The ethics of catch and release


In a section of the New York Times called “Room for Debate,” I recently found a discussion about the fishing practice “catch and release.” The online section invites different experts to debate current events and topics. This particular one was prompted by the headline “Catching but Not Releasing” and followed by the questions “Do fish feel pain?’ and “Should invasive species be thrown on the grill?”

I suppose after writing about Great Lakes issues for the past year, my eye is trained to read and look for stories about invasive species. However, it was really the number of reader comments under each of the expert contributors pieces that spiked my interest.

Part of the debate centers upon whether or not the long established conservation measure of catching and releasing actually harms the fish and leaves them with lower survival rates. The other half inquires whether anglers should release invasive species, in particular, back into the wild.

In response to these questions, James Roose, a zoologist at the University of Wyoming said the survival of fish caught and released is high. He said it is unlikely that fish can feel pain. But Lynn Sneddon, a fish biologist at the University of Liverpool, disagrees, stating that pain perception in fish has been proven and that it would be more humane to just kill the fish and use it for food.

Others, such as Chris Hunt, an employee with Trout Unlimited’s Sportsman’s Conservation Project, said that in some circumstances, certain invasive trout in the west should always be kept when caught. He writes, “On streams like the South Fork, which represents some of the last big-water habitat for Yellowstone cutthroats within their native range, non-native fish – particularly those that challenge the genetic integrity of the native fish – ought to be clubbed on the head and taken home for the grill whenever they’re caught.”

James Babb, an editor at Gray’s Sporting Journal, also mentioned that Maine’s biggest fishery problems come from non-native species and anglers are upset that they are ruining wild fisheries.

While none of these mentions the Great Lakes and its invasive species, this debate clearly applies to anglers here. The love for fishing as well as the long history of invasives is apparent in this area, and it’s clear that there are a lot of things to consider about ethics and conservation before casting a line anywhere.

I have not spent much time fishing. My dad took me once when I was about 8. I cried because I wanted to release the fish I had just caught back into the water. That’s the last real feeling I had toward the process of catch and release, before this recent encounter.

And that’s why this experience hardly makes me an expert on the topic. That’s why even after becoming a part of this debate, I’m not sure I could make informed opinions answering these questions. I have now spent much longer than my lunch break trying to figure out how I feel about this issue. I agree with Lynn Sneddon that fish do perceive pain, and am not sure that catch and release is truly a conservation technique if many of those fish die afterwards.

So, I propose the following questions to the Catch of the Day readers: Should catch and release apply to all invasives? Does catching and releasing the fish harm them? Do fish feel pain at all?

3 thoughts on “The ethics of catch and release

  1. I’m not going to say whether or not it is humane to catch and release any kind of fish, but I will say caution is necessary when coming up with “solutions” for our invasive species problems in the Great Lakes. While catching and clubbing all invasives on the head seems like a great idea, and would certainly be cathartic, there is a long history of human solutions with lasting negative effects. I hesitate to say intervention is bad all around because we can’t just be passive, but we need carefully thought out intervention, not just a memo to fishers across the region to whack all Asian Carp on the head at every opportunity.

  2. Like DUH! All animals feel pain.

    How well fish survive catch and release is debatable. An injury is an injury. Any puncture opens them up to infection. Most will recover but there is still at least a tear in the membrane around the mouth. On the other hand,fishing is a great pastime, one I happen to love, and releasing does not deplete the fish population (though you would think that the individual fish would learn from his experience and be harder to catch next time).

    Definitely, we should put a bounty on invasive species and catch and destroy as many as possible. Make Asian Carp a valuable commodity and people will fish it to extinction.

  3. Alien invasive species should not be released if caught.

    Now this question becomes much thornier when you try to define ‘alien invasive species.’ Brown & rainbow trout, steelhead and all of the Pacific Salmon are alien and invasive, but they have lots of fans. Ditto Atlantic Salmon above the Falls. Ditto striped bass or “whipers” outside of sea-run systems. Should we keep all of these we catch? There are laws on the books protecting them as game fish. Who gets to make that call? What about the native Lake Trout and Brook Trout (river fish and Coasters)? Why do we not get all indignant about how alien, invasive trout and salmon are displacing them?

    Finally, most varities of Homo sapiens are alien and invasive in the Americas. Where do we get off judging lesser vertebrates?

    Finally, catch and release has a long and storied tradition among humans, and most of us have practiced it on and off for much of our lives.

    We call it “Dating.”

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