Caught, released and happy

3615_1Part 2 of 2/Commentary

One harsh and inescapable rule governs nature: the strong kill the weak. The killing almost never takes places neatly or pleasantly. Usually, but not always, it is done for food. Never do the killers appear to show any feeling for their victims.

When man enters nature as an industrial harvester of wild resources, the situation is much the same. Nobody worries about how much a salmon suffers struggling for hours caught in a gillnet with a strand of monofilament wrapped around its midsection. Nobody frets over a how pollock slowly dies of suffocation on the deck of a trawler.

Fishing is a torture business.

In the commercial world, about the only place fishing happens with any kind of consideration for the fish is in the salmon troll fisheries where almost immediately after a fish is pulled to the boat it is bashed on the head to stun it and then bled to produce the highest quality product.

In most every other fishery, salmon are left to suffocate to death. If animals in American slaughterhouses were treated the way fish are treated, there would be outrage. But the only kind of fish torture anyone gets upset about is catch and release in sport fisheries.

“Fishing for fun is only fun if you’re not the fish. Mandatory catch and release is not a tool that seems ethical to me,” Alaskan John Schandelmeier wrote recently in the Anchorage newspaper. Schandelmeier is a guy who makes a significant portion of his living torturing fish to death and injuring a good number of those that escape his commercial salmon gillnets. Large numbers of the latter fish are doomed to die before spawning.

“The claim that catch and release is to be done for conservation is a poor one,” he writes. “Straight-up, it’s about economics. Catch and release allows maximum angler participation, thus many dollars for fishery management.”

About this he is both right and wrong. Some catch-and-release fishing – like most fishing in general – is no doubt about money. There are fishing guides who will profit from this week’s opening of a catch-and-release fishery for Kenai River Chinook (king) salmon.

And some of the fish caught and released in the Kenai fishery will die. Alaska Department of Fish and Game research pegged the death rate at 13 of every 100 males and seven of every 100 females. Those numbers may be low, given the fish were only tracked for days after being caught and released. There are some new studies indicating fish caught and released by anglers, like those injured in commercial fisheries, might suffer late mortality and die before spawning.

Whatever the mortality, however, the vast majority of the fish caught and released will survive to spawn.

Life’s realities

Hardly anyone who passes judgment on what it is like for a fish to be caught and released has been caught and released by another species. Yet people with no experience in this area make judgments on how painful and horrible it must be.

I have been caught and released.

Much like a salmon, I was first molested (claw to the jaw) and then caught (teeth clenching my lower leg) by a grizzly bear in 1992. It was not the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Not even close.

Yes, it was painful, and a good pair of boots were ruined by the blood that filled them on a hike out to my truck afterward. I had to go to the hospital and get stitches, though the wounds would no doubt have healed without them.

But in terms of suffering? I’ll be honest. I’ve had bouts of the flu that were worse, much more worse.

Divorce was worse. The first time I got fired from a job was worse. All sorts of sports injuries were worse.

I’ve spent a lot of team recovering from being beaten up in one way or another in sports. Stitches to the face and head after getting pasted with hockey sticks. Concussions from hockey, football and cycling. All sorts of sprains, muscle tears and pulled muscles from running. A ruptured disc linked to a climbing fall and snowmachine racing. The list goes on.

Certainly, though, I can’t be anymore desensitized to pain than a fish. I live in the civilized world. They live in a war zone where big things are trying to kill little things all the time. It is a world where injuries are common, and living with them if one survives must be far more so.

Surviving is better than being killed and eaten, or eaten as you are killed which is what bears do. I can testify to that.

So enough with how painful catch and release must be to the fish. Were the fish given a vote, there is no doubt they’d vote for being dragged around by the lip for a few minutes (or even tens of minutes) and then released to swim another day over spending hours struggling to free themselves from a gillnet only to be shaken out of the net and left in a heap on the beach to die by suffocation.

But there is more to this than that.

A little history

When Schandelmeier writes  that “the claim that catch and release is to be done for conservation is a poor one,” it is clear that he simply doesn’t know conservation history.

America is full of once depressed fisheries that were restored by the implementation of catch-and-release fishing. And the practice itself, according to a paper published in Reviews in Fisheries Science, goes way back. The authors of that paper write that there hav been standards “implementation of minimum size limits and other rules limiting angler harvest since the Middle Ages in Europe.”

Yes, there are those who will argue that “throwing back the little ones” is somehow different than catching and releasing. The claim is absurd and disingenuous. If one accepts the idea that releasing small fish is OK as a conservation measure, fisheries managers can end any debate about catch-and-release fishing in the Kenai tomorrow.

Simply set the limit at one fish over 60-inches long and end catch and release. Nobody has ever caught a king that big, but they could. Les Anderson’s world-record, 97 1/4 pound king came close in 1985. It measures 58 1/4 inches.

And there isn’t a fishery in the world where you couldn’t engage in this same charade of setting a maximum-size so high that all anyone would ever be able to do is catch and release without the fishery really being catch and release.

But why not just be honest about it, and face the fact that sometimes people do things for cultural reasons. The situation we’re all in these days is that there aren’t enough fish to allow everyone to catch and kill them. So if  the experience of fishing with hook-and-line, an activity that would appear to date back about 7,500 years, is to survive, we have to come up with a way to fish without killing off all the fish.

There are, of course, alternatives to catch and release to minimize harvest and protect fish species. We could limit hook-and-line fishing to a small group of people as the state of Alaska did with commercial fishing in 1973 when it established “Limited Entry”.

