Stuff we've learnt, Sustainability

Is the social acceptability of recreational fishing being eroded?

Recreational fishing remains a popular pastime the world over. One of the great things about recreational fishing is its accessibility; you don’t need much gear, there are lots of places to do it, and it can appeal to a wide range of skill levels. But recent surveys have shown that participation rates in recreational fishing are decreasing. Current estimates are somewhere between 15 and 25 per cent of Australians fishing at least once a year. I don’t know whether this is symptomatic of our increasingly busy lifestyles, the new ‘screen-based’ generation or ongoing urbanisation and its influence on disconnecting us from nature, but an interesting question is ‘at what point does recreational fishing become ‘uncommon’, and what are the implications?’

If it does become a ‘niche’ pastime, is there a risk that the social acceptability of recreational fishing will be eroded? Social acceptability, or the ‘social licence to operate’ basically relate to the level of approval granted by society to a particular activity.

One of the reasons my interest has been piqued is my growing interest in hunting, and the difference in social licence granted by society to hunters and fishers. This is an idea for a different blog, so I don’t want to go into it much here. But 50 or 100 years ago, and indeed going back much further, hunting was also highly acceptable in the eyes of society.

Similar to hunting, there are already many anti-fishers among society’s ranks, which is somewhat sad, because fishers and environmentalists/conservationists are often one and the same and want the same outcomes, i.e. healthy habitat and ecosystems. But there is definitely a difference: no one bats an eyelid when a family wants to go down to the water and wet a line, and most of society doesn’t care if fishers target southern bluefin tuna, yet images of hunters and their quarry are the target of hatred in numerous fora.

There is a challenge ahead for recreational fishers in proving that they care; proving that they are stewards of natural resources and environments; and showing that they understand ethical responsibilities. Sometimes I find it remarkable that we can go out and catch and kill a native species that may be classified as ‘overfished’ or that are a fraction of their virgin biomass. Indeed, catches of the mighty mulloway or Murray cod often attract accolades on social media and more broadly. If a hunter were to go and kill a glossy black cockatoo, it would probably make front page of at least the local news, and obviously it wouldn’t be a pretty story.

The risk of not proving this is that we could end up like Germany, which disallows catch and release fishing on ethical grounds. I believe that it’s important to be able to be selective in what we decide to take. Even worse, we could end up like some other places in Europe, where rich white people pay a lot of money to fish private property because there aren’t really any other options. Worst of all would be the effect of further disconnecting us from our natural environment from banning recreational fishing altogether.

I don’t think the solution is necessarily increasing participation rates, but rather in promoting an ethos of the highest ethical and environmental responsibilities among fishers, particularly those who are avid. And it’s also not worth fighting with so-called adversaries because of the aforementioned fact that even though some of us might think we’re on different teams, the truth is that the end goals are similar (and definitely not mutually exclusive). Hamish has written a bit more about this here. We need to champion a dialogue about habitat restoration, conservation and ethical practices to maintain and improve our social licence to operate. And we need good representation. We are all responsible as representatives for the passion we love.

Happy fishing.


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9 thoughts on “Is the social acceptability of recreational fishing being eroded?

  1. I think rec fishing has lost some its social licence.

    I think it has been lost over the last 15 years or so through the ugly, hysterical anti-marine park campaign most rec-fishers have engaged in; the general arrogance; the “it’s moi roight to fish anywhere, anytime” attitude; and the juvenile and very confrontational attitude most rec-fishers have towards government authorities, academics and environmentalists.

    I think the average rec-fishing masses need to take hard look at themselves and how their behaviours and demands are perceived by the broader community.

    Recreational fishing is very special because (with the expection of deep-water fish) you can catch and release. You can’t do that with hunting. Or spearfishing. You can’t shoot and revive. But you can catch and release.

    So rec-fishing is very special and can be uniquely sustainable.

    We must defend, and defend catch and release fishing.

    This precedent of banning catch-and-release in Germany is profoundly stupid, and disastrous.

