Catch-and-release: Yea or nay?

Those of you who come here often – or who fish the waters off Massachusetts – know that the striped bass are in. When I wrote up our fist day out, and mentioned my take on catch-and-release fishing, a couple of commenters (you know who you are) voiced objections, similar to mine, to fishing for anything but sustenance.

I don’t catch and release because I can’t justify catching a fish for fun. There’s disagreement about the extent to which fish suffer, with fishermen generally subscribing to the view that they can’t, while PETA is pretty convinced that they can, but I’m pretty sure we can say for certain that it’s no damn fun to get a hook through your lip (or, worse, your gut), and get hauled into a boat. That said, because we don’t understand the degree to which fish suffer, I’m unwilling to draw a line in the sand and say that it’s unacceptable to catch and release.

In the Atlantic striped bass fishery, catch-and-release fishing has a significant impact on the population. According to NOAA, 2004 (the last year for which I found data) saw 2.5 million striped bass landed by recreational fishermen (which constituted 72% of the total landings, striped bass being unusual in that the bulk of the fishing is recreational). An additional 1.3 million fish died after being caught and released. For every two fish caught and eaten, a third died for our pleasure.

There is, however, a not inconsiderable upside to catch-and-release fishing. Without it, we wouldn’t have nearly as many fishermen, which means we also wouldn’t have nearly the revenue from licenses. Those license fees fund much of the conservation efforts for our fisheries, and those conservations efforts are generally credited with saving the striper fishery in these waters after it was dangerously depleted by overfishing.

Recreational fishing also supports tackle shops, marinas, boat dealers, and mechanics. In a place like Cape Cod, where the fishing is world-class and consequently employs a great many people, that matters.

Do you fish? Do you catch and release? What do you think?

20 people are having a conversation about “Catch-and-release: Yea or nay?

  1. Dave in the UK says:

    Depends on the fish to be honest. We mainly fish from charter hires, sometimes from piers and beaches

    Anything female and shark/ray related ( over here, that’s skate, thronbacks, dogfish, etc ) go back. If it’s gut hooked we cut the line and hope we’ve done no damage and the hook will rust away.

    Apart from that, fair game. Once or twice we’ve really bagged up and called it a day early – got the skipper to take us on a quick boating course or just got home early and let the skipper have an early night.


    • Dave – You definitely can’t fish without throwing some fish back — whether they’re illegal, or just not what you’re fishing for (although some bycatch is delicious). The question is really whether you fish when you know that you won’t be keeping whatever is on the other end of the line — when fishing is just a leisure activity, rather than a food-procuring exercise.

      That gut-hooking thing really gets me. Every now and then we gut-hook a short — it’s the worst part of fishing.

      • Dave in the UK says:

        Ah,okay – I missed the point, I thought this was more of a protein imperative kinda deal.

        Fresh water fishing which, in the UK, is very much a catch and release sport. Unless you catch a vermin species, like a catfish or perchpike or an eel. In which case you whack it on the head and throw it into the bushes for the foxes, rather than give it a kiss and take picture – aint we two-faced 🙁 I dont personally fresh water fish purely coz I’m planning on eating what I’m hauling up – I’m cheap like that :-).

  2. Fishing for fun seems like a great luxury of time that I can’t afford. We pleasure fish for sustenance only and without live bait or small (or treble) hooks. Single hook, single pole casting with a jig and twister in fresh water. They never have time to swallow a hook, but any injured fish that’s legal I take home and eat. If we have the great fortune of catching more than we can eat, I freeze and then pressure can it at a later date. I’ve also given away fresh filleted and canned fish to my neighbors.

    • Fishing for fun is most definitely a luxury — both time- and money-wise. One of the things I like about it is that I can enjoy myself in the guise of feeding myself.

  3. This issue is near and dear to my heart, and let me begin by saying that I have no answer for whether catch and release is moral or ethical. It’s something I still struggle with.

    My grandfather has been a fly fisherman for nearly 50 years and has made it a sort of family tradition. As far as he is concerned, the essence of fly fishing is catch and release. It isn’t exactly the most efficient way to catch fish for eating, but it sure is fun. Its scouting for the fish, sneaking up on your prey, and battling the sucker into the net that gets fly fisherman’s heart racing.

    Asking my grandfather to not fly fish, would be like asking a cat not to be smug. It’s a tradition… almost sacred. It’s a time when we get away from the city, reflect on everything, and connect with nature again.

    Torture is not specific to humans: my cats play with their catch and I’ve seen dogs hunt for fun.

    Somehow, though, I can’t bring myself to believe that this is enough justification for torture as a part of life. As an intelligent being, I have a sense of what other beings feel and experience, and the fish certainly don’t like what we’re doing to them.

