It’s easy for many of us to dismiss the recent public backlash against Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, as an overblown, emotional response. It’s easy to point a finger at poachers, habitat destruction, and climate change as the bigger threat to lion populations. After all, it’s one small drop in a much larger bucket. For me, it was a wakeup call for an introspective look into my own hobbies and commitment to conservation.
I am a graduate student studying billfish conservation in the Eastern Pacific. My arrival to UM’s marine school is, in no small way, due to my passion for fishing. Many, if not most of my colleagues who study fisheries are also passionate anglers. We take any chance we get to hook up into a tarpon, snook, or peacock bass. Florida, with her 1350 miles of coastline, cultivates quite possibly the biggest recreational fishing sector in North America.
Recreational fishing, to put it bluntly, is big business. The state of Florida received $29 million in revenue last year from Fishing Licenses. Saltwater anglers generated $7.6 billion in economic impacts through their direct expenditures on bait, ice, gas, lures, and other gear. And this supported 109,341 jobs in Florida. This means a lot of hooks in the water.
Despite all of this fishing pressure, the recreational sector, in contrast to the commercial sector, is still mostly regulated as open-access. Some anglers rely on fishing to complement their family’s diet. Many anglers, like myself, rarely harvest fish. We enjoy fishing for the solitude, natural beauty, and the chance to engage with powerful animals. Does this ring a bell?
I’m not saying that catch-and-release (C&R) fishing is as bad as shooting a threatened mammal that has been lured off of a reserve. However, there are parallels to be drawn. Many of the species we target are threatened by overfishing or habitat loss. For instance, snook is a species of special concern to Florida because over half of its habitat has been lost to coastal development. Anglers also typically target large, “trophy” fish. Ironically, these are the very same individuals who contribute the most to future generations of their species. The BOFFF (Big Old Fat Fecund Female) hypothesis, which has been proven mostly true, says that large females not only contribute more eggs to spawning activities, but that their offspring are stronger and more likely to survive than offspring from younger fish. So, should we be targeting rare, large fish?
Regardless of the answer, anglers will mostly likely continue to get the most satisfaction out of catching large, rare fish. So, a better question: is it possible for us to regulate ourselves, and follow “best practices” to minimize harm to the fish? This leads us to wonder if a compromise can be reached which not only leaves anglers feeling satisfied (and willing to keep spending money) but also addresses the need to minimize the mortality caused by recreational fishing.
Many activities that C&R anglers practice do indeed increase the chance that a fish will die. Long fight times, and removal of the fish from the water for pictures (air exposure) dramatically increase the stress of the fish. On the other hand, these practices greatly contribute to the gratification of the fishing experience. I can personally attest to the joy one gets from sharing photographs of a beautiful fish, in a beautiful location with friends and family. Pictures or it didn’t happen, right?
I don’t claim to have the answers to the issues I’ve raised here. I do know that scientific studies, which quantify the harm caused by fishing practices, along with identifying species that are most susceptible to stress, will lead us in the right direction. That, combined with some personal commitment and self-control, on the part of the anglers themselves. More and more, my Facebook feed is buzzing with news like the story of Larry Warren, the Idaho fisherman who caught and released a would-be record (28 lbs) rainbow trout. Or Michael Roth, the attorney who released the 120 lb blacktip shark on a fly rod, forgoing the record for this gear. Hopefully, like me, other anglers will be inspired by stories like these, and will begin to place more and more commitment to do whatever we can to protect vulnerable species. After all, who is going to defend them if we don’t ourselves?
Julie Brown is pursuing her Ph.D at the University of Miami‘s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Marine Biology & Fisheries. She is currently researching with the Central American Billfish Association.