Is sport fishing bad for the environment?

Environmental Effects of Sport Fishing

Is this bad for the environment?
Is this bad for the environment?
Tyler Stableford/Getty Images

A single weeke­nd fis­herman who catches a few bass or bream to feed his family doesn't make much of ­a dent in the livelihood of the aquatic ecosystem. Multiply that by the 40 million rod-an­d-reel fishermen in the United States, and that could significantly compound the effects of hooking a fish here and there. Yet, the nature and pace of the sport allows recreational fishermen to better mitigate any destructive effects.

Take, for instance, bycatch. A single fisherman catches only one fish at a time. At that slower rate, recreational fishers can practice catch-and-release tactics that result in relatively low mortality rates for the discarded fish. Even most sport fishing tournaments are catch and release [source: NOAA]. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), anglers released 58 percent of the live fish caught in 2007. The amount of fish released also varies by type. Anglers released 90 percent of catfish caught in 2004, while they released only 21 percent of rockfish [source: NOAA].

Releasing your catch when sport fishing isn't as wasteful as it may seem. If you can return a fish back to its original depth within 10 minutes, you increase its chances for survival [source: Sea Grant California]. One controversial method of doing so involves deflating the fish's swim bladder with a sharp object like a hypodermic needle. A fish's swim bladder gives it buoyancy for swimming. When certain fish, such as sheephead, are reeled in quickly, the pressure change causes their swim bladders to overinflate. And unless fishermen puncture the bladder, the fish may float back to the surface of the water and die after being released.

Fishing gear selection can also reduce unintended species loss. A study conducted by the­ Ecological Society of America found that hook and line gears account for the lowest bycatch and­ habitat impacts. Circle hooks that look like metal "J"s are favored more by fishermen and conservationists alike. In addition to hooking a fish more securely, they usually attach at the jaw, resulting in fewer mortalities [source: Quinn].

Of course, sport fishing isn't without its environmental flaws. Trash discarded by fishermen as well as gas and oil leaks from their boats can pollute the waterways. Negligent anchoring can harm the shorelines and lead to habitat destruction. Fishers in the United States also buy about 4,382 tons (3,975 metric tons) of lead fishing sinkers each year [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. The lead contained in those sinkers may harm wildlife in and out of the water.

Yet, in comparison to commercial fishing operations, individual anglers have more control to soften the negative environmental effects of their activities. Just like individuals can reduce the size of their carbon footprints without drastically altering their lifestyles, recreational fishermen can continue to enjoy their sport while protecting the marine ecosystem.


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