The Nuances of Best Practices in Recreational Fishing
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.
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.
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.
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.