Posted by on October 1, 2018

Fishermen with huge sailfish on boat catch and release
Photo by Tom Hart

Catch-and-release fishing: Torture by another name

I apologise in advance. This month’s blog is going to be a little bit of a rant. A well informed balanced argument culminating in my very strong opinion. I see on Instagram and other social media many images of beautiful fish, often endangered and protected species such as Napoleon wrasse, marlin, sailfish, grouper and sharks, held up as trophies. This is supposed to be OK because they are released after the photo is taken. Or fishermen even hailed as heroes when they dramatically release a shark back into the waves. As if they have saved its life. When it is the person fishing for it that has created this situation in the first place. This is simply NOT OK.

I have responded occasionally to these images with logical arguments, phrased in calm unemotive lines of reasoning. In response, I have been accused of grandstanding, called names such as “troll” and been told I clearly don’t know what I am talking about. I have been told because I am a nature lover that I don’t understand the fishing world and have no right to comment on it. Well, they are right in one sense. I don’t understand the pleasure people derive from inflicting pain and fear on a defenceless creature, whether on land or in the oceans. Since my passion is the ocean, this discussion will be about fishing.

White tip reef sharks
Photo by Francisco Jesus Navarro Hernandez

The Protagonists

However, I have done my research. I agree that to comment with a strong voice I need to be informed. This is a topic that people feel passionate about. Fishermen feel they have a right to do whatever they want. Conservationists argue that it is torture for the sake of entertainment and that simply releasing the fish does not guarantee survival. Each time protected and endangered species are being taken from the water for photos to prove the prowess of the fisherman (or woman), is potentially one less of these beautiful creatures to continue the survival of the species.

Fishermen also argue that it is the anglers and sports fishers of the world who most want to maintain fish stocks. That they are ensuring the survival of the species by releasing the largest and most impressive specimens.

Size does matter

But it is often these larger fish who are more traumatised by the experience of being caught and are more unlikely to survive the experience. Large fish fight harder and take longer to land and consequently get closer to complete exhaustion. Big fish are more likely to be deep hooked or throat hooked. About 60% of deeply hooked fish die when released.

The internal organs of fish, especially larger ones, can be damaged by hoisting them from the water. Suspending them on a fishing line by the jaw or gills places enormous strain on the throat and will probably cause fatal injuries. Large fish should never be removed from the water if they are to have any chance of successful release.

So what do you think happens to that gorgeous green Napoleon wrasse you have proudly sitting on your lap while you are taking its picture? A fish which has been exhausted by the epic battle between hunter and quarry, and then lifted, however carefully, from the supportive water environment into the oppressive weight of gravity? Do you think it flicks its tail and waves goodbye as it gleefully swims off into the blue to propagate another generation?

Although a fish might appear alive and well at the time of release, it may have suffered trauma or injury from the hook or being handled, leading to death later on. Reviving the fish and making sure it is fully recovered from the trauma of being caught before releasing it gives it a better chance but is by no means a guarantee of survival.

Beautiful Napoleon Wrasse / Maori wrasse fish
Photo by Fugm10

Exhaustion

Prolonged exertion causes blood chemistry changes. Lactic acid builds up in the fish’s muscle tissue. If you have ever done any strenuous exercise you will recognise “the burn”. This causes the muscle cells to start decomposing from lack of oxygen and greatly decreases the chance of survival.

It also affects the flavour of any fish you keep. Fishermen know that it is necessary to kill fish quickly or the toxins in their blood will taint the flesh. The darker flesh tainted with lactic acid is easy to see.

So even in non-release situations, we are aware that fish are experiencing trauma, stress, and possibly pain and fear. A fish played too long can be too tired to recover.

It is also very difficult for an exhausted fish to escape predators. Imagine running a marathon across Africa and then finding yourself being chased by a lion. What chance do you think you’d stand? Perhaps that is an extreme and unlikely example, but you get the point. And in the ocean, it is a fish eat fish world. Any sign of weakness and you are likely to become lunch!

Your touch can kill

All fish have a layer of mucus on their skin and scales that protect them from bacterial infection and disease. This is one reason fish spend a lot of their lives in cleaning stations removing parasites. When fish are handled this layer is removed leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of infections. Flopping around on the deck of a boat can also cause serious damage.

Handling can lead to soft bellies and internal organs being accidentally crushed. Fish will inevitably lose scales or receive injuries to their skin and possibly eyes and gills. Gills are the lungs of the fish and are just as sensitive as our own, and even more susceptible to injury since they are so exposed. Lifting a fish up by the gills for a photo or to remove a hook can cause damage to sensitive tissue, increasing the chance of infection and possibly causing haemorrhaging! Any fish that is caught by the gills has very little chance of survival and it is better to humanely kill it and keep the meat. In general, a bleeding fish probably won’t make it.

Fisherman on boat with huge marlin / sailfish catch and release
Photo by Alan Chow
Dead juvenile shark on a hook
Photo by Razvan Orendovici

Torture despite best intentions

Nets can also be very damaging to a fish. The nylon thread cuts deeply into their flesh and can be devastating to eyes, gills and sensitive tissues. There are cotton or rubber mesh nets available on the market that do less damage, but it is better not to use a net at all.

Having a metal hook through the lip, mouth, throat, gill or perhaps even stomach cannot be beneficial to any creature. It is true that the stomach acid of fish is strong enough to dissolve some hooks over time. Trying to remove a hook that has been swallowed will likely cause more damage. The trauma from being out of the water is worse than simply cutting the line and letting nature do the work. However, stainless steel hooks do not dissolve in stomach acid.

