It is truly great to see large portions of the recreational fishing community really getting behind catch and release… From the early days of Rex Hunt kissing fish and letting them go while chanting yibbida-yibbida to the continued support of the movement by fishing personalities since, guys like Steve Starling, Bushy, Rod Paxevanous and the like, the catch and release movement has grown from strength to strength. This is most obvious amongst the young up and comers in the Australian fishing landscape. New publications like Cast EMag and groups like Morningtide fishing (seriously check out their rock fishing stuff, its next level. While your at it also watch their latest film which really sums up how far we have come) have embraced the catch and release ethos with gusto.
This is great! What it shows is that more and more recreational fishers are coming to understand how important our fish stocks are. That if we want great fisheries, we have to be the ones looking after them! That, without great fisheries our sport is vastly diminished. While we all say that we don’t “fish to catch fish” (often watching sunset at the end of a stellar session or watching sunset after a tough day donutting hard), the truth of the matter is that catching fish does actually matter to most of us. This means that its in our interests to protect our fisheries and to make sure they are as good as they can be, because ultimately we benefit.
There is also no doubt that catch and release practices are important when chasing a range of species. For example our wonderful freshwater natives have suffered large and protracted declines over the last 100 years. Stocks are still only a fraction of what they used to be. The more we can do to help them the better. Locally the same goes for our highly pressured estuaries, where recreational take can be significant and when chasing species that are classified as overfished such as mulloway. When chasing these species or fishing in these environments, catch and release matters.
However, catch and release is only a tiny bit of the story. There is a lot more to creating great fisheries than limiting take. One major factor, which can be far more important is habitat! Above all else, great fisheries rely on great habitat. Without it, we simply can’t have fisheries that are performing at their best no matter how many fish we release, no matter how low recreational take it. Put simply the impact that habitat can have on fish populations is huge. For example, putting back woody debris in Colorado has been shown to boost trout populations by 53% over the long term. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, much much bigger effects are possible! For example, habitat improvement has been shown to increase Brook trout populations by 208% and crayfish populations by 220% in some rivers. In the Batten Kill river, increasing cover from 0.7% to 3% increased trout populations by 490% in the pools and 200% in riffles. On the Achushnet river improved fishways increased Herring populations by 1140%. In Cheaspeake bay rebuilding reef structures increased oyster populations by 5700% as well as that of various fish species (Red drum 108%, Sea trout 88%, Flounder 79%, Blue crabs 297%).
These are just a few examples simply to illustrate the importance of habitat for the health of our fisheries. There are fewer studies on the effect of habitat restoration on native fish populations (although research is ongoing and the early results are promising), either freshwater or saltwater but it is likely that similar results can be achieved here in many places. The take home, HABITAT IS VITAL!
Habitat, be it sea grass beds, marshes, woody debris, snags, more natural flow regimes, riparian vegetation, warm water, seasonal temperature regimes, clean water, wetlands, temperate reefs, tropical reefs, rocky reefs, seaweed forests or the removal of barriers and invasive species, are ultimately the drivers of our great fisheries. Its important that recreational fishers understand that and that we do what we can to protect and improve fish habitat across Australia, because there is more to having great fisheries than just practicing catch and release.
I leave you with the words of an unknown recreational fisher “No habitat, no littler fish: no little fish, no big fish”
*Great fish habitat work in done here in Oz by various groups, such as the Fish habitat network, by the now defunct Native fish strategy and by various government departments and community groups. I strongly encourage you to check out some of their work.*