Catch and release – we have a way to go
  |  First Published: March 2016

It might be a good idea to put down your cornflakes before reading this article. Actually, better you finish them first.

Here is a challenging thought for the day; Queensland Fisheries have done more to foster catch and release than any other group in Queensland.

Here is another challenging thought; sports species should be a bag limit of two.

Before anyone breaks out the pitchforks, let’s explore what that means and why.

When I started my examination of catch and release a couple of months ago as a tangent to looking at another problem, I discovered a range of resources. There were plenty of how-tos, some history, plenty of advocacy against the practice by PETA, as well as advocacy for.

On the science front there were two main categories. Released fish survival, which breaks down into techniques to ensure fish survive as well as an examination of long term survival from multiple releases.

Secondly, the science of fish and pain. There are scientific advocates both for and against, using a range of science to prove points. That is not a debate I want to replay in this article, but will hopefully tackle at some point.

What doesn’t seem to be out there is a scientific examination of the practice itself. How many people do it? Why do they do it? Why don’t they?

I have been told a couple of times this examination was a frivolous exercise because this was all just an ideological thing. People either do or don’t based on their beliefs.

So what is the reality? What is catch and release and how does it work?

Is Catch and Release an Ideology?

I started with that bastion of all human knowledge known as Wikipedia. You down the back there, stop sniggering. Wikipedia reports that the practice of catch and release has been practiced for a century in the UK based on concerns in regard to stocks of key species. It lists the practice as having early advocates in the 1930s in the US and the 1960s in Australia. I am sure there will be fishing historians who will shoot that down somewhere but in all three cases the common thread was conservation.

It seems that catch and release is a trade off where fishers release fish in order to conserve stocks. It can be an ideological decision but equally it can be a practical one, and here is the reason why.

There are a group of fishers that believe this practice is ‘better’ for the fishery for a range of reasons. In this case they make a moral decision to release fish for the greater good, most often the greater good of the fish.

There are other fishers though that release juvenile fish, for example based on bag limit regulations or larger fish that exceed their bag limit. Are they practicing catch and release?

If you go by the intention of catch and release, that is to conserve fish, but is it a moral conscious decision? The answer is sometimes yes, but in reality, often no, they are simply complying with the regulation.

The best theory I have had put to me on this issue is that there is a spectrum of fishers including commercial fishers. At one end you have fishers who only practice catch and release and at the other end fishers that practice only harvest. There is a spectrum from there with people falling in at different stages on that spectrum.

So is catch and release an ideology? Yes, and no. There are ideological reasons to do it, but there are practical reasons to do it as well, of the kind that won’t see you with a large fine or loosing your equipment.

The Magic Numbers

At the National Recreational Fishing conference Mark McCrindle put up a figure for catch and release fishing of 55% to 45%, that is 55% of fishers practice catch and release fishing. I have read all of Mark’s books and I have a lot of respect for him.

The data in Queensland from the last Statewide Recreational Fishing survey, however, doesn’t support this, but then again it does. In fact, in a weird way, almost 100% of the fish released are from catch and release, it’s just that the ratio of ideological to practical reasons for release differ. In this case, Mark is talking about the ideological side, so 55% practice catch and release for ideological reasons and while this is close to true in the fresh, it’s far from true in the salt and even less true on the reef.

As this was an off the cuff survey for the National Conference designed to give attendees an overview of recreational fishers, I think what’s happened there is the survey was conducted without really understanding what catch and release fishing is or how to tease out the attitudes of the respondent. As such, those numbers are really shaky.

I will let McCrindle research off the hook but what it highlights is the fact that ‘catch and release’ is not universally understood to mean the same thing.

In fact, even basic querying of fishers who define themselves as catch and release fishers highlights that their attitudes differ across species, locations and purpose of fishing. In other words, even for fishers that practice catch and release based on belief, the reality is their application of that belief isn’t uniform.

Where does McCrindle leave us?

