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The Nuances of Best Practices in Recreational Fishing

The Nuances of Best Practices in Recreational Fishing

by Dr. Shannon Bower

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had a while ago. Partly out of guilt, because I have been a Science Ambassador for Keepemwet for quite some time and have been a fairly silent contributor of late, and partly because the issue of responsible fishing is always on my mind.

When you work in this field for a while, you learn that you can’t be militant about responsible fishing practices. There is simply too much variation in recreational fisheries to know what genuinely good practice is in every single situation. We have some great guidance papers, like Elmer et al. 2017, Brownscombe et al. 2017, and Sims and Danylchuk 2017 (2017 was a good year for best practices research, apparently!) and each of these offers a different take as well as some similar advice. This is a good sign that denotes a lot of agreement among researchers on this issue.

An image from the Brownscombe et al. 2017 paper that shows the different choices that anglers can make and the items they can have handy throughout the process of catching and releasing (or deciding to keep) a fish.

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One place where we have some challenges in the field is in the arena associated with individual species. There was a paper by Cooke and Suski in 2005 that asked the question of whether we needed species-specific research to better understand fishes’ responses to catch-and-release. The answer was an emphatic yes, and the authors explored a range of reasons why, including arguing that we see so much variation that it’s difficult to accurately predict how each species will respond in a particular set of circumstances. In terms of variation though, Cooke and Suski pointed out that individual fish respond differently to the same catch-and-release practices, in much the same way that you or I would perform differently if asked to blow bubbles in the water for a full minute, i.e., I would fail miserably and you would probably do fine. As scientists, we’re interested in how the average fish responds to catch-and-release practices like air exposure, but we’re also interested in the range of responses for the whole population that we sample. There are as many potential sources of variation as there are types of responses to catch-and-release, and because of this, Cooke and Suski recommended that we get to work at understanding this variety of responses at the species level.


I think the same can be said for understanding best practices at the scale of individual fisheries, which is where this conversation that I had a few years ago keeps popping into my head. I’d made a post on my Facebook page about using nets when fishing. I had noticed a lot of people using cheap lip gripping devices on fish species with soft mouths that had no teeth. I was seeing photos of anglers in my study area using these devices to hoist the fish vertically out of water, and I wondered just how much pressure these cheaply made devices were putting on the fish’s jaws. I’d turned to the research to see if anyone had asked the question about the effects of lip gripping devices on fish and found a few articles that did nothing to alleviate my concerns (for example, Danylchuk et al. 2008, which was discussed here in an earlier blog. I had suggested that these anglers use nets instead, and to keep those nets in the water while removing hooks and preparing to release the fish. My logic was that the fish would be spared potential damage to the jaw and the air exposure being evidenced by the use of lip grippers. The risk was big though: if you’re using nets, you need to use rubberized nets to avoid damage to the fish’s body. Thrashing in a net that is not rubberized can lead to all kind of badness: major loss of slime that protects fish from infection, and physical damage such as slices and bruising being the two most major that come to mind. So, while I was clear to suggest using rubberized nets, I was also aware that these were not common in the area where I work and that I could be suggesting anglers simply trade one form of potential damage for a form of known damage to fish.

Raja PK photo.

Raja PK photo.

Shannon Bower photo.

Shannon Bower photo.

This advice didn’t sit particularly well with me, despite being the one who’d given it. I sat staring at the screen, thinking about phrasing, and wondering if there was a better avenue of action to suggest, when the telltale ping came through on my phone. It was a friend from Australia, also a recreational fisheries scientist, who disagreed entirely with what I’d written. What was of interest to me though wasn’t the disagreement, it was the reasoning behind it. You see, in his area of Australia, fishing mainly in marine waters, many anglers have learned that using lip grippers can be a very good way of avoiding the use of damaging nets, provided the lip grippers are suitable for the species and used properly. Those two provisos are a big deal: these anglers were using good quality devices that were appropriate for local toothy species and they were trained in how to use them properly. By doing so, the use of lip grippers was actually a best practice in the area. Yet in the area where I worked, using lip grippers was decidedly NOT representing a best practice. Best practices are not always universal. Like the Cooke and Suski paper arguing for species-specific research, I spend a fair amount of time arguing for fishery-specific research. We have a good sense of what many best practices are, but we don’t know how these best practices play out in different fisheries, in different communities, in different cultures and countries around the world.

Dave McCoy photo

Dave McCoy photo

All of this means that we have our work cut out for us as scientists. Incidentally, this is also the reason I am such a big fan of Keepemwet and their work. Of all the best practices, arguably the only one that is one hundred percent universal is: keep the fish in the water. When it comes to building local and fishery-specific understanding of responsible fishing practices, that is a great place to start.


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Fish reflex tests - a valuable tool for anglers

by Dr. Jake Brownscombe, PhD
Research Associate, Carleton University
Keepemwet Science Ambassador

“Have a seat, Jake” the doctor said as she pulled out a small rubber mallet and proceeded to thump me on the knee with it. My leg kicked outward involuntarily. “Your nervous system is in good condition” she assured me.

If you grew up on this planet, you know the doctor was checking my knee-jerk reflex. Perhaps lesser known, the speed and intensity of this reaction can indicate internal nerve damage or the presence of disease. It’s a simple external test that indicates what is going on inside of the human body.

