Recycled Fish

Brown trout release.

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.

7 thoughts on “Recycled Fish”

  1. Great article. Here in Idaho, most anglers try and follow these SAFE techniques.

    You talk about air exposure reducing survival rates. What about exhaustion? Many anglers “play” the fish until they’re downright beat.

    Do you think that reduces survival rates? Look forward to your thoughts.

  2. Great post! You asked the right questions, you got great answers and very helpful information for all the anglers who don’t know about how important S A F E fishing is and take more fish home than they can ever eat.

  3. 1. Fish do not have the anatomy in their central nervous system to feel “pain”. Pain and stress are different, pain and other sensory perception are not both present in all species. Please stop personification of piscean creatures.

    2. “Incidental (hooking) Mortality” of 3- 10 percent do not include time out-of-water.

    3. Prolonged fish “playing” depletes oxygen in a specie with poor circulation and greatly reduced capacity to eliminate lactic acid built-up in being “fought” or “played”.

    4. Prolonged exposure to air is increased by:
    A Barbed hooks
    B Mutliple hooks
    C Photographing fish being held
    D “Absorbing the beauty” of the fish in-hand and out of the water

    5 Prolonged oxygen depletion of fish being “played” is increased by:
    a Light tippet
    b Light rod rating
    c “showing -off”
    d Longer time getting to release from any means

    6 Mortality of any caught trout is 38% when gills exposed to air 30 seconds

    7 Mortality exceeds 70% when gills exposed to air beyond 60 seconds

    8 Other critical damage occurs from:
    A) bleeding gills
    B) hooks that damage eyes (very wde hook gap i.e. > 1/2 inch
    C) touching of gills
    D) rubbing-off protective mucous by handling with dry hands or excessive rubbing

    7. As water temperature increases,mortality increases disproportionately above 50 degrees Farenheit. this is due to depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water regulated by Boyle’s Law.

    Informed by biological imperatives, the moral and ethical awareness may change and the discussion move to a logical and sound set of solutions devoid of naive opinions. – Gary Eaton, MCI

    Of note – in these studies, Ferguson and Tufts used the extremely mild definition for “exhausted” as a trout or salmon that does not resist being netted. By these definitions, any trout that is handled fits their definition of “exhausted”. It seems logical to project that use of light tippets, low line-weight rods, and shock gum in leaders to promote excessive playing of fish, would dramatically increase the exhaustion of trout and correspondingly decrease survival.

    Ferguson, R.A. and B.L. Tufts. 1992. Physiological effects of brief air exposure in exhaustively exercised rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss: implications for “catch and release” fisheries. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 49(6):1157-1162.

    Kieffer, J.D. and B.L. Tufts. 1996. The influence of environmental temperature on the role of the rainbow trout gill in correcting the acid-base disturbance following exhaustive exercise. Physiol. Zool. 69(6): 1301-1323.

    Ferguson, R.A., J.D. Kieffer and B.L. Tufts. 1993. The effects of body size on the acid-base and metabolite status in the white muscle of rainbow trout before and after exhaustive exercise. J. Exp. Biol. 180: 195-207.

    Tufts, B.L., Y. Tang, K. Tufts and R.G. Boutilier. 1991. Exhaustive exercise in “wild” Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar: Acid-base regulation and blood-gas transport. Can. J. fish. Aquat. Sci. 48(5), 868-874.

    Tufts, B.L. and R.G. Boutilier. 1991. Interactions between ion exchange and metabolism in erythrocytes of the rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss. J. Exp. Biol. 156:139-151.
    Last edited by doubledok; 12-07-2010 at 04:54 PM.

  4. Very, very good stuff here. More and more I’ve been pushing my guests to be more conscious of their effect on a fish’s health by simply being considerate. In this case projecting somewhat of ourselves (empathizing) can be helpful. (e.g. “How would I like it if I was held underwater for a couple minutes?”)

    Also, I think more guides should take responsibility for their role as teachers of anglers. I mean, it’s in their best interest (and the interest of their pocketbooks) to guard the well-being of their fish stocks. If a guide let’s the client hold a fish out for too long–you know, just this once for a picture–the client is going to think it’s alright. Information has to come from somewhere, and those of us in the industry–fly shop guys, guides, lodge hosts, etc.–need to step up and be that source.

    BTW, I’ll link to this article. Great stuff.

  5. Desliming a fish is one of the worst things that you can do when trying to practice catch and release. DO NOT use a rag to hold a fish, rather hold them with your hand and let them go WITHOUT wiping them down. Dehookers are probably the best tool to use as you don’t have to handle the fish at all with those. The use of circle hooks also dramatically increases the rate of a proper ‘lip hook’ rather than guthooking a fish. Many anglers, especially novice, are much better off using a circle hook as you can let a fish eat a bait and they most of the time will not swallow the hook. Obviously keeping a fish out of the water the least amount of time possible is the key, and swimming a fish back to life such as a tarpon or bonefish is very helpful too.

  6. Honored to have been invited to this interview and its publication here, and equally honored to see the intelligent discourse through the comments.

    There exists a diverse host of audiences within the fishing community, and it can be tricky to know how to frame the discussion for any given audience.

    Fishing Jones readers are an articulate and studious bunch, and I appreciate the good responses.

    The most important thing to consider, if you ask me, is that once we have established that catch and release and selective harvest fishing are important – and once we learn and apply the best practices for those ethics – then what?

    Because “our lifestyle runs downstream,” it’s our everyday choices that are having as much or greater impact on our fisheries as those choices that we make while we’re on the water.

    That’s where the future of our waters lies – in living as stewards every day.

    Sounds to me like we have an excellent group of stewards here, thanks to all for the comments and for reading.


  7. This blog site is very informative and has prompted me to be more careful when handling my fish.I will find those different hooks and lures mentioned in the posting.
    Very informative and I appreciate it.

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