When protecting endangered fish species, recreational angling hasn’t always been a main concern, however, this viewpoint is starting to change among scientists and managers. Fishing mortality, even at what might be considered low levels, can negatively affect population growth and recovery efforts. Recreational angling has even been proposed as the cause of the decline of some Canadian freshwater fish species (Post et al. 2002). Despite this, a recent paper by Cooke et al. (2016) puts forward the idea that catch-and-release recreational fisheries can be a useful force for the conservation of endangered species. They provide 6 case studies where allowing catch and release angling for endangered fish may actually have helped conservation efforts.
One example they use, that hits somewhat close to home, is White Sturgeon. White Sturgeon harvest has been prohibited in Canada since 1994 including in the Fraser River. The Fraser River sturgeon population is an interesting case, on the Canadian side of the river there is no harvest, but restricted harvest is allowed on American side in Puget Sound, Washington. There is some promising research to support catch-and -release angling with low rates of post-release mortality (2.6% in a holding pen, Robichaud et al. 2006) and no evidence of extra harm caused by repeated capture (Walters et al. 2005). This treads a narrow line though, as it is possible that a fishing mortality of only 5% could bring the growth of the Fraser River population to a halt (Walters et al. 2005), and we aren’t typically releasing our fish into the safety of a holding pen.
If that was the only information considered, one might draw the conclusion that, to be safe, we should stop angling all-together for sturgeon. However, Cooke et al. (2016) point out that the angling community does more than just fish for sturgeon. They also have a pretty good reason to want the species not to go extinct, and because of that are active in efforts to conserve the species. From collecting data and providing money for research, to creating curriculum for education, recreational angler groups are taking an active role in conservation of White Sturgeon.
Despite the successes in the 6 case studies in the paper, Cooke et al. (2016) caution that allowing recreational angling may not be right for every species. They provide a flow chart to be used to determine if angling of a particular endangered fish species should be allowed (added here with author permission). The authors go even further, suggesting that the burden should be put on the recreational angling community to show that they are species advocates, use the best fishing practices, will assist in conservation efforts, and provide evidence that fishing will not obstruct recovery. With examples like the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Trout Unlimited, Cooke et al. (2006) feel that the angling community is up to that challenge.
In Ontario we have Lake Sturgeon and about 25 other fish species that are currently listed as Species at Risk at various threat levels. Only a few species would be of interest to anglers, however, I’d be curious to see if catch-and-release angling would be recommended for any of these species using the suggested decision tree.
Amanda Caskenette, PhD
Cooke, S. J., Hogan, Z. S., Butcher, P. A., Stokesbury, M. J. W., Raghavan, R., Gallagher, A. J., Hammerschlag, N. and Danylchuk, A. J. (2016), Angling for endangered fish: conservation problem or conservation action? Fish and Fisheries, 17: 249–265. doi: 10.1111/faf.12076 Full Text
Post, J.R., Sullivan, M., Cox, S. et al. (2002) Canada’s recreational fishery: the invisible collapse? Fisheries 27: 6-17. doi: 10.1577/1548-8446(2002)027<0006:CRF>2.0.CO;2 Full Text
Robichaud, D, English, K.K., Bocking, R.C., and Nelson, T.C. (2006) Direct and delayed mortality of White Sturgeon caught in three gear-types in the Lower Fraser River. LGL Consultants. Report prepared for Tsawwassen First Nation Fisheries, Delta. BC. Full Text
Walters, C., Korman, J., and McAdam, S. (2005) An assessment of White Sturgeon status and trends in the lower Fraser River, Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS) Res. Doc. 2005/066, 60 pp. Full Text