    Imagine if catch and release stopped in Australia tomorrow. So many fish stocks would collapse. Vulnerable wild bass and Murray cod populations, for instance, only survive through catch-and-release.

    So, we need to improve our behaviour, stop being so god-dam selfish and confrontational, stop demanding irresponsible fish stockings, stop opposing marine parks and fishing regulations, and start looking like reasonable, responsible, environmentally aware and caring members of society.

  2. Yep, I reckon our social licence is being eroded.

    It has been eroded by the ugly, arrogant, anti-environmental direction the rec-fishing masses have been heading in over the last 15 years or so.

    The hysterical blanket opposition to marine parks, the opposition to all bag and size limit reductions, the brazen “it’s moi roight to fish everywhere, anytime” attitude, the grotesque and dishonest misapplication of the term “lock-out” in regards to tiny percentages of waters being closed, the brazen antagonism and disrespect to government agencies, scientists and environmentals who don’t say what they want to hear … the hysterical opposiont to a C&R policy for mako shaks, the trout stocking bastardry… Yep, rec-fishers have certainly been making themselves looking bad, and really selfish and arrogant, to the broader community for a while now.

    Rec-fishers need to wake the hell up to themselves and realise what they look like to the rest of the community.

    On a happier note, fishing is special, because you can catch-and release. This makes it different from all other hunting activities. You can’t shoot-and-revive. You can’t spear-and-release. But you can fish and catch-and-release. This is a wonderful boon for our activity.

    On this issue, the banning of catch-and-release in Germany is profoundly stupid and dangerous.

    Catch and release (deep-sea fish excepted) can be done exceptionally well, can be humane, and exceptionally effective (in terms of survival rates). It will be essential for the future of many fisheries. Even now some populations of wild native fish in Australia (e.g. Murray cod, bass) are totally reliant on benevolent catch-and-release for their existence. They would collapse immediately if all fish caught were killed. Honestly, this German precedent is just so stupid. We must never allow it to take hold here.

    We need to be credible environmental advocates and defenders of minimal impact catch-and-release fishing activities.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Simon. It’s a fascinating issue and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m currently drafting a blog on rec fishing representation and why it’s important, and why I believe it’s currently failing in Australia on a number of levels. It’s interesting to look at what has happened in the US over the last decade, where it appears rec fishers and conservation groups have started working well together to achieve common goals. It’s also interesting that recreational hunting representative organisations have started to go down this path in Australia – perhaps necessity really is the mother of invention, for lack of a better proverb!

  3. Perhaps the difference between hunting and fishing acceptance stems from the physical locality of the pastime? Not many city folk get to see the ravages of a wild pig or feral cat, and thus don’t understand the necessity to eradicate (in a humane way of course). Fishing on the other hand, can be urban or regional and thus has a more widespread acceptance.

    1. Hi Mac, I think this has a lot to do with it. Most people are so far removed from the damage that these ferals do to our natural environments and equate killing anything to ‘bad’ (never mind the ethics of the animal protein industry – that’s another story!). The conservation argument is an interesting justification. Sometimes I try to use it to justify my hunting, but the main reason I do it is that I find it incredibly meditative and enjoyable. The enjoyable part isn’t the act of killing, but more the overall connection with nature and the heightened sense of awareness and perception it gives.

  4. Yeh I believe it won’t be socially acceptable in the future to fish. In its most simplified and abstract form, we are torturing an animal for our own enjoyment. It’s just acceptable to do right now because we grew up doing it! We grew up fishing with our family, learning that this is an ok thing to do. As more and more people become urbanised, and don’t grow up fishing, they see it in a more abstract way, which is basically: torturing an animal for our enjoyment.

    In the future we will look back at fishing and hunting as an oddity and a hang-up from our previous hunter-gather life style. Some people will argue that fish don’t feel pain, so it’s ok. But the research to date has shown that they probably do feel pain. Did you see the recent social outrage directed toward the fisher who ‘dragged a shark from the water’ to take selfie? He was just fishing, albeit, with terrible handling technique.