I will be honest, when I first heard the McCrindle statistic I believed it to be true. In fact, it fed nicely into my own personal narrative of recreational fishers having evolved. I lost several nights sleep when my other research didn’t stack up with what I believed to be the case and that is not hyperbole. No other fishing issue has challenged my values as a fisher as much as this one.

How do we assess the state of catch and release fishing? While there isn’t enough data breaking down the why of catch and release, there is enough data on the what.

What happens in the Fresh?

The freshwater scene has relatively few species and is dominated by tight bag limits and stocking via the SIPs scheme. While there is a higher error around the numbers of fish taken as per the Statewide Recreational Fishing Survey, I believe there is less error around the ratio of fish released as this is consistent with other sets of data we have (such as the rate of fish released on recapture in Suntag).

Ideology dominates for Australian bass and freshwater cod, where there is a lower bag limit but oddly, for sooty grunter as well. At this point, the attitudes in the sooty grunter fishery cannot be adequately explained.

Overall, it’s a reasonable to say that catch and release is the dominant methodology of fishing in this fishery.

What happens in the Salt?

The salt scene is a lot more complex than the fresh, with a mix of fishing methods and reasons. Even allowing for error on the sample the numbers are pretty staggering with somewhere between 6-10 million fish as the estimated catch on key species. That is at least 10 fish for every fisher in the state for the year.

For the purposes of this exercise, I am not looking at the raw numbers but the ratio of fish that are caught versus those released. Looking at a bunch of key species listed in the Statewide Recreational Survey, we get a figure of around 56% of fish released. I am not using that as an absolute number, as there is error in that estimate but on balance, it’s likely that more fish are released than kept.

Even allowing for more fish released than kept, the recreational harvest is very significant. In fact, for species such as dusky flathead, recreational harvest is larger than commercial.

To quote p41 of the Statewide Recreational Survey: “The recreational harvest of these popular species is significant when compared to the commercial harvest. For example, the recreational harvests of snapper and yellowfin bream are similar to the commercial harvest, whereas the recreational harvest of dusky flathead is more than twice the commercial harvest.”

I mention dusky flathead as it is a key species mentioned in articles about catch and release as well as in Wikipedia as a key species targeted for catch and release. Dusky flathead is certainly one of the highest rates of catch and release among salt species at 26% and no doubt this has an impact. Up against the dominant harvest mentality, though it’s not having much of an effect on the end result.

Given that only just over half of fish are released and for most species surveyed, there is a less than 10% rate of ideological catch and release, and it’s fair to say this is a harvest fishery.

More to the point, organisations such as ANSA, founded on the idea of sports and conservation haven’t had long term success in shifting general attitudes.

What happens when you make harvest effort harder?

There is a temptation to say that the freshwater scene is ‘superior’ to the salt in terms of catch and release, but I think that is a narrow point of view. Firstly, the freshwater scene is dominated by stocked impoundments, concentrated areas where spreading the message of catch and release is simpler.

Second, the effort required to ‘get a feed’ overall is higher because of tight bag limits and narrow range of species. In many ways, it’s more productive as a fisher to value the fishery differently. If you can get 10 bass in a session (Lake Samsonvale averages 14), there is quite a different experience on offer.

In fact, there is substantial evidence that the combination of a great fishery and tight bag limits is the magic combination that creates converts to catch and release.

Mulloway is one such species that provides this evidence. Mulloway is one species in the salt where there are very tight bag limits. In the 2010/11 Survey 93% of fish were released as ‘too small’, but in 2013/14 Survey that reduced to 37%. Correspondingly, catch and release went from 5% to 38%.

Why did mulloway defy all of the other major salt species in the survey?

As with species such as barramundi and king threadfin, mulloway are dependant on rainfall and river flows at the right times. Conditions in the latter part of the 2000s were the best they have been for decades, leading to a major boost in the numbers of species that depend on rainfall.