There are now about 20,000 people permitted to commercially fish in the 49th state. This limits commercial fishing to about one in 40 Alaskans, or it would if the permits stayed in Alaska. The reality is that business of commercial fishing is limited to a lot fewer Alaskans because over the years the most valuable of Alaska limited entry permits have slowly but steadily moved Outside.

“In general, the more profitable a limited entry fishery, the greater the share of permits that will be owned by non-local residents,” the University of Alaska economist Gunnar Knapp has observed.  About 80 percent of the permits for the Bristol Bay gillnet fishery – one of the state’s most valuable fisheries – are now owned by non-locals.

Given limited entry’s track record, solving an over-harvest problem in sport fisheries by restricting the number of fishermen would not seem the best idea. Let alone, God forbid, the most profitable of ones.Catch-and-release fisheries have the ability to earn money on a state resources without killing off that resource in large numbers.

Yes, some of the fish caught-and-released die.

What happens to those fish? They go back to nature as they would otherwise go back to nature. The ecosystem recycles their nutrients as if they had spawned and died. The only difference is that they don’t spawn, which makes it vital from a salmon management standpoint to get a good handle on mortality in catch-and-release salmon fisheries.

Catch-and-release salmon fisheries are in this regard no different from commercial fisheries which in this state appear to catch and unintentionally release far more salmon than anglers intentionally release. All these fisheries need to be managed to ensure optimum numbers of salmon reach the spawning grounds.

And the rest of it? The supposed cruelty part? It’s by-and-large a smokescreen put up by people who just don’t like the idea of hook-and-line fishing.

They’re no different than the people who think the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is cruel because dogs run 1,000 miles. Do the dogs suffer? Mushers who’ve never run a lick will tell you, “no, no, no.”

That’s bunk, too. Ask anyone who has run marathons. There is invariably some suffering involved. Having watched dogs run, it’s pretty clear they are sometimes struggling through the same “tough patches” human marathoners suffer through. (If you’ve run a marathon and haven’t suffered through a tough patch, you weren’t trying to run it as a race. You were out for a jog.)

The question isn’t about whether humans cause animals to suffer – much of what we do causes animals to suffer and most often, as in the commercial fisheries, it is suffering on the way to a slow death. Thus the question is this: Is the suffering unreasonable?

To a vegan, maybe so. To someone who eats fish, and knows how they are harvested, clearly not. As Robert Arlinghaus and seven co-authors concluded at the end of their exhaustive, 94-page paper on “Understanding the Complexity of Catch-and-Release in Recreational Fishing: An Integrative Synthesis of Global Knowledge from Historical, Ethical, Social, and Biological Perspectives,” the ethical judgment is this simple:

“While releasing a portion of one’s catch has always been at the heart of conservation across the world, many cultures resist its use as a management tool or an acceptable angler ethic. However, if recreational fishing is not wrong, then C&R cannot be wrong, because it is, in one form or another, an integral part of angling and common worldwide.”

The only thing the authors fail to note is that catch-and-release is also a common factor in commercial fisheries, which also happen engage in another practice that in some ways more offensive:  catch, kill and release.

Such a fishery now takes places not far from the mouth of the Kenai where unknown numbers of spiny dogfish are caught in gillnets and then discarded, often dead.

This despite the fact these fish are highly edible. In fact, there was a bit of a scandal when it was discovered they made up a good deal of the fish in English fish and chips, according to the Daily Mail.

But this sort of fishing, too, is problematic only if you presume it wasteful, which is itself a human judgment for the reality is nature wastes nothing. Nature is harsh, and it is brutal. But nothing is wasted. Whatever dies, however it dies, nourishes something else.

This is life in the natural world.

Categories: Uncategorized

5 replies »

  1. “Four legs good, two legs bad”

    I kept reading this piece, waiting for it to go somewhere. Apparently the takeaway is that, while catch and release sport fishing is probably cruel, it is an economic necessity since it apparently allows unlimited numbers of people to access our resource. Furthermore, we shouldn’t feel too bad about it, because the commies don’t just catch and release – they catch, kill, and release. Or something. Never really figured out if fishing or releasing was good or bad, but I’m clear on the fact that if fishing is bad, then commercial fishing is the most bad, and if both are good, then sportfishing is better. So maybe it’s more like the pigs’ chant? “Commies good, sporties better”?

    I’m just messing with you Craig. If you need some spiney dogfish for the freezer look me up.

    • I don’t hate anybody, Jeff; but I do have a serious dislike for liars and conpeople and probably some others. Fishermen, in general, don’t make the list, but one or two would qualify.

  2. AS Temple Grandin wrote: “Nature is cruel…but WE don’t have to be.

    Blessings, Jane Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent, and ONE ANIMAL’S LIFE. Food is GROWN – NOT BORN. Food has DIRT – NOT BLOOD. Food does NOT have a family and a heartbeat.

    “ The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees—all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related. ” -Thomas Berry

  3. Maybe our entire culture (I.e. fish suffering on the gill line…thousands of dogs suffering on chains…man stifled with endless gag orders…brutal culling practices of animals)…Is set up to desensitize us to the reality of constant foreign war & killing of fellow man.
    When is the last time ADN reported on the U.S. led drone strikes in Wariristan & the countless innocent civillan casualties of this endless bombing campaign?…

Leave a Reply