Environment News: Helping fish survive

FOR many years critics of recreational fishers equated “catching” fish with “harvesting” fish, and “hooking” fish with “killing” fish. Studies produced by anti-angling groups blithely translated the meagre catch data that existed into extravagant claims about how many fish anglers killed and kept.

The big recreational surveys conducted in the early 2000’s used a projection methodology. A number of anglers were interviewed at boat ramps or by phone and their real or claimed catch data was recorded. Then this data was in fact multiplied across the numbers of anglers and an estimated number of trips to give what to many of us looked like quite crazy “information”. Could you really believe that in 2000/2001 NSW anglers harvested over 94 tonnes of saltwater catfish and over 46 tonnes of Australian bass? That’s what was suggested, and the same methodology was used to “prove” that anglers kept far more flathead, bream and mulloway than commercial operators.

A decade later the commercials and the fish marketers are still throwing these claims and numbers back in our faces, as are the anti-rec fishers in the green and animal rights groups. Similarly they tend to trot out old international studies “proving” that angling can significantly impact fish numbers. In the past, in some locations, that was no doubt true. Our forebears did us no favours in the way they treated inland cod and perch populations, often taking so many that they ended up as dog and pig food. Fragile coastal species also suffered. You’ll never see a bluefish at Sydney’s Bluefish Point these days.

But that was then and now is now. Bag limits and C&R are realities for all of us, and yet big numbers of the non-fishing Australian public still believe that most, if not all, fish that are hooked subsequently die. Which makes the survival studies currently being undertaken by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Southern Cross University PhD student Shane McGrath, funded by rec licence fee money, all the more crucial to our ongoing arguments with anti-fishing activists.

Studies undertaken by them have shown that survival rates of released lip hooked mulloway, yellowfin bream and snapper approach 100 per cent, but that that number declined dramatically for deeply hooked fish. The latest research has concentrated on the effect of not attempting to remove hooks from deeply hooked fish destined for release, but cutting the line. Results are encouraging, with survival rates of 65 per cent for mulloway, 76 per cent for bream and 75 per cent of snapper over time. Many of the experimental fish shed their hooks as they oxidised.

The overall messages for anglers would seem to be (1) don’t be “tight” about sacrificing a few hooks; if you’re releasing a deeply hooked fish, cut the line and let it go without undue fuss (2) if you’re planning to release a good number of your fish, and want or need to use traditional J hooks rather than circle hooks, use basic carbon steel hooks (colour doesn’t matter); many of these will corrode quite quickly and the fish will be able to shed them … this is one instance when rust will be a good thing, and the hooks will be cheaper to buy as well.

John Newbery is Environment Editor for Fishing World.

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