Catch-and-Release Under Attack

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2008 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2008 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Back in 2000, I wrote a series of columns in the Alberta Outdoorsmen, “Is Angling at a Crossroads?” that created quite a stir. I suggested that fishing was in a similar state to what trapping was 30 or 40 years ago, when some trappers were making a fair living (depending on the year) and could not see why they would not be doing so in the future. Of course, along came the animal rights activists (ARs) and today trapping is a thin shadow of its former self. What got the ire of readers up was how I perceived the ARs would attack fishing. I suggested they would target the sport’s most conservation-minded practice—catch and release fishing (C&R). I argued that ARs would portray C&R as fish harassment, designed for the angler to take pleasure at the pain and expense of the animal.

Well, ‘Katy bar the door’, e-mails, telephone calls and letters-to-the-editor attacked me as if I had tipped over the honey bucket. Some presented reasoned arguments as to why I was all wrong, while others chose to attack me personally, questioning my ancestry for my even considering criticising such a noble practice.

What I had failed to make those readers understand was that I was presenting these arguments rhetorically to get anglers thinking about why they do what they do. That was the lesson trappers learned too late. If you are not prepared to defend your practices publicly, you play right into hands of the ARs, who are very well prepared to attack your practices publicly.

Unfortunately, it is too easy for hunters and anglers to dismiss ARs as a lunatic fringe. The reality is that they are persuasive in their arguments, especially if few are willing to challenge them. A case in point is the recent decision by Switzerland to follow Germany’s lead and ban C&R fishing. Starting in 2009, fish caught in Switzerland must be immediately killed. “It is not permitted to go fishing with the ‘intention’ to release fish”, stated the Swiss government. The new legislation also requires Swiss anglers to take a course in humane methods of catching fish before obtaining a fishing licence.

The law is part of a wider program of animal welfare in Switzerland that began with an animal protection act the Swiss parliament passed in 2005. Since then, groups like the Swiss Angling Federation and the European Fishing Tackle Trade Association (EFTTA) have been working with the Swiss government to refine the details of the program. However, this latest legislation is an obvious setback.

Jan Kappel, an EFTTA lobbyist, stated in a news release, “Catch and Release is one of the most difficult issues we have to deal with, and one of the most important in my opinion. The new Swiss law doesn’t make use of the term ‘Catch and Release’, which is the same as in Germany—but I don’t see how governments can enforce legislation which make ‘intent’ illegal. And demanding that people kill the fish they catch gives no thought to the conservation benefits from releasing them.”

However, unless these organizations can convince the Swiss government to amend the legislation in favor of C&R, some 275,000 Swiss anglers will have to reconsider how and why they go fishing. How could this have come about?

What many of us fail to understand is that people who do not fish or hunt do not always understand why we do. Anglers and hunters are a small minority of the world’s population. We can easily convince ourselves that certain practices are legitimate but sometimes we falsely assume others agree. I believe this is what is happening with C&R fishing. We are not explaining its benefits to the public often enough.

Hunting practices are a good comparison. A survey of Albertans (97+% of whom do not hunt) conducted a few years ago found that a majority of Albertans felt that the hunting of wild animals was a legitimate use of the wildlife resource, provided that it did not threaten the conservation of species, that the animals were killed humanely, and they were consumed and not wasted.

I have not heard of a similar survey on fishing in the province, but I imagine such a survey might show that many of those who support another’s right to hunt for consumption, might not support another’s right to catch and release fish without the intention of consuming some. Why? Because to the uneducated eye, C&R fishing looks inhumane, especially when it is not the intent of the angler to consume what he is catching.

Now please, don’t get me wrong. I regularly practise C&R fishing. Indeed, I went on a fly-in trip this June to a lodge where C&R fishing was not only practised but encouraged. The guides went out of their way to ensure all caught fish were properly handled and hooking mortality was kept to a minimum. These people realize their business is based on the ability of their customers to catch large fish. Because fish production in the north is limited by the short growing season, it only makes sense to release as many fish as possible to ensure there will be large ones to catch in the future.

Catch-and-release fishing ensures not only the conservation of fish but also the conservation of anglers. As reported by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in its report on the 2005 Survey of Recreational Fishing in Canada, the number of anglers in the country is in steady decline, and we are an aging group. In other words, we are recruiting fewer and fewer new and young members to the angling community. That loss will only increase if C&R fishing is not part of the fisheries manager’s tool box. If the number of anglers continue to decrease, there will be less people becoming active in fisheries conservation and fewer people in the field to cry foul when a fishery is threatened.

So, why did C&R fishing get banned in Switzerland? Because the ARs successfully convinced the Swiss public that such was necessary to protect all animals in the country.

Don’t think it can happen here? In many federal parliaments, animal cruelty bills that would lay the foundation for the banning of C&R fishing have been introduced. The current parliament was no exception, and it was only through the aggressive lobbying of outdoor groups and others that prevented such provisions from being included in the bill that did pass. However, that was this parliament. ARs are nothing if not persistent and will make sure that bills are introduced in future parliaments until they get what they want. If the number of anglers and hunters continues to decline, the voices to challenge the ARs’ assumptions will dwindle and the ARs will eventually be successful.

Of course, once C&R fishing is banned, there will be much less opportunities for people to go fishing, further reducing the angler population and its political impact. So what can be done? Anglers, as groups and individuals, must get more aggressive in advertising the attractions of their sport and why C&R fishing is important to the conservation of fish species. We must ensure that more young people are exposed to the thrill and excitement of having a wild fish tug at their fishing line. We can no longer sit back and wait for someone else or governments to do it. If you have concern about the kind of outdoor world your children and grandchildren are inheriting, the time to act is now. Take your kids and your neighbor’s kids fishing; but don’t stop there. Tell your neighbor why you fish. Tell your colleagues at work. Take them fishing. Let’s stay ahead of the ARs’ agenda.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:
www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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