Some fishermen also use barbless hooks, circle hooks or single (as opposed to treble) hooks to minimise harm and make them easier to remove. Different fishing methods boast different survival rates. Research indicates that 90% of fish caught on flies or lures will survive after being released. However, about one-third of fish caught on bait die after being set free.

Suffocation

Taking a fish from the water is no different than holding a person’s head underwater; they start to suffocate as they cannot breathe air any more than we can breathe water. They are likely to injure themselves in the resulting thrashing and convulsing, which will again reduce their chance of survival. Every article I have read on how to improve survivability in catch-and-release fishing states the fish should not be removed from the water unless absolutely necessary, to handle the fish as little as possible, and that trophy shots are ill-advised.

Fishermen with huge sailfish on boat catch and release
Photo by Tom Hart

Water temperature

Most large fish and sharks that trophy hunters seek live at depths where the water temperature is cooler than at the surface. In fact, you don’t need to go very deep to see temperature changes. When the water temperature is high fish tire much faster due to the increased lactic acid built up in their system. Fish that are already stressed by warm water temperatures or low dissolved oxygen conditions cannot handle the additional shock of being caught and will probably die after release. Most fish caught at depths beyond 10 metres cannot be freed with any confidence they will survive. That beautiful thresher shark with its huge eyes designed for sight in the darkness of great depth doesn’t stand much of a chance when it is dragged onto a boat for a mug shot.

Pressure change

The pressure at depth is much greater than the surface because of the weight of water in addition to the atmospheric pressure. At 10 metres the pressure is twice what it is at the surface. At 100 metres it is 11 times the surface pressure! When we dive the air spaces in our body such as our lungs are compressed as we descend and expand as we return to the surface. The same is true for the bodies and particularly the swim bladders of fish. They are designed to be in equilibrium at depth. Nature and evolution has created wonders in the development of fish that thrive at incredible depths where humans could never exist.

An ascent to the surface from 10 metres will double the volume of air in the fish’s swim bladder. The deeper the fish the greater the expansion. When fish are brought like the clappers to the surface this causes their blood chemistry to change as well as distending the swim bladder to many times its normal size, often causing it to bulge out of the fish’s mouth. Any fish caught at depth will almost certainly die.

Fishermen on boat with marlin catch and release
Photo by Jonathon Vail
Fisherman with large oceanic blacktip shark on beach, catch and release
Photo by Edward Stojakovic

By-catch

Fishermen often state the shark or other fish they caught was not their targeted species. In fact, by-catch is another significant issue to consider. I can understand the temptation since the shark is already on the hook, to land it anyway and take a photo. Perhaps this is a “once in a lifetime” catch. It is certainly very impressive to many people. But the trauma caused by doing this, and poor chance of survival on release, turns this heroic moment to one of distaste for me.

Sharks caught in the surf and then released face the added hazard of gills filled with sand as they are dragged up the beach. Those “Insta” videos of someone heroically “rescuing” a shark that is beached are fallacious! How do you think it got there in the first place? What chance do you think it really has of living?

In addition, birds, turtles and other non-targeted marine animals are also sometimes caught. Discarded or lost fishing tackle, hooks, ropes, and fishing line can entangle other creatures. In a purely cost-benefit analysis, the negative consequences far outweigh the positive.

Ethical considerations

Conservationists argue that fish experience unnecessary pain, suffering and fear from being caught, purely for our entertainment. Perhaps fishermen (and women) also get some satisfaction from demonstrating their skill, strength and endurance. The question is, is proving your fishing prowess sufficient justification for inflicting distress and torment on another helpless creature? Or is catch-and-release fishing in reality torture by another name?

To examine this, we need to ask if fish feel pain or fear? The scientific debate about this issue is inconclusive. Fish have already been found to have “nociceptors”. These are sensory receptors that in humans respond to physical threats by sending signals to the brain, allowing us to feel pain. However, recent research also concluded that the mere presence of the receptors did not mean animals felt pain, but only triggered an unconscious reaction to danger.

Professor James Rose from the University of Wyoming in the US, also found that the fish brain does not contain the highly developed neocortex required to feel pain, so they do not have any significant sensation like humans. He concluded that fish experience unconscious, basic instinctive responses, but not conscious feelings or pain.

However, creatures such as manta rays have been shown to have brains and intelligence as large as elephants or dolphins. Napoleon wrasse and grouper are able to recognise individual divers, indicating some basic acuity. So to take the findings of this study and apply it to every species of fish would be a massive generalisation. Larger trophy species may indeed have the capacity to experience conscious suffering.

Dead juvenile blacktip shark
Photo by Hillary
Fisherman catching juvenile blacktip shark

The honest truth

So let’s be honest. Even if fish do not have feelings, catching them for the value of entertainment, or to demonstrate your fishing talent is a sad human trait of arrogance and selfishness. The people who publish images of endangered and protected species they have caught should be prosecuted. They are breaking fishing laws that protect these species as well as moral laws to preserve our marine resources.

These images make me feel both sad and angry. I will continue to express my opinion despite abuse or being told to mind my own business. My skin is thicker than that. I challenge people to educate themselves. Before writing this I researched the facts of catch-and-release fishing. I don’t fish that is true, but that doesn’t mean I cannot understand the intricacies of the sport and the issues involved.

So give me your best shot. I challenge those who are proponents of sport-fishing to give me valid reasons why it is acceptable. I am interested to hear constructive arguments supporting the value that humanity, and the environment, gain from the sport. I suspect there are very few.

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