    There are huge benefits from fishing, for the environment and for the people who do it! Fishing gets people out there actually in the environment, using it, appreciating it and enjoying it. If you don’t use it, you loose it! If there is a big development about to go ahead that could destroy a river, or lake or an adjacent natural area such as a forest, who is going to care more about this, and take action to prevent it? The fisher who loves that river because they go to that river every weekend? Or the person who has no idea it exists, or knows that it exists but doesn’t care about it, because they’ve never been there and have no emotional attachment to it? However, we don’t need to be fishers to achieve this outcome. The same theory applies to all outdoor sports, such as mountain biking, hiking, skiing, kayaking, etc. Unless we are concerned directly about the conservation of fish, as no one else but fisherman (and aquarists) really know what kind of fish are in their local stream.

    For there to be any long term social acceptability of fishing, we need to respect our fish. But I have seen some immensely poor handling techniques. The #keepemwet campaign has been a great vessel for promoting and encouraging proper fish handling techniques. For me, fishing is just a vessel to get out and explore rivers and nature. I love the challenge of catching fish. A good fisher is in-tune with the ebb and flow of the life on the river, and has a deep respect for all of this. Do I think this your average occasional fisher? Probably not.

    1. It’ll be a real shame Jono if recreational fishing ever gets banned.

      I don’t accept it’s a simple of torturing animals for fun.

      The ethics of fishing is something that’s worried for a long time. I’ve had to admit to myself that ethically it is a bit grey. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the way I do it — which usually involves lures, barbless hooks, sufficiently strong tackle, short fighting times, short handling times, and best-practice-catch-and-release — it is acceptable. Sure, the fish don’t like it, but it’s not agony, it’s a short swift experience, then they’re back swimming again thinking “what the hell just happened then?” … but also getting on with their fishy life. I can live with that.

      I don’t buy the fish-don’t-feel-pain argument. They’re vertebrates, they’ve got highly effective nervous systems, pain is adaptive for all vertebrates … of course fish feel pain. But as we fishers explain (and regularly see evidence for), a hook in a fish’s mouth is not the equivalent of a hook in a mammal’s mouth — a fish’s mouth is tough and insensitive so they can eat the tough and spiky things they often feed on, fish don’t fight because the hook is causing them agony, fish fight because they can feel the pull of the line and they don’t like it.

      And good point Jonno — people get passionate about conserving things they know about and experience. I’m yet to meet an inner Sydney vegan hipster that is passionate about Murray cod conservation, for instance. But plenty of rec-fishers …

  5. Simon… really? You must be focusing on the really bad examples to think that rec-anglers are projecting such a negative persona to the community. Certainly isn’t like that in my area. In any case there are a couple of important facts to remember about ‘behaviour’;
    -Anglers will include the full spectrum of human traits and characteristics. There will be the good and the bad.
    -We’ve seen how well the ‘reasonable’ and ‘responsible’ approach has served those of us on the coast in trying to defend our favourite fishing areas to Marine Park closures… not very well. Keep in mind that those who do want to implement Marine Parks (and yes, I do oppose their mostly irrelevant ‘science’) are happy to play dirty. Play on emotion. Play the popularity contest, not the issue. You can take what they’re prepared to give you Simon but I’ll fight for what I believe is right thanks very much. There have been many losses for the saltwater angler. There have been many saltwater anglers double crossed. There are many saltwater anglers who do not fish any more because the places they have always loved to fish are now off-limits. They were made scape-goats even though their practices were more than sustainable.

    The vast majority of your ‘tiny percentages’ of closures have indeed focused on some of our most popular coastal fishing areas. In comparison, freshwater anglers are laughing. And so they should, because they mainly get assistance for their fishing, not resistance!

    Apologies Lee, back to your interesting topic. Simple. Take your kids fishing and teach them the right way so they understand that it IS an acceptable practice – including catch and release (I could tell you of several specific events which without doubt have shown me that fish do not feel ‘pain’ as we perceive it). Even if your children stop fishing when they get older, they will still know that it is okay and will support anglers who are trying to protect their rights.

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