Should fisherman always catch and release?

By: Charles W. Bryant
A river runs through it
Fishing Image Gallery Fly fishing is one of the recommended methods for a successful catch and release. See more pictures of fishing.
Guy Crittenden/Getty Images

A­sk any fishe­rman, and he'll tell you that there's nothing quite like the tug of a fish on the end of the line. Once you land your catch, there's a decision to make -- keep it or release it. Most times the decision is made for you. Rivers and lakes all over the world are managed by wildlife organizations governed by agencies like the U.S. Department of Interior. These groups spend a great deal of time studying fish populations in the lakes, rivers and oceans of the world. Based on the findings of these studies, limits are imposed on the number, size and species of fish that can be kept. There are also rules regulating where and when fishing is allowed to take place in a body of water or region. These rules change with the growth or decline of a particular species. It's called wildlife management, and it's an important part of ensuring that fish thrive in the future.



Fish populations are at risk though, according to some studies. One such study found that as many as four out of 10 freshwater species in North America are in danger of approaching extinction [source: Borenstein]. Much of the blame g­oes to water pollution and other damage to the natural habitat, but some of it can be placed on overfishing. Oceans are in even worse shape. Marine biologists in Nova Scotia believe that all saltwater fish and seafood species could collapse by the year 2048 [source: Perlman].

­But the rules don't cover every species in every habitat. Many times the restrictions leave room for each angler to make a decision whether to catch and release or keep the fish for dinner. Is the practice of catch and release the environmentally responsible thing to do or are there occasions where keeping the fish can actually help the population thrive?


Catch and Release Fishing: Behind the Numbers

Fishing net
The use of a landing net can have a negative effect on the health of a fish.
Plattform/Getty Images

Fishing is a huge industry. The 44 million Americans w­ho consider themselves recreational anglers spend a whopping $41 billion each year on the sport. When you consider the additional economic activity that fishing generates, like gas to and from the site or food for the trip, just to name a couple, you're looking at roughly $116 billion in total revenue [source: Reiss]. That's a lot of money. If you only considered the economics of fishing, then catch and release makes a lot of sense. When fish are caught and released back into the habitat, they'll breed and spawn more fish that can potentially be caught and released.

The fishing industry is mostly self-supported as well. The agencies that oversee and regulate the sport are largely paid for by money generated from the sale of fishing permits. The concept of catch and release and fishing for sport in the United States is relatively new. While the United Kingdom has been using catch and release as a method of conservation for the past 100 years, Americans didn't catch on until the early 1950s, and even then it didn't gain in popularity until catch-and-release fishing tournaments were born in the early 1970s. Previous to this, anglers fished for one reason -- to put food on the table. And while recreational fishing is still a viable means of providing food, an increasing number of fishermen are in it for the sport.


So should you always catch and release? Not necessarily. It's acceptable to fish for your dinner as long as you abide by the limits imposed by the state agencies. A lot of research goes into the kinds of limits imposed, and the governing bodies have a good hold on what kinds of fishing practices are best for any given region. Limits are generally imposed on the size of the fish and the total number of fish you can take from a body of water. If you fish within these limits and during the allowed time frame, then you aren't doing anything to decimate the fish population. Low income families in some parts of the United States still depend on rivers and lakes to provide a portion of their food, so in these cases it's not so much sport fishing as a means of providing sustenance.

The argument for strictly catch-and-release practices is mainly built around conservation. In Florida, where fishing is extremely popular, about 50 percent of fish that are caught are released back into the water. This amounts to more than 70 million fish released each year [source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute]. In Australia, 30 to 50 percent of the recreational catch is released each year for a total of about 47 million fish [source: Science Daily]. If these fish and others caught worldwide were all kept, the fish population would be in even more trouble than it already is.

The National Park Service of the United States encourages 100 percent catch and release of native species. When non-native fish are introduced into the water from a practice known as stocking, they compete with the native species for food and space. The National Park Service no longer stocks its waters with non-natives, but they depend on catch and release to help maintain the native species. The key here is to keep non-native fish according to the region's limitations. If only non-native fish are kept, then the native varieties are allowed to thrive, and the population can be restored.


