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Catch and release

Catch and release is a practice within recreational fishing intended as a technique of conservation. After capture, the fish are unhooked and returned to the water before experiencing serious exhaustion or injury. Using barbless hooks, it is often possible to release the fish without removing it from the water (a slack line is frequently sufficient).

History of practice

In the United Kingdom, catch and release has been performed for more than a century by coarse fishermen in order to prevent target species from disappearing in heavily fished waters. Since the latter part of the 20th century, many salmon and sea trout rivers have been converted to complete or partial catch and release.

In the United States, catch and release was first introduced as a management tool in the state of Michigan in 1952 as an effort to reduce the cost of stocking hatchery-raised trout. Anglers fishing for fun rather than for food accepted the idea of releasing the fish while fishing in so-called "no-kill" zones. Conservationists have advocated catch and release as a way to ensure sustainability and to avoid overfishing of fish stocks. Lee Wulff also promoted catch and release as he observed the Atlantic Salmon population dwindle.

In Australia, catch and release caught on slowly, with some pioneers practicing it the 1960s, and the practice slowly becoming more widespread in the 1970s and 1980s. Catch and release is now widely used to conserve — and indeed is critical in conserving — vulnerable fish species like the large, long lived native freshwater Murray Cod and the prized, slowly growing, heavily fished Australian bass, heavily fished coastal species like Dusky Flathead and prized gamefish like striped marlin.

In the Republic of Ireland, catch and release has been used as a conservation tool for atlantic salmon and sea trout fisheries since 2003. A number of fisheries now have mandatory catch and release regulations. Catch and release for coarse fish has been used by sport anglers for as long as these species have been fished for on this island. However catch and release for Atlantic salmon has required a huge turn about in how many anglers viewed the salmon angling resource. To encourage anglers to practice catch and release in all fisheries a number of Government led incentives have been implemented.

In Canada, catch and release is mandatory for some species. Canada also requires, in some cases, the use of barbless hooks to facilitate release and minimize injury.

In Switzerland, catch and release fishing is considered inhumane and will be banned beginning in September 2008.

Catch and release techniques

Effective catch and release fishing techniques avoid excessive fish fighting and handling times, avoid damage to fish skin, scale and slime layers (that leave fish vulnerable to fungal skin infections) by nets, dry hands and dry surfaces, and avoid damage to throat ligaments and gills by poor handling techniques.

The use of barbless hooks is an important aspect of catch and release; barbless hooks reduce injury and handling time, increasing survival. Frequently, fish caught on barbless hooks can be released without being removed from the water, and the hook(s) effortlessly slipped out with a single flick of the pliers or leader. Barbless hooks can be purchased from several major manufacturers or can be created from a standard hook by crushing the barb(s) flat with needle-nosed pliers. Some anglers avoid barbless hooks because of the erroneous belief that too many fish will escape. Concentrating on keeping the line tight at all times while fighting fish, equipping lures that do not have them with split rings, and using recurved point or "Triple Grip" style hooks on lures, will keep catch rates with barbless hooks as high as those achieved with barbed hooks. Triple Grip treble hooks work particularly well with the barbs crushed.

To make a hook barbless, the barb is simply crushed flat with a pair of needle-nosed pliers; a 2-second task. Medium grit sandpaper can be further used to ensure complete removal of the barb, but this is not necessary and is rarely done.

Key aspects of catch and release include:

  • Using strong tackle, to minimize fighting times
  • Using needle-nosed pliers to aid unhooking
  • Using barbless hooks, for quick, easy hook removal and reduced handling times
  • Leaving fish in the water during the unhooking and release process, to avoid any handling

If fish are removed from the water for unhooking and/or a photo, key aspects of handling include:

  • Avoiding the use of landing nets; if landing nets must be used, specially designed catch-and-release landing nets (e.g. Special Catch and Release nets)are used
  • Avoiding touching the fish with dry hands or dry surfaces (e.g. shirt fronts) or putting them down on dry surfaces (e.g. rocks, boat gunwhales, boat bottoms)
  • Never squeeze the fish or rip a hook out
  • Only touching the fish with wet hands and wet surfaces (e.g. wet towel)
  • Avoiding hanging fish from their jaw/mouth/gills
  • Holding fish horizontally, and supporting large fish with a second hand under the belly
  • Minimizing time out of the water (e.g. 20–30 seconds)
  • Support the fish gently upright in the water until it swims away
  • Place the fish in the water gently, supporting its mid-section
  • Move the fish gently back and forth until you feel it start to swim away.

