I sent Teeg Stouffer of Recycled Fish a list of email questions for an article I was writing. I wound up culling certain parts of his answers to use in conjunction with a few other sources. He had a lot to share that I couldn’t fit into an assigned 750 word article, so I’m posting the RAW file here.
1. What is Recycled Fish and why should we care?
Recycled Fish is the non-profit organization of “anglers living a lifestyle of stewardship both on and off the water, because our lifestyle runs downstream.”
That’s pretty wordy, so to break it down a little, we’re people who love to fish. We want nothing more than to see more and bigger fish in our waters now, and to leave something great for our grandkids, and their grandkids. Trouble is, that’s in jeopardy right now. According to the US EPA, about half the fresh water in America is so polluted that it won’t support a healthy fishery. That’s bad news, because fisheries are also a canary in the coal mine for our drinking water.
Anglers are a big group – 40 million of us – and we have a passion for our waters. There’s nobody better positioned to lead a charge to better care for our waters, and that means doing more than Catch and Release. C&R has caught on, and our waters are still in trouble. The stuff we do every day, like whether we have a low flow showerhead or what we put on our lawns – whether we buy recycled paper or turn off the light when we leave a room – this stuff matters to our waters as much or more than what we do when we’re out there.
Our waters need not just sportsmen, but stewards.
2. Could you explain what SAFE angling is?
S.A.F.E. Angling is the products and practices we use when we’re on the water. It’s an acronym for “Sustaining Angling, Fish and Ecosystems.” It’s non-toxic alternatives to lead tackle, it’s single barbless hooks. It’s biodegradable alternatives to plastic lures, and knotless rubber nets. But it’s also stuff like doing catch-and-release more effectively, or how to do selective harvest so that we’re helping fish populations. It’s cleaning up trash, making up for the other guy.
Everything that we do when we’re at the lake, stream or sea to help steward those waters – that falls under “SAFE Angling.”
3. How does catch and release fall into the SAFE angling program?
80% of anglers release most or all of their catch, most or all of the time. However, that doesn’t mean that there is a 100% survival rate. When done correctly, catch-and-release results in 97% survival rates, but done incorrectly survival rates can be as low as 40%.
C&R has become an important management tool for our pressured waters. To be stewards of our waters, we not only need to “throw the little ones back,” we need to practice C&R effectively.
4. A lot of people like the idea of catch and release but do it wrong. What is some misinformation out there about the practice? What are some of the common mistakes people make?
The most common mistake has to do with air exposure. Fish can live out of water for about as long as we could live under it – after running a marathon. Remember, when we land them, they’ve just put on the fight of their life, for their life. Keeping them out of water for the shortest time possible gives them the best shot at survival – no matter what you saw on the stage of a big fishing competition, or during the monologue at the beginning of a fishing show.
Another common mistake has to do with how we hold fish, especially big fish. Large fish should be kept in water if at all possible, and if held out of water, should be held horizontally – not vertically. We used to think bass should be held by the lower lip so that we didn’t wipe any slime off. Actually, once a bass reaches 2 or 3 pounds it should get a horizontal hold to prevent damage to the jaw or internal organs. Big pike, walleye, catfish, redfish, muskies, snook – none of these large fish should be held vertically or by the gills if they’re going to be released. Those fish have never come out of suspension – to their internal organs, they are suddenly much “heavier” when they’re out of water, just like we’re much “lighter” when we are in water.
5. Lip grabbers are tough on fish? Is there a way to use them effectively? Are they ok if you don’t lift fish out of the water?
The best research on this comes from Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. It can be applied to other species, and has been. Mortality rates increase significantly when fish are held with lip grippers. It can stress the jaw, the connective tissues around the gills, the vertebrae, and the internal organs, which have probably never been in that position.
The grippers that have the scale in the handle are the biggest culprits, because fish are dangled by the gripper to get a weight. However, if a gripper is used, the fish should be held in the water or the gripper can hold the lip while a second hand supports the fish’s belly.
Want to get a weight on a fish? Buy a digital scale and attach it to the handle of a fish-friendly net. We like the Frabill Conservation Series nets or the many knotless, rubber mesh nets on the market. The scale can be zeroed to the weight of the net, and the fish is supported during weighing. Much better for fish!
6. Are there things you can do besides handling to improve catch and release? Tackle? Circle hooks is an obvious one but what about using rods, line, gear, etc that is better for the fish? (Quicker fights, etc.)
Absolutely. Barbed treble hooks – especially when deeply engorged – lead to high mortality rates.
Some studies show that single barbless hooks cause less injury and have less removal time, so result in less air exposure and lead to higher survival rates among released fish.
When fishing with bait, circle hooks have been shown to have a 97% efficiency rate of hooking fish in the jaw rather than becoming deeply engorged.
Heavy enough rods and fishing line to allow an angler to fight and land a fish quickly and efficiently leads to higher survival rates due to less buildup of lactic acid in the fish’s tissues. Anglers should never discard line in the water, and always clean up any they see. Lost fishing line has a limited impact on fish, but a bigger one on waterfowl and wildlife, and can also destroy boat motors.
While not directly associated with immediate catch and release, biodegradable / digestible baits and lures as an alternative to scented soft plastic lures do save fish as well. Fish eat soft plastic lures (especially the many scent impregnated ones) that have been discarded or lost and often can’t pass them. It can either kill or injure the fish, so digestible alternatives are preferred.
Nets, non-toxic alternatives to lead, and the boats we fish from all play a part in the health of our waters, which in turn plays a part in the ability of those waters to grow more and bigger fish.