There were a lot of fish and very tight bag limits, so there was the opportunity to take advantage of mulloway in a very different way. Go look through the Facebook feeds of young sports fishers in Brisbane in that time and you will see lots of mulloway and sessions where there were dozens caught. There were fish that could be kept, but because there was a bucket load of fun and content to be generated out of catch and release, almost all went back.

It is no coincidence that those most angry over perceived issues with Brisbane River threadfin predominantly fish for them with catch and release methods.

In the business of catch and release, numbers matter. In this case, based on the Suntag experience of the explosion of young fishers coming into Suntag in SEQ at that time, I suspect that boost was driven in part by young sport fishers. That is not necessarily in numbers, but in their Facebook activity, where many were encouraged to join in provided a reason – to go big on mulloway and join in the fun.

What happens when you make harvest effort easier?

Why hasn’t the ‘catch and release’ ethos of the fresh translated into the salt? I think perception of eating quality comes into it, but also the amount of effort required to get a feed is less. That is because the techniques are pretty simple, bait is in easy supply and access to the fishery is easier relative to where people live. Bag limits are also on the whole much higher so it’s easier to take more.

Catch and release fishers in the impoundment scene do swap back to harvesters in the salt. Not always, often they are conscientious in their choices but they stillchoose to harvest when the opportunity arises. There are also species and fishing opportunities where catch and release is not appropriate such as deep water fishing and this feeds into the lower rate, though it doesn’t explain it.

I expected more impact of catch and release in the salt. The conservation argument is a strong one, so in this way the ideology side of catch and release should be king as there is a greater need for conservation as there is no stocking as a safety barrier.

Yet the reverse is true.

When you have a look at the rough breakup of species we see that around about 90% can be identified as primarily for harvest. Here there will be some debate on what species fit into each role, but if anything, I am being generous to sports species.

What this demonstrates, is relative to freshwater there is an abundance of harvest species that can be successfully targeted. While the big numbers are in bream, whiting, flathead and tailor, the reality is there is an abundance of ways to get a feed.

More to the point, there is an abundance of ways to exceed ‘a feed’, that is to take some home for the freezer.

More than anything, abundance, choice and access dominate the salt attitudes and this acts in the reverse way to the fresh.

The WTF Catch and Release Fishery

The bass fishery shows if this is a long term opportunity, people change on mass. I have been using the Statewide Survey a lot in this article, so time to change it up.

In part, I think we are seeing the effect of a piece of plastic in a fish.

What this does demonstrate is the WTF effect of bag limits on catch and release when combined with abundance. All three species listed are considered catch and release species. Bass catch rates are among the highest we have on record in Suntag. In fact, it’s easier to get a legal bass in an impoundment, than a legal barra or a legal flathead anywhere. Getting your bag limit with bass is not a mark of skill so much as not getting it is either inexperience, incompetence or extreme bad luck.

Yet, despite the fact it’s easier to get a bag with bass, the release rate of legal bass is way higher than barra or flathead. So why not keep more?

The puritans of catch and release claim ideology, yet the percent of bass released only went higher than the current flathead rate in the mid to late 2000s. Catch and release has been around since the 1960s, that’s a pretty big lead time. More to the point, it’s nearly doubled since 2006.

So has there been a major campaign on catch and release since 2006?

Or is it more likely that since the breaking of the drought, the impoundment scene has improved a lot, to the point where catch and release is a better fishing experience? Think back to mulloway. I have revised my earlier chart to reflect the boomerang effect of bag limits and good fishing.

A Special Case – Crystal Bowl

Mulloway was a bit of a godsend in the Statewide Survey as this is a traditional harvest species that jumped ship. I was also looking for an innovation outside government and catch and release advocacy that might have had a similar effect and the only long term project I could find is the Crystal Bowl.

An upfront admission, I have been involved with Crystal Bowl since it’s inception. That said, it’s been a long term project that was even used by the commercials in their arguments on NFZ. It’s accepted by the local community and does have a lot of science behind it.