    Maybe, as a society, we’re moving away from the amorality of the natural world towards a more intelligent way of looking at the connection between all living things… but I’m not quite ready to give up eating meat simply because its not a necessary part of my diet any more, and I’m not quite ready to give up catch and release simply because I might be hurting a fish.

    Not QUITE ready anyways….

    • Fly fishing with barbless hooks is, I believe, less likely to do damage to fish than most other forms of fishing. And, like you, I have a hard time condemning c&r, for exactly the reasons you cite. THere’s a lot about it that seems so wholesome.

      I won’t, however, use the fact that other animals do something as justification for our doing it. Other animals kill the young of their competitors, bully weaker species members, and, as you point out, torture their prey — surely, we know better. We’re the only species capable of moral reasoning, and I think we’re required to use it. We are certainly of the amoral natural world, but I think we have a different set of obligations.

      I’ll spare you chapter and verse on meat-eating, but I believe that animals are an integral part of responsible agriculture, and eating them keeps the whole system humming. MOre on that some other day.

      Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts on this, Dan.

      • So I have a question for you. If your circumstances had changed, and you weren’t fishing to supplement your calories or exchange calories from another source (aka pigs/turkeys), would you still find fishing/hunting moral?

        In other words, if you hunted, ate the meat, but didn’t really need to, would you still do it?

  4. Like you, I love fishing but only for the satisfaction of filling the freezer. The notion of catch and release, then going to buy some fish from the supermarket, seems absolutely bonkers.

    Most people I know think the same way, which is why we curse when we catch an inedible fish even though the experience is no different to catching something for dinner.

    • That’s definitive! Bonkers!

      Part of why I like fishing is that there’s dinner on the line, but it’s only part. I do enjoy the thrill when the line comes whizzing off the reel, and the challenge of landing a big, energetic fish. But, when I fished for false albacore, which are terrible eating but excellent lobster bait, I found that my heart wasn’t really in it.

    • That’s an excellent essay — I think it sums up the moral issues, and also illustrates what I think is a kind of blindness in the sport fishing community. Thanks for the link.

    • Ted Kerasote is a man after my heart. He’s on a book tour for his latest, and I thought the talk he gave was fantastic. he also seems like a nice guy, we’ve been trading emails for a while.

    • Interesting article. I’m baffled, though: where did this theory that fish don’t feel pain even begin? Seems like a terribly self-serving theory, based on how convenient it would be were it true. The arguments for it just seem so baseless.

  5. We catch to eat. See no sense to catch and release unless there is a size restriction, then its the law. We are poor fishermen at best and fishing just for sport is plain no fun.

  6. My entire childhood and much of my early adult life was pretty much all about first-hand food and it was for genuine need. Though my Maternal Grandfather was in skilled trades, my father was the first to graduate high school and I was the first to get a college degree.

    Since the topic is fishing, I will have to go back to your previous post and say that my favorite part is indeed “catching” fish. The only fishing I do these days is with my 75 year old Father on inland lakes for bluegill. It is a joy to spend time with him, not only when we are both silently contemplating on our own thoughts, but also because he shares much more about his early life with me, now that I’m all grown up with Grandchildren of my own.

    We never had the luxury of fishing “just for sport” (ie: catch and release) … fishing always implied bringing home something to be eaten. I’m absolutely positive that my life experience has contributed to my feelings about C&R fishing; which is to say I simply can not understand the reason for doing it. However, I don’t find it morally reprehensible. I’m not heartless though … and I agree with Ken_L when he said, “we curse when we catch an inedible fish even though the experience is no different to catching something for dinner.”

    Tamar, you wrote, “One of the things I like about it is that I can enjoy myself in the guise of feeding myself.” which is a nice summation of your feelings. However for me, “guise” just wouldn’t be included in why I enjoy fishing.

    I truly enjoy reading your blog, but I do far less philosophical pondering about food topics than you and some of the other people that comment. Thank you for so often giving me things to ponder in my quite times.

    • Pam, I think it’s inevitable that our life experiences color our views about things like this, both in ways we recognize and in ways we don’t. I can see how, for people who have caught fish for sustenance over several generations, a discussion of C&R seems almost silly.

      As I bumble along, raising animals, growing plants, and catching fish, one of the questions I think about is whether what I’m doing is an efficient, responsible way to acquire food. Sometimes, I think it is, other times, not so much. But, as you point out, food isn’t always about ideology. Sometimes it’s just dinner.

  7. I catch and eat. But then when I fish it is for food. Recreational torture seems like an odd idea. :} I’ve read that a large number of the catch and release then die. Seems a waste when they could taste good on the fork.

  8. Why is it that instead of catching and releasing, fisher folk who don’t want to eat their catch (inedibles excepted) can ice the catch and bring it to the local food bank? Or their elderly neighbor?

    I can’t really weigh in on the c and r question; I would just like to be able to fish!

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