Conservation Times: Show Us The Proof

Recreational anglers continue to get a bad rap. In a day and age when animal rights groups, like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), have launched massive anti-fishing campaigns, misinterpretation of questionable research serves only to fan the embers.I am referring to a recent article in the New York Times that tries to place some of the blame for declining ocean fish stocks on recreational anglers. As I was reading the article (and growing frustrated with the slanted position of the column), I could not help but see some similarities between the mistruths that surround bass tournament anglers and those now confronting our saltwater brethren.The New York Times article uses the results of a report funded by the Pew Oceans Commission to argue that recreational saltwater anglers "deplete some major fish populations even more than commercial fisheries." As a fisheries biologist, my first reaction is, show me the proof. Evidently there is none. The report was merely comparing the percentage of fish caught by recreational anglers to the percentage of fish harvested by commercial fishing gear on an annual basis. Needless to say, catch ratios do not implicate impacts to entire fish populations. It simply says who caught more fish.The important question here is not who caught the most, but how many fish were removed (harvested) relative to the population? An author of the report admits that fish released by recreational anglers were not factored in. However, the article chose to overlook the possibility that a sizable portion of the fish caught by recreational anglers may have been released. In fact, the tone of the article suggests otherwise, with words like "took" and "deplete," both of which indicate harvest from the population. These words almost always apply to commercial fishing activities, but not equally so for recreational anglers.So, how is any of this relevant to bass tournaments? On more than one occasion, I have heard anglers complaining that bass tournaments are ruining the bass fishing in their favorite lakes. They generally base their conclusions on the fact that they are having difficulty catching fish in the quantity and size that they once could. There are far more bass tournaments today than 10 or 20 years ago, and it is easy for them to make this connection. However, the accusing angler usually fails to realize that habitats have changed, the fish community has changed and bass "patterns" have changed as a result.The vast majority of bass tournaments today are catch-and-release. Yet, the nontournament angler will be quick to point out that many of the fish may die following release. There is no argument that tournament mortality is real, especially during summer tournaments. However, recent advances in livewell technologies and new research on bass survival have helped to reduce delayed mortalities in tournament caught bass. Still, there is little doubt that a few bass released after a tournament weigh-in will die.Again, the real question should be focused at the population level. What percentage of the total population dies each year from tournaments? A portion of any population of living organisms dies annually from various natural causes, such as old age, disease, starvation, etc. This is simply a fact of biological life, whether we are talking about the human population or a specific population of bass. For fish populations, the total annual mortality has two components: natural and angler. If anglers are harvesting a substantial number of fish from a lake or river, then angling mortality may account for much of the total mortality, which can have population level impacts. Yet, in today's world, catch-and-release has become such common practice with anglers that very few bass are harvested each year. In many cases, natural mortality far exceeds angler-related mortality. Furthermore, research has shown that tournament-related mortality, even when relatively high, generally accounts for a very small percentage of the angler-related mortality.Yet, because bass anglers care about the resource, BASS voluntarily implemented catch-and-release many years ago. We continue to update our weigh-in procedures and fish-handling practices to minimize our potential impacts, based on the latest research. We are passionate about our resource, and we will do everything in our power to protect it.The same can be said about recreational anglers in general. If they are convinced that they are harming the resource, they will quickly change their ways. Until this evidence is revealed, researchers and managers need to be careful about making accusations directed at the hand that feeds them.Declining fish stocks are a problem. If we are part of the problem, we will help to find a solution. But first, they must show us the proof.

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