Catch and Release Mortality and Techniques

Circle hook
A circle hook stands a better chance at keeping the fish injury-free.
Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

The practice of catch and release as a means of wildlife conservation has one catch -- ensurin­g that the released fish lives. Researchers have performed hundreds of controlled studies all over the world to determine which methods of hooking, landing, reeling the fish in and releasing are most likely to result in a healthy fish that can go on to reproduce. If improper techniques are used, and the released fish dies, then it defeats the purpose of releasing in the first place.

Studies on tarpon in Florida found that 26 out of 27 of the fish caught with a hook and line survived after they were released [source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute]. The lone fish that died had been lifted from the water and photographed by the fishermen who caught it. Bonefish in the Florida Keys have a 95 percent survival rate upon release [source: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute]. Eighty-four percent of redfish in Georgia and 96 percent of redfish in Texas live after release. And in California, 95 percent of brown trout that are released survive [source: Dahlberg]. These numbers indicate that if an angler uses the proper technique for hooking, landing and releasing, then the fish has a great chance at surviving and ultimately reproducing.


So what's the proper technique? It starts before you even hook the fish. Using the proper tackle is key to the fish's survival, and it starts with the fishing line. A strong line is better because it helps to land the fish faster. Landing is simply the act of bringing a fish to land, or in some cases to a boat. A fast landing puts less physiological stress on the fish and helps its chances at survival. You can choose to fish with live bait or artificial bait -- man-made lures and flies with hooks attached. Fish caught with lures and flies have a higher survival rate than those caught with live bait because they're more likely to hook in the mouth area and not deeper into the body. There are also a few things to look for in the hook. First, it should be appropriately sized for the kind of fish you're trying to catch. There's also a choice to be made between J-hooks, circle hooks and barbed or barbless varieties.

J-hooks look like what you might think -- the letter 'J.' Circle hooks also look like a letter 'J,' but the bottom of the hook is a bit wider and the end of the 'J' curves back in toward the stem instead of extending straight up. The point of a circle hook is also curved even farther toward the stem. Studies show that circle hooks usually hook the fish by the jaw, the optimal place to hook a fish. This is what's known as a shallow hook. When the hook goes further into the body and attaches to the gills or internal organs, it's called a deep hook. Deep hooking often results in injury, so even though circle hooks are slightly more difficult to remove, they're recommended for catch and release.

Other tips for a successful fish release:

  • Decide beforehand that you're going to release and make the catch-and-release process speedy.
  • Don't remove the fish from the water. Or, if you do, limit its time out of the water to less than four minutes.
  • Remove the hook by hand or with needle-nose pliers instead of a de-hooking device.
  • Use barbless hooks or crimp the barbs with pliers to avoid tearing the fish's flesh.
  • Wet your hands or gloves before handling the fish to avoid removing the outer mucous membrane layer that protects the fish's skin.
  • Don't use a landing net.
  • Reintroduce the fish into the water headfirst.

You can find out more about release techniques by reading How to Remove a Hook Without Injuring the Fish or by taking a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Rel­ated HowStuffWorks Articles

Mo­re Great Links

  • Anderson, William D. "Catch and Release - How to do it Properly.", 2008.
  • Borenstein, Seth. "Freshwater fish in N. America in peril, study says." USA Today. Sept. 10, 2008.
  • "Catch and Release Fishing." National Park Service. 2008.
  • "Catch and Release Fishing." Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 2008.
  • "Catch and Release." Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sport Fish Division. 2008.
  • "Catch-and-Release Fishing.", September 8, 2006.
  • "Catch-and-Release Fishing." Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 2008.
  • Dahlberg, Carrie Peyton. "Hook, line ... sinking the fish population?" The Sacramento Bee. Dec. 16, 2007.
  • "Going Fishing? Catch-and-release In Less Than Four Minutes, Please." Science Daily. Oct. 1, 2007.
  • "Going Fishing? Only Some Catch And Release Methods Let The Fish Live." Science Daily. June 4, 2007.
  • "Many of the world's poorest people depend on fish." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. June 7, 2005.
  • Perlman, David. "Fish population on the brink." SFGate. Nov. 3, 2006.
  • ­Reiss, P., Reiss, M. and Reiss J. "Catch and Release Fishing Effectiveness and Mortality." 2008.
  • Schwartz, Malia and Williams, Erik. "Catch-and-Release Fishing.", 2008.