Even the smallest fisher plays a part

Not all fishing is done on a commercial scale, and not all fishing is done for the purpose of catching food.  Sometimes people just love to go fishing.  Some find it relaxing, some gain a connection with the natural world, some enjoy challenge of the hunt.  Whatever the reason recreational fishing is big business.  For example, the DEFRA 'Sea Angling' 2012 report estimated sea anglers resident in England  spent around £1.23 billion (~U$2 billion) on the sport in 2012 alone.  Recreational fishing can result in fatality to caught individuals.  Sometimes these are eaten, sometimes they are kept as trophies, and sometimes they are just dumped.  Many recreational fishers also participate in ‘catch and release’ fishing.  Here, the fish are released back into the ocean/lake/stream etc to (hopefully) live another day.  

Sometimes recreational fishers target populations of fish at are endangered.  It seems rarely are recreational fishers stopped from fishing such populations. Stephen Cooke from Carleton University and fellow researchers across Canada and America have put together a paper asking a simple question.  Is recreational fishing a problem for the conservation of endangered populations, or does it have a role in helping conserve dwindling populations?  This might sound like an odd question – how can an activity that involves the extraction of individuals from endangered populations possibly help save them?  

To answer this, Stephen and his fellow researchers focused on a number of recreational catch-and-release case studies.  These include fishing for Mahseers (Tor species) in Asia, White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in America, Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) in Canada, and various coastal sharks on the Western Atlantic.  The exact conservation status and threats to the species and fisheries considered varies but something promising did come through.  Not only were many recreational fishers actively engaged in conservation initiatives through things like monitoring programs or paying licence fees that support management, some of these initiatives were born out of concerns raised by the angling communities themselves.  

Recreational fishers are a major stakeholder in terms of aquatic conservation.  The economic value they bring to the rebuilding and effective stewardship over endangered populations cannot be underestimated.  Fishing is not a matter of life and death for these guys, but they still want to continue fishing, and supporting conservation initiatives is a way in which they can continue to do so.

But there’s a problem.  One fish are released back into the wild, we really don’t have a good grasp on how well they survive after.  As the researchers note, being caught on a line, hauled out of the water, handled, and thrown back in is a stressful experience for the fish.  Some species are likely to fare better than others, but for most populations we simply don’t have any data – and crucially long-term data – that can help us figure out if survival and/or reproduction is adversely affected.  We also can’t tell if one catch-and-release technique is better for some species and worse for others, hindering the development of effective guidelines for fishers.  This is a crucial point.  Whilst recreational fishing may not be the main cause of a population’s decline, even low rates of mortality could be hampering an endangered population’s recovery, and even dooming it in the long run.

One of the really nice things about this particular paper is that the researchers have drafted an ecological risk assessment to help managers decide if they should allow recreational fishing to continue on an endangered population.  It asks managers to make a number of key considerations such as what we know about fishing mortality, the level of regulation and monitoring, and the role of the recreational fishers in the populations’ conservation.

This paper is published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.  Lead author Stephen Cooke has kindly made the paper publicly available.


Image: Scouts fishing on the Four Winds. Credit Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0). Taken by ©Janet Krenn/VASG