June 8 is World Oceans Day, which means stories about local beach cleanups and how to choose the most environmentally sustainable fish at the restaurant or market. We’re also hearing a great deal about the perils excessive harvesting by the commercial fishing industry.
But what of the individual saltwater angler – the recreational fisherman (or woman) who fishes for relaxation, for a challenge, for a few tasty meals, or just for an excuse to get out of the house? How can these fishermen pursue their hobby in a way that will help ensure good catches in the future and sustainable fisheries for their grandchildren to enjoy?
Unfortunately, as a fairly regular – if not particularly skillful – fisherman, I know it’s not easy to know when I’m doing the right thing. I undertook a little online research for advice, recommendations and products. What I found was that there’s not enough good information out there. However, I’ve come up with some recommendations based not only on research, but also my own firsthand experience fishing San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.
I don’t want to point fingers or preach to anyone, but I do want to foster a forward-thinking mindset among my fellow fishermen by providing recommendations that will apply to most people in most places. If you have thoughts on what you read here, please leave a comment.
Please feel free to republish this post in part or in whole, as long as you credit me as the source.
The basics of eco-friendly fishing
The basic foundation of eco-friendly fishing is legal and ethical fishing. Follow this part of the recommendations, and you’ll be well on your way to being an eco-friendly fisherman.
- Read up on all rules and regulations for the place you intend to fish and the kind of fish you intend to catch. Most of the time, these rules are aimed at ensuring the long-term health of fish populations, so be sure to follow the regulations.
- Never kill a fish if you don’t intend to eat it.
- Never deliberately fish for a species when you know the season is closed. Unintended catches are a fact of fishing (and one of the things that keeps it surprising and fun), but going after out-of-season species can put harmful stress on fish that need their energy for migration, spawning or protecting their young. It can also get you in trouble.
- Respect marine protected areas and other areas closed to fishing. We may not always like it when a favored honey hole is put off-limits by new regulations. But one of the benefits of many closures is the creation of a “seed” population of fish that can produce young that will be available to catch in other locations.
- Don’t hammer the same spots over and over again. In some situations, such as the sandy Pacific beaches of the United States, fish move quite a lot. A spot that was unproductive in the morning may be full of fish in the afternoon. But in other areas, such as rocky seamounts or rocky shoreline, slow-growing fish may spend their whole lives in a very small area. If you change up the spots you visit, you limit the possibility that you’re depleting the fish in a given location.
- Pick up your mess. At many of the places I fish in the San Francisco Bay area and the nearby Pacific coast, litter is a significant problem. Cigarette packages, plastic bags, plastic bottles, bits of old line, rubber gloves, broken tackle – I’ve picked up loads of this stuff at some of my favorite spots, and it’s just depressing to find a meticulously cleaned spot littered again later. Don’t be one of Those Guys. Real fishermen clean up after themselves.
One of the most obvious ways to protect fish stocks is to release fish. But what’s the best way to ensure these fish survive?
- Minimize touching fish with gloves, a cloth or even your hands if you intend to release them. Too much handling can remove the protective coat of slime from fish, leaving them vulnerable to disease. If you need to hold on to a fish to remove a hook, devices that grip the fish’s jaw are a better alternative.
- Don’t take fish out of the water if you can avoid it. Fish are meant to be in the water, and any time spent on a dry shore, or the deck of a boat or pier, is stressful. Whenever possible, remove hooks while the fish is still in the water.
- Use barbless hooks. I know, that little barb provides some reassurance that once you’ve hooked a fish it won’t come unbuttoned and get away. But in my own experience, I mash down the barbs of my hooks much of the time, and I find that the number of times a barb is the make-or-break factor in landing a fish is extremely small. And when I use circle hooks, I’ve never had a fish throw the hook even when there’s no barb. On the other hand, a barb may make it impossible to get a hook out without further injuring a fish.
- Use circle hooks when fishing with bait. The point of a circle hook points toward the shank, an arrangement that would seem counterproductive. But in practice, circle hooks are easy to use and make it harder for fish to throw the hook. Best of all, circle hooks hook fish in the corner of the mouth nearly all the time, which means means less injury for the fish and makes it easy to reach and remove the hook.
- Use knotless, rubber-coated landing nets. Rubber and rubber-coated nets are gentler on the fish’s slime coat. Some fish, such as halibut, are particularly susceptible to tail rot because their tails are easily split by the cord of traditional landing nets. Rubber, knotless landing nets reduce the possibility that the fish you release today will later die of disease.
Low-impact fishing tackle and other products
- Use biodegradable line. Just this weekend, as I was picking a bird’s nest out of my casting reel, I thought about all the line I’ve unintentionally left behind when fishing. That line is slow to break down, and remains a hazard to birds and fish – and an annoying snag for other anglers. Makers of biodegradable lines claim that whereas regular monofilament can take 600 years to break down, their products disappear in about five years. As far as I can tell, these new lines still are available only in limited strengths and quantities, but they seem to provide an attractive alternative to leaving long-lasting line in the water after snags or break-offs.
- Use non-lead sinkers. Standard gear for California salmon fishermen used to include big “cannonball” sinkers for trolling, which would be released to fall to the bottom when a fish was hooked. On the sea floor, these balls of lead might not do much harm. But closer to shore, fish and birds can ingest smaller sinkers. Many tackle manufacturers offer alternative sinkers that don’t use any lead at all. They’re a little more expensive, but I like them because they’re harder than lead and I think I can feel the bottom better with these sinkers. There’s at least one tackle manufacturer that takes the alternative sinker to an extreme, drilling holes in rocks. On California’s rocky shores, fishermen have long used small pouches filled with pebbles or sand as cheap sinkers in this tackle-grabbing environment. I’ve sometimes tied up a rock in a bit of cotton kitchen twine for a sinker in these areas, and it works quite well.
- Use plain bronze hooks. Corrosion-resistant steel hooks have the advantage of lasting for season after season – or at least, being tolerant of not being rinsed off after being used in salt water. But a bronze hook that’s left in a fish that breaks off quickly corrodes away, leaving the fish free to feed naturally. I’ve looked for bronze circle hooks, but as far as I can tell these aren’t made.
Other products and practices for eco-friendly fishing
- Use locally sourced bait when possible, and avoid non-native bait species. Live baits can carry parasites or diseases, or come packaged with materials such as seaweed that can harbor other organisms and unintentionally introduce them to your fishing environment. Locally sourced baits don’t have to be transported by air, truck or boat, and local fish already are used to feeding on them.
- What about bait vs. lures? Some sources I found when researching eco-friendly fishing suggested that bait is better than lures because baits are biodegradable, whereas a lost lure means a chunk of metal or plastic left in the environment. That’s a good point, but I find that unless I’m using circle hooks, fish caught on bait too often swallow a hook deeply, meaning that it’s harder to land and release those fish without permanent harm. I’m not yet sure what I think about this question. However, one way of getting the best of both worlds is with biodegradable soft baits. They can’t replace Kastmasters, diamond bars and other metal lures, but the variety and quality of these products is impressive. And of course, one can always go old-school and carve plugs out of broom handles.
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