Advocates of catch-and-release fishing like to ignore that catch-and-release fishing kills fish.
Texas Parks and Wildlife found that 39 percent of tournament bass released after weigh-in died. Alaska Department of Fish and Game studies conclude that one out of every 20 rainbows caught with a single-hook, artificial lure dies, and that one out of every 13 Kenai River kings dies after being released. A staggering 69 percent of silver salmon caught on bait in the lower Little Susitna River and released died, according to a Fish and Game study done in the early 1990s.
That catch-and-release kills fish is overlooked because these days, in spite of claims to the contrary, catch-and-release has very little to do with conservation and very much to do with money for the sportfishing industry. The economics and math are simple.
Although catch-and-release kills fish, it kills fish at a slower rate than does a harvest or, as some like to call it, a "meat," fishery. When fishing for food, a rainbow caught once is a dead rainbow. In catch-and-release fishing with a 5 percent mortality rate, a rainbow caught 20 times is statistically a dead rainbow.
When fishing for food, the first 100 kings caught are dead kings. In catch-and-release with a 7.6 percent mortality rate, only eight of the first 100 kings caught are dead.
The charm of catch-and-release for the sportfishing industry is that it allows much more angling and many more anglers than does a harvest fishery that kills the same number of fish.
The fish are dead in either case, but as far as the sportfishing industry is concerned, more angling and more anglers translates into more dollars -- dollars for guides, for lodges, for tackle shops and tackle manufacturers, and much, much more.
If a particular fishery becomes endangered, the obvious and simple answer is to stop angling until the fishery is healthy, but stopping angling stops angler dollars. When a fishery becomes threatened, the sportfishing industry will demand the fishery go to catch-and-release, slowing the kill rate but allowing more angling pressure -- thus, assuring the flow of angler dollars.
The Catch & Release Association states the relationship between catch-and-release and money very well: "The Catch & Release Association is an organization dedicated to promote the practice of catch-and-release fishing as a sport, helping ensure the future of the sportfishing industry. We operate as an association to work in conjunction with charter
captains, fishing guides, environmental and conservation organizations, as well as state fish and wildlife commissions to promote catch-and-release as a sport."
Catch-and-release plainly is about money -- money for guides, for tackle manufacturers, for lodges, and for the sportfishing industry as a whole, but is catch-and-release "sport"?
While catch-and-release certainly changes the rate at which fish die when caught, catch-and-release even more certainly and radically changes the reason fish die when caught. In a harvest or "meat" fishery, the fish dies to feed the fisherman, to fulfill its role in the interconnected web of life wherein everything dies so that something else might live.
In catch-and-release, the fish dies to amuse someone, to provide someone with recreation and thrills, with so-called "sport." In
short, catch-and-release turns fish into toys.
Alaska's Native people have long told us it's bad manners to play with our food. These days more and more people increasingly view catch-and-release as bad manners at best and as mindless animal abuse at worst.
A Canadian professor of ichthyology notes: "The enjoyments of catching fish for sport, in large measure, consist of purposely inflicting fear, pain and suffering on fish by forcing them to violently express their interest to stay alive. ... The very real challenge to anglers, then, is to find a justification for their cruel treatment. ..."
Fish probably don't feel fear or pain like we do, but whatever they're feeling when hooked, they don't like it. Does anyone imagine fish jump and pull and run to amuse us? Catch-and-release turns fish into toys, knowingly breaking and destroying some of them in the process. Five percent of the rainbow trout in the upper Kenai River catch-and-release fishery have only one eye. Twenty-three percent of Alagnak River rainbows show catch-and-release damage.
The centuries-old traditions of angling demand that the pleasurable aspects of angling occur while respecting the fish's function as a food species, and that when we take a life, it's done with mercy and humility. The sportfishing industry uses catch-and-release to replace that ancient and honorable ethic with angling for thrills and excitement and all for the sake of money.
Alaska, her people, and her fisheries can do much better.
John Nelson of Soldotna first moved to Alaska in 1961. He has lived in the state off and on ever since. Back in the early 1970s, he worked in the guiding business in the Talkeetna area. He says he has long since repented in sackcloth and ashes.
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