Fish Facts

FISH FACTS: “The four phases of fishing”

Each individual’s personal journey into recreational fishing is unique in some way or another.

IN this article I explore an idea I have been mulling over for some time about “The four phases of fishing”. Each individual’s personal journey into recreational fishing is probably unique in some way or another. Fishing may run in your family, and you may have been first introduced to fishing as a kid by your parents, grandparents or siblings. Others may have gravitated towards fishing as a pastime shared with their friends and mates in their teenage years, or once they gained independence after leaving home. No doubt (especially in times gone by) some started fishing to supplement their diet. There are also many sporting, social and medical/remedial reasons for starting to fish recreationally. In more recent times some have even taken up fishing as a sideline income stream, with a select few even trying to make it a full time profession in the tournament, tackle or social media spheres.

However you started, by definition as a beginner, you began in what I call “Phase 1” of the fishing journey. Phase 1 means you were a greenhorn, newby, a new chum trying to learn the very basics of the how, where and when of catching fish. Many in this phase are very young, or simply occasional fishers who wet a line so infrequently that they may never get a chance to progress past this stage into the other phases of the fishing journey. Members of Phase 1 generally jag the odd fish, but often do not target particular species or otherwise develop any coherent fishing game plans. Unless they work on moving their fishing journey forward, members of Phase 1 are destined to remain in that often mentioned group of the 90 per cent of anglers who catch 10 per cent of the fish.

On the other hand, those who fish more regularly, or put in the effort to learn and think a little about what they are doing, can rather quickly move into Phase 2 of the journey. Members of Phase 2 have become proficient at targeting and catching fish. However, what defines those fishers in Phase 2, compared to later phases, is the fact that this relative success has been achieved with a largely superficial understanding of how, where and when to target fish. By joining the 10 per cent of anglers who catch 90 per cent of the fish, but without any in-depth knowledge or understanding of the bigger picture, Phase 2 is arguably the most dangerous phase of fishing development. This is because people in Phase 2 can take many fish, but often do so without much thought of the impact of their actions in the bigger scheme of things. Members of Phase 2 may know all the relevant local fishing regulations, but are more likely to only release fish when legally required to do so, and some may actually try to target bag limits or even (lets hope not many) exceed them. Those people you read about getting fined in fisheries prosecution press releases are inevitably members of this group. While nearly everyone who reads Fishing World has likely passed into or beyond Phase 2 in some way shape or form, one could argue that long term residence in Phase 2 makes its membership problematic and in need of close management. This is because having large numbers of people in this phase can represent a real and present danger to the long term sustainability of some fish stocks.

Which is why its desirable that as many recreational fishers as possible quickly evolve through Phase 2 into the relative enlightenment of Phase 3. I like to characterise Phase 3 of the fishing journey to be when people begin to “think about the why”. In this phase anglers begin to consider why fish are found where they are, when they are. Recreational fishers in Phase 3 also begin to think about where those fish have come from (i.e. how they recruited to become available to the fishery). Fish do not just appear out of nowhere (though it may seem like it at times). Each fish begins life as a fertilised egg, often spending days, weeks or even months in the plankton as a larval form feeding on other plankton. Only then do they settle into nursery habits which provide the food and shelter needed to allow the juvenile fish to feed and grow. This process may take many years before they reach maturity, and the hope that some adult fish will eventually complete the lifecycle that is unique to its species. Anglers in Phase 3 take it upon themselves to learn where their quarry come from, and begin to reflect about the future of the fish stocks they are targeting.

As a natural part of this process, members of Phase 3 will also begin to think about the impacts of their own actions on fish. Many people in this phase become much more selective of what they harvest, and certain anglers may voluntarily release some (or all) of the larger fish they catch to protect breeders as they “Fish for the Future”. Anglers in Phase 3 of the journey also bring it upon themselves to learn best practice gear selection and fish handling techniques to improve the survival of the fish they release. They will also take pride in dispatching those fish they take for the table quickly and humanely. Anglers in Phase 3 would never break fisheries regulations and may even actively enforce regulations themselves by reporting members of Phase 2 to the relevant authorities. This is because members of Phase 3 have begun to think about how we all might be able to have more fish, so we can fish sustainably into the future.

In the past, publications like Fishing World have helped move recreational fishers from Phase 1 into Phases 2 and 3. But today, with increasing human populations ensuring that the Anthropocene is here to stay, human induced damage to aquatic ecosystems is accelerating. As mentioned in previous recent columns, aquatic pollution causes extensive damage to fish nurseries, whilst various other anthropogenic changes can interrupt fish lifecycles, threatening fish recruitment. For all of these reasons, in today’s world, simply moving from Phase 2 into Phase 3 is no longer enough.

Today in order to ensure the sustainability of many of our fisheries (especially in inland and inshore areas), obeying the regulations, releasing fish and abiding by best practice is just the start. I propose that we need more anglers to move to Phase 4. Phase 4 of the fishing journey has historically been rarefied air, populated only by a select few. In this phase anglers make a conscious decision to give back and contribute directly to the next generation of fish and fishers. These are the people who get involved. They give back and generate more fish through lobbying for protection of water quality, seagrasses, wetlands, mangroves and other fish nursery habitats.

People in Phase 4 not only understand the need for fish habitat and high water quality, they actively undertake restoration of seagrasses, natural reefs, installation of artificial reefs and, when appropriate, undertake restocking. They also participate directly in the education of other fishers to try to bring others into Phase 4. In Australia, until recently there were few opportunities for the average fisher to participate directly in this phase, perhaps except for the various traditional state based recreational representative bodies and stocking groups. But today we are very fortunate to have a national fish habitat group called OzFish Unlimited, which is dedicated to “Better habitat, better fishing”. Its membership of these sorts of groups that allows every angler to transition to Phase 4 and start becoming part of the solution. In doing so, you will not only be generating more fish for yourself and future generations, but you will also be actively contributing to maintaining everyones social license to fish in a constantly changing world.

So, where are you on this journey, and where would you like to be in 5 or 10 years time? If you have just started your fishing journey, by the time you are ready to move past Phase 2, will there be any fish left in your local area? Are you risking being part of a global problem, or determined to become part of the solution? Whatever the case, I hope you agree with me that we need many more recreational anglers to extend their fishing journey and join the transition to the “Fourth Phase”.

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