Populations of Red Drum , Tuna , Marlin ,  and a host of other species would be in big trouble if fishermen hadn't adopted more sustainable practices.

It's unfortunate that so many have been guilted into throwing everything back. There was a time when it was the best thing to do for most species , but now with fisheries recovering and so many factors coming to light by way of research , it has become a conundrum.

Do you throw everything back or do you keep a few? Let me know in the comments below!

Have a great weekend!