For generations, the merits and downfalls of catch and release have been discussed and, often, hotly debated. Around the world, both champions for and opponents of catch and release have made their opinions clear, each believing that the point of view they hold is correct. A majority of the time, the discussion focuses on the fish themselves; whether they suffer long-term pain and injury from being hooked, whether barbless hooks can offer any respite, and whether not releasing fish affects population numbers. However, the impact of not releasing caught fish on the ecosystem of the stream itself is often neglected. Here, we provide some information about why fish populations are so important for the conservation of stream and river environments.
For native fish species, the presence of a healthy ecosystem within a given waterway has been a critical component of their life and growth process. The success of other life within the ecosystem, such as insect life, amphibians, and the diverse plant life that is critical for regulating oxygen and nutrient levels in the water. In order for these ecosystems to remain balanced and functional in the future, the population levels of each species within the stream cannot change significantly. Decreases in native populations can be brought about by a number of factors, including pollution, the introduction of non-native fish species, climate extremes (such as an atypically dry or wet season), and of course over-fishing.
Studies suggest that it takes just a few years of an unbalanced ecosystem to result in drastic changes within the stream, such as increased algae levels that can lead to toxic waste products and oxygen depletion. These changes can be severe to the point where the wild fish populations are unable to recover to previous levels, and may continue to decline to the point of no return without human intervention and stocking of the stream, which brings about its own issues. Needless to say, ensuring native fish population levels remain stable is critical to ensuring that future generations can enjoy fishing streams that have provided you with years of entertainment.
Why catch and release is important
There are great programs (Trout Unlimited) in place to help protect our streams and rivers but the task is a daunting one and unfortunately these programs don’t have the resources to protect every waterway. Of course you can do your part by ensuring that you don’t overfish a stream or river. It is incredibly simple and can make a significant difference. Catch and release doesn’t have to mean always using barbless hooks (although it is the sporting thing to do) and returning each and every fish you hook. It means developing an understanding of the native fish populations in the streams you fish, and fishing intelligently, with the future in mind.
How to safely release your catch
It’s true that not all fish survive the catch and release process, but by being as careful as possible and following these tips you can help to improve the chances that your catch lives and remains healthy when re-entering the water:
- Try to land the fish quickly, as long struggles result in fatigue that the fish may not recover from
- Use a landing net to speed up the amount of time it takes to land your fish
- Where possible, land your fish in deeper water to prevent injury from thrashing around on rocks
- Try not to remove your fish from the water at any time
- Make sure your hands are wet prior to handling the fish, to help protect the mucous that covers their scales. Try not to squeeze the fish or touch their gills while removing the hook.
- Once the hook is removed, hold the fish upright underwater so that it can revive. Hold the fish until it can swim away forcefully on its own.
Participating in the philosophy behind catch and release will allow you help protect the waters you fish in and the ecosystem that keeps your fishery stocked and healthy.
If you would like to take action and do more to help your local stream or river, we recommend that you look into your local chapter of Trout Unlimited (tu.org) and join. At the very least, be considerate of your surroundings when you are fly fishing. You can make a difference and protect the sport that we all love. Please feel free to share any photos and stories of how you have helped protect your local area on our social media areas or send us an email and we would be happy to post a story about your accomplishments. You deserve recognition for your efforts and we are happy to oblige. Send emails here.