Fish have reflexes too. And they can tell us a lot about their internal condition, such as their level of stress, ability swim or to perceive predators. This is particularly useful for anglers because fish cannot tell us how they are feeling. If you ask a fish “If I let you go, can you swim well enough to survive?” its response will be inconclusive. Trust me, I’ve tried… more times than I’d care to admit.

The idea behind catch-and-release fishing is that the fish will survive, grow bigger to be caught again, and continue to contribute to the population. Yet, we know this isn’t always the case. Fish sometimes suffer mortality after release due to stress or injuries associated with angling (but the odds of this can be minimized substantially by using best practices - see this paper for an overview). Whether or not a fish survives depends on its condition, which can be hard to assess as an angler without any fancy medical or veterinary tools.

That is, until recent research developed a set of reflex tests that can be applied to fish, by anglers, to assess their condition. These are the four most effective reflex tests, how to do them, and what they tell you:



1. Escape response

How to do it:  With the fish in the water in a net or livewell (scientific holding pen shown here), approach the fish from behind and grab at its tail. Observe if the fish attempts to escape.

What it means: If a fish doesn’t try to swim away it fails this test, has at least some level of impairment and could be at risk of mortality - other tests will provide further insights.



2. Righting response

How to do it: Flip the fish upside down (belly up) in the water and let go. Observe if the fish rights itself within 5 seconds.

What it means:  If a fish cannot right itself within five seconds it fails this test, and is in poor condition and at risk for mortality.

Pro tip: Count the amount of time until the fish rights itself and note whether it struggled to do so. If a fish rights itself quickly and with ease, it is in good condition to swim away immediately.

3. Regular ventilation

How to do it: Holding the fish in the water, observe for regular, consistent ventilation (opening and closing) of the operculum (gill plates).

What it means: If a fish isn’t ventilating at regular intervals, it fails this test, and is highly impaired and at high risk for mortality.


4. Eye tracking

How to do it: Holding the fish in water, roll the fish side-to-side, observing whether its eye(s) remain level (passes test), or roll with the body (fails test).

What it means: If a fish fails this test, it is highly impaired and at very high risk of mortality

Concept diagram Reflexes.jpg

While these aren’t true reflexes by strict definition, they are responses that are always present in fish unless impaired due to stress. The above tests are presented in order of operation, starting with escape response. If a fish fails this test, proceed with the righting response test, and so on. If a fish has no reflex impairment, the best course of action is to release the fish immediately to reduce handling time. However, if there is reflex impairment, particularly loss of righting response, anglers can hold fish in a net or livewell until its condition improves. Further, on any given fishing day, if captured fish are repeatedly in poor condition, anglers can consider altering their fishing practices (e.g., use different lures or fish in different locations) to minimize their impact on fish.

The Science:

The concept of using reflex tests as an indicator of fish condition was first developed and applied in the context of commercial and aboriginal seine net fisheries for Pacific salmon (see these two articles for reference) 1, 2. Based on the success of multiple studies in predicting salmon survival using reflex tests, scientists began apply these tests to recreational fisheries. This study found bonefish with impaired righting response are six times more likely to suffer predation post release (see Finsights #5). Another study later showed that reflex impairment indicates that bonefish have reduced swimming and decision-making capabilities post release, which is why they are more vulnerable to predators. Reflex tests are now used widely as measures of fish condition for diverse species such as sharks, great barracuda, largemouth bass, and fat snook. As science continues to develop the relationship between reflex tests, fish condition, and survival, these tools will become increasingly useful for anglers to assess the condition of their fish and make informed decisions about how to treat the fish prior to release.



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Keepemwet Fishing Science Advisor Dr. Andy Danylchuk.

Keepemwet Fishing Science Advisor Dr. Andy Danylchuk.

Via American Fisheries Society

Tampa, FL) August 23, 2017 – Dr. Andy J. Danylchuk, an Associate Professor of Fish Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, received the award for Excellence in Public Outreach today at the 2017 American Fisheries Society (AFS) Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida. AFS President Joe Margraf presented the award at the meeting’s plenary session. The award for Excellence in Public Outreach is presented to an AFS member who goes the "extra mile" in sharing the value of fisheries science/research with the general public through the popular media and other communication channels.

“We applaud the distinguished contributions of Dr. Danylchuk and thank him for his continuous efforts to share the value of fisheries science and research,” said AFS President Joe Margraf.

Dr. Danylchuk is the Scientific Advisor for the KeepEmWet Fishing initiative (, where he has been working with vast networks of recreational anglers, as well as industry and media partners, to effectively communicate best practice guidelines for catch-and-release.  He is also the co-chair of the science and policy committee of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association.

Dr. Danylchuk has made three documentary films that have all been finalists in the prestigious BLUE Ocean Film Festival. Some of his films have also been distributed on PBS, and are available on various platforms for educators and the general public. His second film, Raising Shrimp, had its Canadian Premiere at the 2015 AFS annual meeting in Quebec City.

Dr. Danylchuk frequently writes articles for conventional popular media outlets and blog posts that are widely shared, especially within the recreational fisheries community. He is also an ambassador for several recreational fishing companies, including Patagonia.

About AFS: Founded in 1870, the American Fisheries Society (AFS) is the world’s oldest and largest fisheries science society. The mission of AFS is to improve the conservation and sustainability of fishery resources and aquatic ecosystems by advancing fisheries and aquatic science and promoting the development of fisheries professionals. With five journals and numerous books and conferences, AFS is the leading source of fisheries science and management information in North America and around the world.