Its important to relate species life cycle to catch-release fishing

Letter to the Editor

Posted: Friday, March 28, 2003

Would that it be that catch and release of salmon is as simple as Mr. Justice claims in his March 18 letter. But it isn't.

Mr. Justice's understanding of the mortality rate on the early run chinook only scratches the surface. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game study that established the 7 percent mortality number he refers to also suggests that the mortality of chinook salmon that were exposed to being caught and released a second time was nearly 60 percent. That is six out of 10 salmon that are exposed to catch-and-release experiences twice may die as a result.

Mr. Justice's relating chinook salmon to steelhead may have some merit with regard to catch-and-release mortality, but when he refers to the upper Kenai River wild rainbow trout he is way off base. What is necessary to understand is how each individual species' life cycle relates to the practice of the catch-and-release fishing.

It is very important to understand that chinook salmon are on their spawning run returning to the freshwater environments from which they were spawned, and reared for a year or so, before heading out into the open ocean environment to grow for from one to five years. These returning fish are at the peak of their lives, but will usually within a month or so be a spawned out carcass lying on the river's gravel bottom, their essence remaining in those eggs and sperm they leave to propagate their species. Once they enter these fresh waters they stop eating and slowly begin to die, their body supplying nutrients for development of eggs and spawn. Unable to sustain life further they expire near where the spawn was deposited, their decaying bodies often providing the basis for other life forms that will provide feed for, or feed on, the spawn too.

The significance here, and the part that Mr. Justice missed, is these fish do not repair themselves easily. They have enough energy to sustain themselves during the time necessary for their spawn to develop. And apparently enough to spare to provide the energy for anglers to catch and release them once or maybe twice. We don't know what happens after that.

Is it wise to play them out time after time only to find out, a few years later, that the run has failed?

Trout are a lot different. Steelhead trout aside, trout live their lives in fresh water. They take nutrition before, during and after spawning. They have the potential to restore themselves, to heal the wounds and rebuild energy stores. They can provide anglers with more than a single experience of catching them throughout their lives.

Data collected from catch-and-release studies using trout cannot be applied to salmon. Unless perhaps it is salmon in the salt water where they can heal and restore themselves.

When dealing with weak stocks like the early Kenai chinook the opportunity for multiple exposures, especially on main stem spawners, is increased. On the more populous late run fish, primarily main stem spawners, the significance of a multiple exposure and the increased mortality associated is not as significant, and not as likely to happen either. Or so the managers hope. And so do the rest of us who depend upon fish and game management to do the right thing. Bottom line: perhaps catching and releasing a chinook salmon in fresh water can be a bad thing.

Dennis Randa, Kasilof

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