Originally Published in the February 1995 issue of The Outfitter Magazine.
Dear Peter and Sheila:
On December 12 one of our guests, Bob Boyer, a native artist, made some disparaging remarks against the practice of live-release angling. His premise was that one should only catch fish for food and not for recreation. That angling for pleasure was needlessly torturing fish. His theme was that “you should not play with your food”.
My wife and I operate a tourist resort near Parry Sound. We host many anglers among our guests, and we strongly encourage them to release, rather than keep all of the fish they can catch, as a means of preserving our fishery resources.
Mr. Boyer believes this to be cruel behaviour. I would like to point out that most angler-fish encounters, except where extremely large fish are involved, last less than 10 or 15 minutes. Even in heavily fished areas, it would be unusual for a fish to be caught and released by an angler more than two or three times in its lifetime. An individual fish would thus probably never spend more than a half hour in its entire life contesting its freedom with an angler. Mr. Boyer assumes that a fish feels pain and terror in human terms. This is unlikely. Most predator fish sought by anglers prey on fish like perch, bass and catfish that have sharp spines in their fins. If eating was too painful an experience, these predators would starve. Fish caught by anglers usually show little reaction other than exhaustion when released. An exhaustion similar to that displayed by human athletes, or perhaps sled dogs, after a good run.
Contrast this with the plight of fish caught in gill nets, one of the methods of catching fish now most used by natives. Fish are caught by gill nets, either when their head passes through the net until they are “gilled”, or when their teeth become entangled in the mesh. Either way the fish struggles for its breath and freedom until it drowns. A process which takes several hours, or even days. Gill nets are not very selective, despite contrary claims by their users. As well as the target species that the gill nets are set for, they snare and kill literally tons of other unwanted fish, such as suckers or burbot, which are just discarded. Live-release anglers, on the other hand, appreciate the contest offered by any species of fish they catch. These gill nets, used to catch fish for food, are in many ways similar to the leg hold traps once used to catch animals for fur, until these cruel devices were banned because of world opinion.
We practice live-release fishing most for lake trout. This means that we fatally injure less than one lake trout in fifty caught. I have estimated that we are able to generate almost $4,000.00 worth of tourism for that one fish. On that basis, the number of fish it takes for us to earn our living is best measured in dozens. For commercial gill net fishermen, the unit of measure is tons. While Mr. Boyer may have a genuine, but unfounded concern for the welfare of fish live-released by anglers, he may also have a hidden agenda. There is often competition for limited numbers of fish between tourist anglers and netters. It is difficult to justify the use of fish by netters, where they are worth only $2.00 to $4.00 per lb. when they are worth thousands of dollars each to tourism.
Mr. Boyer makes his pitch to you urban folk, who often have an overly romantic and anthropomorphic view of the natural world. He is missing the “big picture”. He would do more good by explaining the suffering that ever increasing masses of humanity inflict on other life on this planet. Our “civilized” life style obliterates and contaminates habitat once used by other creatures. In order for you to enjoy your life, the domain of other creatures has been paved over, cut over, plowed and polluted. The silent, and hidden, suffering of the creatures thus deprived of their place to live has undoubtedly escaped the notice of many city dwellers. To take a leaf from Mr. Boyer’s book, it might be easier for you to understand in human terms. When you watch the nightly news, and see endless lines, or camps, of ragged, starving, and suffering refugees keep in mind that their biggest problem is that they have lost their habitat.
Fishing only for food has resulted in the over-exploitation of fish stocks all over the world. Some species are threatened with extinction. The individuals who buy these fish for food find them in fish markets, on counters, in neat rows. These people have little understanding of the plight of the fish they use. Anglers seek their fish out of doors, where they can learn to understand and appreciate them, their life cycles, and environmental needs. Anglers who practice live-release are among those who most understand the need for conservation and preservation of natural resources. They should be applauded. Surely there are others much more deserving of Mr. Boyer’s criticism.
Mr. Boyer put himself in the fish’s position saying that he would not wish to be dragged beneath the surface of the water on a hook and line used by a fish. To continue Mr. Boyer’s analogy, if you were in that position, would you rather be wrestled on a hook and line for a few minutes, and then be released tired, but alive! Or, would you rather be strangled slowly over many hours by a gill net and eventually die?