Going on history, it’s actually a little hard to use the Crystal Bowl in this context. That is because in the fishery that it’s focused on, the Fitzroy River, had commercial fishers as the major harvesters. What it did do though for the first time was quantify the effect of harvest on the fishery and pretty accurately. In the NFZ argument, it wasn’t the state of the fishery so much as how fast it got there that galvanised the recreational fishers.

History aside, the reason I believe the Crystal Bowl is at a very interesting point in it’s development is the fact the fishery is now recreational harvest only.

Will the recreational sector move to catch and release? Will the fishery improve? Does transparency in the fishery have an effect on the way it’s used?

We don’t have the answers to those questions just yet but the answers to those questions will determine if there is a technology alternative to regulation. Sports species dominate in the Fitzroy, so I think this is the best place to see if it makes a difference.

The one interesting footnote in the Rockhampton Fishery is there was an explosion of catch and release fishing around 2011, when there were a lot of juvenile barra in the system. This is yet more evidence that abundance and rules work hand in hand to change a fishery.

So, Fisheries is the Man?

Queensland Fisheries, through bag and size limits have had more impact than anyone on the fishery and fishing outcomes as far as whether fish are released or not. They have been more successful at converting fisheries to catch and release than the general industry has been. I suspect they would be reticent to take the credit as this is probably not what they intended, I think they should. Without their data collection this analysis would have been impossible.

In the case of impoundments, I would also give a lot of credit to the work of the FFSAQ stocking groups for improving the fishery and creating a late surge, especially in bass.

That is not to say that the catch and release media haven’t played a role, because they have, and I suspect it’s a positive one. In terms of reach though, the saltwater experience suggests that there may need to be innovation in outreach to engage fishers who don’t catch and release other than for harvest and regulatory reasons. I wonder if, like clubs, there is a bit of preaching to the choir happening.

Projects such as Released Fish Survival have had an impact on release techniques and gear but not on the practice itself.

We now have more understanding – the community needs a definite signal to adjust their habits, word of mouth and ideology is not enough.

Where ideology alone hasn’t had the impact I hoped, innovation might. Concepts such as the Crystal Bowl and voluntary bag limits are in their early days but they represent the sort of community-based tools that offer hope in the future. Both send a signal to the community to change their habits.

Either way, when changing habits, patience is a virtue. Expecting that everyone will change all at once is unrealistic, in fact, change really only gains pace when you have a reasonable number of converts in a particular fishery to provide social pressure.

What the bass, mulloway and Rockhampton barra fisheries show though, is that if you have a great fishery, you increase the rate of conversion big time.

What sort of Bag Limits do we need?

The fishery where change over to catch and release is easiest and will have a positive impact on fishing and the industry is in the sports species. In this, I include species such as bass, barramundi, mangrove jack, mulloway, queenfish, threadfin, trevally and lower take species such as cobia and yellowtail kingfish.

All of these have an alternate economic value in the form of the content industry to take advantage of the fishing. Also, the better the sports fishery, the better chance you will get high paying tourism and tourism businesses.

These species are only around 11% of the catch mix of major species in the salt, so less fishers are affected by the change.

Sports species are more valuable in the catch and release sphere if they are plentiful, that will make the conversion rate to catch and release much higher and faster. There is a chance for a rapid conversion of this fishery, so long as there are fish.

A bag limit of two would be a signal to the community that they are better served being catch and release. Fishers can still get a feed as well. For example, two barra will feed a family easily.

The arguments for an NFZ in the north have been around improving the fishery, not increasing the recreational take, so a bag limit of two is consistent with this effort and the Government commitments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

I think you need to include commercial effort in that equation, but that is a separate discussion that again requires an article of it’s own. As the NFZ has shown, it’s a sensitive issue.

Estuary and inshore species make up roughly 58% of the catch in the salt, so this is the area where you will get the most impact in terms of catch reduction but also the most resistance. To be fair, this requires a complete examination rather than a glib attempt at a number. Mass conversion to catch and release would be really difficult to achieve without setting bag limits that make fishing for a feed impractical. Having said that, some level of harvest reduction for the recreational sector should be a goal and catch and release can play a smaller role in that.

