The dark side of fishing

Photo: istockphoto.com/Jacom Stephens

Like many of earth's creatures, fish are becoming endangered and sport fishing is being re-examined around the world.

As a child I spent considerable time fishing at my parents' cottage on Georgian Bay. When I was very young I would still fish off of the dock or from a boat when accompanied by an adult. When I was a little older I would cast lures off of the dock or from the shore. When I learned to canoe I would troll the shorelines of the bays and islands for hours. I don't remember the ones who got away but I do feel regret for the ones I caught after learning more about fish.

Surprising research
Numerous studies have discovered that fish are actually more intelligent and social than we give them credit for and they are capable of feeling pain. The Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh led by Dr Lynne Sneddon found special sensory cells around the mouth of the fish similar to those in higher mammals that responded to pain.

Many anglers justify fishing by claiming that fish are impervious to pain. Since they release all of the fish they catch no harm is done. But believing that the released animal will be fine is also wrong. Studies have shown that mortality is high among those fish caught and then released. The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute warns many fish die due to the physiological stress caused by the struggle during capture or from injuries caused by the hook that damage gills, eyes and internal organs. The wounds may not be apparent to the anglers. Many fish die even though unharmed due to severe exhaustion.

Anglers need to be educated

An in-depth report by the Department of Material Science at the University of Maryland looked at the effectiveness of catch and release programs. Their conclusion was the high mortality rate was connected to poor application of the catch and release techniques on the part of anglers in combination with the different gears and lures. They recommended better angler education and fishing regulations.

England has actually banned angling in many parts of the country after a successful campaign lead by Pisces, the Campaign for the Abolition of Angling (CAA).

Unwanted visitors
Another problem is the devastating consequences for the ecosystems when alien species are introduced. Fishing can quickly spread these non-native species into lakes, rivers and other water bodies. The Rusty Crayfish and the Rudd, a European member of the minnow family, have likely made their way into Ontario waters as bait used by anglers. Pacific Northwest lakes and ponds were naturally fishless until bluegill and sunfish were brought into the area.

Other species, such as the Spiny Water Flea, can be transported to inland lakes and rivers by hitching rides in live wells and other areas of boats as well as in bait buckets, on fishing lines and other equipment including downriggers, anchor ropes and fishing nets. They can also be transported by recreational watercraft and on boat trailers.

Invading species is being a major concern enough to have the Commission of Environmental Cooperation (CEC) start a campaign entitled Closing the pathways of aquatic invasive species across North America.

Hook, line and sinker
Lost and discarded fishing tackle, including fishing line and lead sinkers, is also responsible for killing and harming animals such as loons and other water birds. Birds often swallow the sinkers while scooping up pebbles from the bottom of lake or river to help grind their food and become ill from lead poisoning. Eagles and other birds of prey can become ill after eating fish that have swallowed sinkers. Restrictions and bans of lead fishing sinkers and jigs are becoming more common in the United States and other countries.

Naturalists and environmentalists are recommending bird watching, wildlife photography, canoeing and even panning for gold as alternatives to fishing.

N. Glenn Perrett is a freelance writer with a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo. He writes for a number of publications including Harrowsmith and Country Life.