Catch and Release

Needle Tubes and Tube Flies

The Way Forward for Angling?

by John Gray

Catch and Release


In recent years, many of our rivers have seen a decline in stocks of migratory species such as Atlantic salmon and sea trout. Our sea trout appear to have suffered generally throughout the country, while the fate of the salmon is more variable from river to river. Of course there are many factors, at sea and in the river, which influence the welfare of our migratory fish stocks. These include climatic change, pollution, commercial netting, over-exploitation of essential prey species such as the sandeel, predation by seals and fish eating birds, the threats posed by the fish farming industry, destruction of spawning habitat and many more. Many of the above threats to migratory fish stocks, of course, result directly from human activity of one sort or another. Nature, if left to get on with it, would undoubtedly reach a far more satisfactory equilibrium. Anglers themselves have, in the past, been guilty of over-exploitation by killing fish which might otherwise have gone on to spawn. Increasingly, however, it has to be said that anglers and those responsible for the management of our river fisheries take a more enlightened view on matters of conservation and sustainability of fish stocks. Yet there is much that needs to be done to secure the survival of our salmon and sea trout and anglers must play their part in it. Catch and release is often proposed as the way forward for the sport and is being increasingly accepted by anglers .. but how far should we take it?

Where stocks of fish, migratory and non migratory, are fragile, there is certainly a need for some restraint on the part of anglers. Where there is the slightest suspicion that the runs of wild fish are insufficient to fully populate, or at least to generate a sustainable stock in, a particular river, then, for as long as this situation exists, the most logical solution would be a complete moratorium on angling activity, combined with efforts to protect salmon from all other threats, be they natural or man made. Such a moratorium is, quite understandably, unlikely to be supported by anglers, fishery owners and those who are employed in angling-related occupations.

In situations where salmon stocks are fragile, we must therefore consider alternative measures. Given, then, that angling activity is likely to continue, regardless of the sustainability of salmon stocks, the next best option, on rivers where salmon stocks are uncertain, would be to impose a policy of 100% catch and release (excepting damaged fish etc.), possibly reinforced, in cases of severely depleted stocks, by a programme of artificial stocking of hatchery reared salmon, drawn from indigenous fish.

If and when stocks have recovered to a level sufficient to again fully populate the river with wild fish, with a surplus stock which might be harvested by anglers (I would hope that netting would be recognised as a less than economical use of a scarce and very valuable resource), anglers might then be allowed to kill a very limited number of salmon, with the majority of fish being returned. In recent years there has been, in my experience, increasing recognition of the need for restraint on the part of anglers and a growing acceptance of catch and release, to the extent, indeed, that many anglers are made to feel, most unfairly, like murderous fishmongers for daring to even consider the very natural, and, on rivers with a healthy stock of salmon, entirely justifiable act of knocking a fish on the head. Consequently, it would, I think, be perfectly feasible to achieve a satisfactory return rate without the need for compulsion or legal restrictions.

Where compulsion is considered necessary, I am not sure whether a tagging system would be helpful. I think it would lead to all tags being used, and the maximum permitted fish kill. The using of all tags would likely become accepted as the norm, leading, quite possibly, to fewer fish returned than might be achieved by purely voluntary means. I think I would prefer a simple fish limit, set according to the circumstances on each individual river, combined perhaps with efforts to educate and incentives to anglers to return fish.

In rivers with healthy stocks of fish, catch and release, as a morally rational policy, is hard to justify. Many fishermen, myself included, see the killing of a trout, sea trout or salmon as the natural and entirely justifiable conclusion to the whole business of fishing. It is what fishing is all about. Deny a man that option of an occasional fish for the table and fishing ceases to make sense.

In the interests of conservation, I, like many other fishermen, find myself returning an increasing proportion of my catch, more aware of my impact on our environment and, perhaps more selfishly, on future sport. Most of my fishing is done on association waters, where, in recent years, there has been a definite move towards catch and release. There is a growing awareness among salmon and sea trout anglers of the potential benefits of catch and release, if only to improve their own fishing in the coming seasons, to the extent that an increasing proportion of anglers wouldn't now think of killing a fish. The ban, in Scotland, on the sale of all rod caught salmon has provided a further disincentive to the killing of fish.

But catch and release should not, in all places at all times, become compulsory. Sustainability is the key. Catch and release has a part to play, as a tool of conservation but not as an eleventh commandment in the new testament of the Church of Latter Day Tree Huggers. It is worth remembering that a river can sustain a limited number of juvenile fish. In many rivers, the harvesting, by anglers, of a proportion of the annual run, will have no adverse effect on fish stocks. Where there is the slightest suspicion that the run of migratory fish is insufficient to fully populate the nursery streams, then, of course, all fish caught should be returned. Where stocks are healthy, though, I would have no hesitation in taking a fish for the table.

Sometimes now, when I go fishing, I return all fish caught, brow-beaten into subconscious submission by the C&R protagonists ... but there is a feeling, then, that something in the experience is missing, that I am some kind of frivolous fraud, there for the wrong reasons.

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