Answers to catch-and-release questions reveal ones values

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2003

Lately it's been asked, in letters to the Clarion, when catch-and-release became a negative and destructive practice, and why catch-and-release is bad only when applied to early-run Kenai kings. To answer, one must first understand what catch-and-release is and what it is not.

Accidentally catching and then releasing a pink salmon while fishing for a silver to put in the smoker is not catch-and-release. Accidentally catching and then releasing a six-inch rainbow while fishing for trout for the grill is not catch-and-release.

Catch-and-release is fishing to hook a fish, enjoying playing the fish and letting the fish go with no intent whatsoever of keeping the fish to eat. Anglers practicing catch-and-release do not crown their angling pleasure by eating their catch, but derive their fun simply from hooking the fish, enjoying the fish's frantic struggle for survival, releasing the fish to do it again and again while unavoidably killing some and stressing all of the fish in the process.

Fishing for food assuredly kills fish. Given that the fish is the right size and species, when it's caught for food, the fish is dead the first time it's caught. Moreover, fishing for food, whether done commercially or by sport anglers, involves, as does all harvest of human foodstuffs, some accidental killing, and we tolerate that waste because it's unavoidable.

Wheat combines kill rabbits, commercial tuna nets kill sea turtles, and I kill an occasional rainbow when I fish for Dolly Varden. We tolerate such collateral damage because the pursuit of food supposedly justifies the unintended and unfortunate but unavoidable waste.

But catch-and-release kills fish too. Given a 5 percent mortality rate, the fish caught for fun is dead the 20th time it's caught; given an 8 percent mortality rate, the fish is dead the 12th time it's caught. Whether the 12th or the 20th time, the catch-and-release fish is as dead as is the fish caught for food.

The difference between traditional fishing and catch-and-release fishing is twofold:

1) the intent of the angler; and

2) how many times the fish can be caught before it's killed.

The original question When did catch-and-release become destructive, and bad only when applied to first-run kings? now takes on additional meaning. When, indeed, did it become destructive to kill fish for fun?

Is it better to kill and eat a first-run Kenai king or an Anchor River steelhead or an upper Kenai

rainbow the first time it's caught, or is it better to kill them for fun the 12th or the 20th time they're caught, letting their flesh feed the crabs and gulls?

In either case, the fish are dead, but there's more killing fish for fun is a real money-maker.

Catch-and-release originally named "Fishing For Fun" was instituted on Michigan's AuSable River in the 1950s by fishery managers as a tool to avoid costly stocking programs. Fish that could be recycled past angler after angler before eventually being killed were less costly than pumping out hatchery fish and much more profitable than bringing demand into line with supply by reducing angler days. Fishery managers and the sportfishing industry in general lodges, guides, tackle manufacturers, etc. were quick to realize the profit potential of catch-and-release and sold the practice to the angling public under the guise of conservation.

But in a saturated fishery, catch-and-release conserves nothing it merely allows more anglers and angling effort to accomplish the same amount of killing as would fishermen who fish to eat their catch.

Catch-and-release sells licenses and tackle, uses guides, and fills lodges with anglers, many times more anglers than the fishery would support as a harvest fishery. The dollars generated by catch-and-release is why the practice is advocated by the sportfishing industry and supported by fishery managers.

The question fully stated is: "When did it become negative and destructive to kill and stress fish for fun and profit?" Is it negative and destructive that upper Kenai River rainbows are annually caught 3.1 times each, that 5 percent of upper Kenai rainbows have one eye, that upper Kenai rainbows are statistically dead in their seventh year, and that catch-and-release kills about two tons of upper river trout a year? Is it negative that one out of every 12 Kenai kings caught and released feeds the crabs just for fun and economic gain? Is it bad to hook and release dozens of fish a day, fully knowing some are being killed?

Is it destructive to take an animal's life in the pursuit of fun without justifying the animal's death by using it as food? Or is catch-and-release indeed negative and destructiveethically, biologically and culturally wherever it1s applied and practiced?

The answer determines the nature of our fishing and our fisheries.

John Nelson, Soldotna



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