Is sport fishing bad for the environment?

By: Cristen Conger
A study published in the journal Science estimated that one-third of global fisheries are in a state of collapse.
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An alarming study published in the journal Science in 200­6 predicts a gloomy fate for surf 'n' turf dinners, fish and chips and tuna salad sandwiches everywhere. Science reported that 29 percent of global fisheries were in a state of collapse, meaning their yields are less than 10 percent of their original harvest [source: Black]. Without more concerted efforts to reduce overfishing, pollution and marine habitat loss, the study researchers predicted that the seas will be totally drained of seafood as early as 2050 [source: Black].

The study results also reflected consumer demand for fish and seafood. Worldwide fish consumption nearly doubled from 1976 to 1990, and it will likely continue to rise [source: Eilperin]. Commercial bycatch mortality rate is high and can contribute to marine species loss. The cod population along the Grand Banks of Newfoundland was almost completely wiped out, largely due to bycatch.


Federal and state governments have intervened to protect and revive waning aquatic ecosystems. In Canada, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization tightened total catch allowances in cod-heavy areas to remedy cod depletion. It also implemented other standards with the goal of a 40 percent bycatch reduction [source: Reuters]. In 2006, California's Fish and Game Commission designated 200 square miles (517 square kilometers) along the state's coastline that either restricted or completely banned sport and commercial fishing activities.

­The fishing industry has taken steps of its own to reduce its environmental footprint. Advanced technologies, such as GPS systems and water depth recorders, have allowed boats to better target species locations and cut back on bycatch. Some fishing operations are also easing their reliance on pelagic long-lines that suspend multiple hooks along its length. Those types of fishing lines extend for miles and are likelier to hook sea turtles, sharks and other unwanted animals.

But what about the weekend fisherman who pulls in a bundle of fish for the love of the sport? Or subsistence fishers who rely on their catches to satisfy nutritional needs? Should noncommercial fishing shoulder the blame as well for the endangered state of the world's oceans and waterways?



Environmental Effects of Sport Fishing

Is this bad for the environment?
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A single weeke­nd fis­herman who catches a few bass or bream to feed his family doesn't make much of ­a dent in the livelihood of the aquatic ecosystem. Multiply that by the 40 million rod-an­d-reel fishermen in the United States, and that could significantly compound the effects of hooking a fish here and there. Yet, the nature and pace of the sport allows recreational fishermen to better mitigate any destructive effects.

Take, for instance, bycatch. A single fisherman catches only one fish at a time. At that slower rate, recreational fishers can practice catch-and-release tactics that result in relatively low mortality rates for the discarded fish. Even most sport fishing tournaments are catch and release [source: NOAA]. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), anglers released 58 percent of the live fish caught in 2007. The amount of fish released also varies by type. Anglers released 90 percent of catfish caught in 2004, while they released only 21 percent of rockfish [source: NOAA].


Releasing your catch when sport fishing isn't as wasteful as it may seem. If you can return a fish back to its original depth within 10 minutes, you increase its chances for survival [source: Sea Grant California]. One controversial method of doing so involves deflating the fish's swim bladder with a sharp object like a hypodermic needle. A fish's swim bladder gives it buoyancy for swimming. When certain fish, such as sheephead, are reeled in quickly, the pressure change causes their swim bladders to overinflate. And unless fishermen puncture the bladder, the fish may float back to the surface of the water and die after being released.

Fishing gear selection can also reduce unintended species loss. A study conducted by the­ Ecological Society of America found that hook and line gears account for the lowest bycatch and­ habitat impacts. Circle hooks that look like metal "J"s are favored more by fishermen and conservationists alike. In addition to hooking a fish more securely, they usually attach at the jaw, resulting in fewer mortalities [source: Quinn].

Of course, sport fishing isn't without its environmental flaws. Trash discarded by fishermen as well as gas and oil leaks from their boats can pollute the waterways. Negligent anchoring can harm the shorelines and lead to habitat destruction. Fishers in the United States also buy about 4,382 tons (3,975 metric tons) of lead fishing sinkers each year [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. The lead contained in those sinkers may harm wildlife in and out of the water.

Yet, in comparison to commercial fishing operations, individual anglers have more control to soften the negative environmental effects of their activities. Just like individuals can reduce the size of their carbon footprints without drastically altering their lifestyles, recreational fishermen can continue to enjoy their sport while protecting the marine ecosystem.



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Rel­at­ed HowS­tuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Black, Richard. "'Only 50 years left' for sea fish." BBC. Nov. 2, 2006. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • "Comparing Ecological Impacts Of Fishing Gears." Ecological Society of America. Science Daily. Dec. 18, 2003. (Nov. 14, 2008)­ /releases/2003/12/031217072911.htm
  • Eilperin, Juliet. "Study: U.S. Fisheries Discard 22% of Catch." Washington Post. Dec. 1, 2005. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • "Future of Cod on Newfoundland's Grand Banks." Reuters. Sept. 19, 2008. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • ­"Lead Shot and Sinkers: Weighty Implications for Fish and Wildlife Health." U.S. Geological Survey. July 11, 2008.
  • "Marine Recreational Information Program." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • "Sportfishing in America." American Sportfishing Association. January 2008. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • "Sport Fish Survive If You Get Them Back Down." Sea Grant California. June 27, 2006. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • ­Tibbetts, John. "Eating Away at a Global Food Source." Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 112. No. 5. April 2004.
  • Wood, Daniel B. "Is California saving fish or picking on fishermen?" Christian Science Monitor. Dec. 12, 2006. (Nov. 14, 2008)