What about reef species? Reef species are generally not an ideal catch and release species, and there isn’t a good comparison of recreational vs commercial catch in the Statewide Survey. For this reason, I am cautious on bag limits.

As a principal, the experience in the snapper fishery has been that lower is better if you want to improve the fishery.

The future of Catch and Release

What this discussion doesn’t take into account is the feelings of the community, a proportion of which will agree with PETA or other environmental groups even if fishers don’t. The thing is it should.

In countries like Germany and Switzerland, catch and release is banned on animal welfare grounds. While this is not likely anytime soon in Australia, it’s a reminder that fishers take the wider community for granted at their peril.

There are two ways in which catch and release has a future.

First, there is an alternate industry now to the harvest industry in the form of content creation. Friend a fisher on Facebook or like any major fishing Facebook page and you will see a lot of content created through fishing. This aspect of fishing is only in very early days, but it’s not going away any time soon. What that industry needs in order to succeed is a healthy supply of fish and preferably bigger fish available at a relatively low cost. Spending four days getting a great shot might be okay now, but as people start to make a living, be it via Patreon, sponsorship or some other means, time is money. Access to good fisheries will be more and more important. That is not to include other tourism opportunities that eventuate with good fisheries.

Second, the need for recreational fishers to collect their own data and become better at monitoring their fisheries is going to increase. I cannot imagine a world where ‘more harvest’ will be acceptable. The community expectation and burden of proof of appropriate use more and more is on the user of the resource.

It is always more difficult to unwind an industry that has a financial output and taken reasonable steps to ensure they have mitigated risks of environmental or other concerns.

As an industry we still have a way to go before we can say that is true.

While there is a temptation to ‘blame the pros’ and walk away from the obligation to reduce harvest, as I showed last month – it’s not that simple. Recreational fishers take a lot of fish and need to demonstrate that attitudes are changing and the harvest going down over time. Fishers need to demonstrate to the community they can be part of improving the fishery in line with community expectations, rather than just pushing that burden back onto Government.

What this means for enterprising fishers in the next generation, is getting in early, promoting not only catch and release content, but being part of the solution to better fishing through monitoring and greater transparency of fishery status.

Data Sources Used in this Article: Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catch_and_release

Tag and catch records from http://qld.info-fish.net 1985 to 2015

Statewide Recreational Fishing Survey 2013–14 by James Webley, Kirrily McInnes, Daniella Teixeira, Ashley Lawson and Ross Quinn from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

A model of catch and release.

Ideological DriverPractical Driver
SpeciesCatch and ReleaseToo ManyToo SmallUnwanted
Australian Bass72%1%25%2%
Freshwater Cod57%0%35%8%
Golden Perch33%16%46%6%
Sooty Grunter60%10%21%8%
Ideological DriverPractical Driver
SpeciesCatch and ReleaseToo ManyToo SmallUnwanted
Barred javelin16%2%80%2%
Blue threadfin2%16%74%8%
Cod and groper12%2%70%16%
Coral trout3%0%95%1%
Dusky flathead26%n/a62%n/a
King threadfin10%1%88%0%
Mangrove jack8%9%77%6%
Morwong sweetlip0%0%70%9%
Moses snapper17%1%82%1%
Northern sand flathead33%1%62%1%
Parrotfish and tuskfish0%7%88%5%
Pearl perch0%0%100%0%
Pikey bream27%1%70%3%
Red emporer0%0%100%0%
Red-throat emporer1%4%94%0%
Sand whiting8%0%91%0%
School mackerel5%22%73%0%
Silver javelin6%1%92%1%
Spanish mackerel1%4%93%1%
Spotted mackerel9%0%86%4%
Stripey snapper6%4%90%1%
Trumpeter whiting5%10%83%2%
Yellowfin bream12%3%82%3%
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