The catch and release movement has grown considerably over the last few decades. Initiative like #keepemwet and others have done incredibly well at building strong support for catch and release in some parts of the fishing community. Social media has helped spread the message, driving a strong commitment to catch and release amongst many angling communities. Which is great! The fishing community needs loud advocates for conservation and better more responsible handling and angling practices. Educating those coming through on the best ways to protect, preserve and strengthen our fisheries is something our fisheries need. This is especially true for fish species and populations that have suffered severe reductions in range and abundance, like Steelhead in the USA and in Australia species like Murray cod, Australian bass, Estuary perch and the like. There are fish and populations where any take is too much, a great example being recovering wild Murray cod populations. The more we can do to educate anglers and take pressure off those fish the better.
There can be an ugly side to it though. While social media has been great for advocacy and education it does have a dark side, one that rears its ugly head from time to time, usually in the form of online pile ons and abuse. Ganging up on and abusing people because they killed a fish or held a fish wrong doesn’t help spread the message we want to spread, in fact I think it can often be counterproductive. While many criticisms are fair and debates about issues such as catch and release and conservation are important, the immediacy, lack of detail and speed of social media also means debates tend towards a black and white way of viewing the world that don’t take into account important context. It’s all to easy to fire off a few pointed four letter words, rather than engaging with people and having a discussion about an issue. Just because trout or carp or redfin are native or highly valued social assets in your own home waters doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem somewhere else. That is, context and nuance are important if we want to avoid unfair criticism and want to educate people about the issues facing our fisheries.
The truth is, not all fish are equal or equally important. Maybe it was a stocked fish, a fish unlikely to contribute to the wild population. Maybe the fish was caught in an area where it is introduced and outcompeting native fish. Maybe it was gill hooked and unlikely to survive the release. Maybe it was a trout from a river where populations are going gangbusters and densities are so high they stunt growth, leading to unbalanced populations, where keeping a few fish probably helps rather than hurts the fishery. I know of a number of trout fisheries like that, fisheries with a huge abundance of small fish and very few large one where keeping a few fish for the table isn’t going to do any harm. The best example is one of the streams I fished in Tassie over summer, a stream that happened to be inaccessible to the general public. The stream was in the heart of trout country, had numerous wonderful big pools and runs and looked like it should have held good numbers nice fish over 30-35cms. Instead, it held ridiculous, numbers of tiny trout. And I mean ridiculous, in some of the bigger pools, upwards of 30 fish could be seen feeding in a run. Needless to say, I felt zero guilt about keeping a few fish for the table (it was only a few because catching fish above the size limit amongst the hoards of tiddlers was HARD). The point is that context is often hugely important, especially in a world where we often see content from places we have no direct knowledge of. Places that may be very different from the places we fish ourselves.
So before commenting, stop and think, “is there something I might be missing here”.
Personally, in our time running this blog we haven’t been on the receiving end of much abuse. We’ve had a few respectful comments about killing carp or holding them the wrong way which have provided an opportunity to start a conversation about the impact of carp in Australia (yeah, about that….), a few people being outright abusive about various thing, lifting fish out of the water for photos and what not (but it has only ever been one guy at a time, block, move on) and a few negative comments about some of Lee’s hunting pics (yes foxes are cute….. however). Generally though the feedback we have received has all been really reasonable and even when it has been critical it has been respectful and often enlightening, leading to valuable discussion and to us to reassessing our own practices from time to time. Thats the way things should be. However, we have seen abuse hurled at others pretty regularly, usually at younger, less experience anglers who simply don’t know any better. Its not a great look and it probably doesn’t achieve anything.
So, given the popularity of catch and release, its probably time for all of us to start appreciating that context and perspective matter. That not all situations are the same and not all anglers have had the education that you or I have been lucky enough to have. Some people fish for the pleasure of it only using barbless hooks and release every fish they catch without lifting it from the water (all power to them). Some will use barbed hooks and do the same. Some will quickly take fish out of the water to get a grip and grin. Some will use lip grips (please reconsider). Some will commit all sorts of handling sins, practices that definitely aren’t great for the fish. While the later practices are always bad if you plan to release fish, it is good to remember that most of us started out without knowing much and only got to where we are now through years of experience, conversations and education from other anglers. The truth is that most of us have committed fish handling “sins” like putting a fish on a dry surface, keeping them out of the water too long and so on and so on at some point in the past.
Before commenting, take a step back and remember, not everyone is going to be as educated as you and maybe a softer approach is a better way to go about it, one that might actually help someone become a better, more responsible angler. Debate these choices all you like, do all you can to educate other anglers about best practices, just remember, being respectful is likely to be by far the most effective approach.
That courtesy should also be extended to those people who fish for other reasons, like to bring home a few fish for a feed. Fishing to bring home dinner is something I do myself from time to time. Nothing quite beats fresh fish or seafood that you have caught yourself. The process of catching, killing, preparing and cooking your catch in a way that respects it and brings the best out in it is something myself and many others thoroughly enjoy. It is possible to be an educated and ethical angler who looks after the fishery, that also takes a few fish home from time to time. Given that our fisheries are managed to take into account people keeping fish, the truth is taking a few fish for the table is something that generally wont harm the fishery. Of course, given the scale of fisheries management, it won’t be perfect and there will be times and places where taking fish will harm populations. In those cases we should be gently be encouraging people not to take fish and educating them about the issues affecting the health of the fishery. The problem is that by being evangelical about catch and release practices in all situations, we risk potential turning away a much larger group of anglers who like to keep fish from time to time who may be important allies on issues that really matter. The case for protecting populations and for management actions to protect and restore fisheries is going to be far stronger if the whole fishing community is on board, not just catch and release anglers. To protect the areas that really need it and to fight for the things that really matter, the more voices in support the better.
Lastly, its always important to self reflect on our own practices. Catch and release fishing isn’t impact free. The truth is that taking home a few fish for dinner a few times a year is likely to result is far less impact than the impact an avid catch and release fisher out fishing every weekend will have over the course of a year. Even adhering to best practice catch and release, some fish will die due to stress or injury caused by the angling process. That is something that is unavoidable and that we should acknowledge and take into account. At times, the best way to look after a fishery may simply be to stop fishing after you’ve caught a few fish. To reassess our own desires to catch as many fish as possible and to instead focus on savouring the moment and the surroundings, leaving the fish in peace till next time.
Obviously, this is only a short post that can’t deal with all the complexities. We’d love to hear your views in the comments below