The effects of catch and release vary from species to species. A number of scientific studies have shown extremely high survival rates (97%+) (e.g. ) for released fish if handled correctly and particularly if caught on artificial baits such as lures. Fish caught on lures are usually hooked cleanly in the mouth, minimising injury and aiding release. Other studies have shown somewhat lower but encouragingly high survival rates for fish gut-hooked on bait if the line is cut and the fish is released without trying to remove the hook. This procedure should be followed for any gut-hooked fish intended or required to be released.

Debate

Catch and release is a conservation practice developed to prevent overharvest of fish stocks in the face of growing human populations, mounting fishing pressure, increasingly effective fishing tackle and techniques, inadequate fishing regulations and enforcement, and habitat degradation. Scientific studies are showing generally high rates of survival for released fish — which is the aim of catch and release — and the alternative of banning or severely restricting angling is generally unreasonable or not feasible. Fishermen have been practicing catch and release for decades, including with some highly pressured fish species, and no significant, measurable effects from catch and release have been observed, indicating that mortality rates from catch and release are not excessive. Conversely, had recreational fishing for these highly pressured species continued to the present on a totally catch and kill basis, some of these species fisheries would certainly have collapsed by now. Catch and release is criticized by some who claim it is unethical to stress fish for sport or amusement. Some oppose catch and release only but do not oppose fishing for food, per se.

Proponents of catch and release dispute the suggestion that fish hooked in the mouth feel pain. Many point to the fact that fish consume spiny, hard prey items such as crayfish, molluscs and other fish, and require a tough, insensitive mouth to do so; such a mouth is unlikely to feel a hook point. Some point to studies that claim fish lack the higher brain functions that physiologists often associate with the ability to feel pain. And some quote the many observations fishermen have made of fish succeeding in throwing a lure and then turning around and striking the same lure again, an unlikely behavior if being hooked in mouth causes pain. Similarly, all observations from fishermen support the contention that hooked fish fight because they feel the pull of fishing line, not because the hook in their mouth hurts. Suitably strong tackle reduces fighting times and reduces stress on captured fish.

Opponents of catch and release point out that fish are highly evolved vertebrates that share many of the same neurological structures that, in humans, are associated with pain perception. They point to studies that show that, neurologically, fish are quite similar to "higher" vertebrates and that blood chemistry reveals that hormones and blood metabolites associated with stress are quite high in fish struggling against hook and line. The idea that fish do not feel pain in their mouths has been studied at the University of Edinburgh and the Roslin Institute by injecting bee venom and acetic acid into the lips of rainbow trout; the fish responded by rubbing their lips along the sides and floors of their tanks in an effort to relieve themselves of the sensation. Lead researcher Dr. Lynne Sneddon wrote "Our research demonstrates nociception and suggests that noxious stimulation in the rainbow trout has adverse behavioral and physiological effects. This fulfills the criteria for animal pain." However, others argue this may demonstrate a chemical sensitivity rather than pain; notably, no similar result has been obtained with trauma, such as using fishhooks. Thus, the evidence for pain sensation in fish is at best ambiguous. the last reference shows that fish can detect toxins, as demonstrated by Brown, but that this is very different from pain. Some anglers accept the arguments that fish are highly evolved vertebrates that can feel pain, but again point out that that fish have tough, bony mouths that often consume spiny, hard prey items, and that hooks therefore do not cause fish pain, despite fish being capable of feeling pain.

Deep sea fishing and catch and release

While a number of scientific studies have now found survival rates of shallow water fish caught-and-released on fly and lure have extremely high survival rates (95–97%) and modestly high survival rates on bait (70–90%, depending on species, bait, hook size, etc.) emerging research suggests catch and release does not work very well with fish caught when deep sea fishing.

Most deep sea fish species suffer from the sudden pressure change when wound to the surface from great depths; these species cannot adjust their body's physiology quickly enough to follow the pressure change. The result is called "barotrauma". Fish with barotrauma will have their enormously swollen swim-bladder protruding from their mouth, bulging eyeballs, and often sustain other, more subtle but still very serious injuries. Upon release, fish with barotrauma will be unable to swim or dive due to the swollen swim-bladder. The common practice has been to deflate the swim bladder by pricking it with a thin sharp object before attempting to release the fish.

Emerging research indicates both barotrauma and the practice of deflating the swimbladder are both highly damaging to fish, and that survival rates of caught-and-released deep-sea fish is extremely low. However, barotrauma requires that fish be caught at least 30 - 50 feet below the surface. Many surface caught fish, such as billfish, and all fish caught from shore, do not meet this criterion and thus do not suffer barotrauma.

In light of this research, anglers must show responsibility and restraint when deep sea fishing and, after catching and keeping a reasonable number of deep sea fish, cease fishing for them.

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