If sport fishing is undergoing a "New Age" evolution then this can be seen best among trout anglers, especially among fly fishers. Many of them have realised that our waters are not inexhaustible and have voluntarily adopted "Catch and Release" as a means of doing "their bit" to conserve dwindling fish stocks. Like any old habit, the primeval urge to knock every trout on the head is hard to shake off. It took me a season or two in the face of declining Taranaki stream fishing to take a hard look at my own habits. As a result I have been releasing all fish, even trophy fish, unharmed. Mind you, just looking for fish in our waters with an average trout population of three to five fish per stream kilometre does wonders for anyone's conservation education. I probably risk sounding like a reformed drunk when I tell you that it now gives me a real thrill watching a great fish gliding back to the depth of its pool.
Conservation and sheer admiration for these magnificent gamefish are obvious reasons why some anglers adopt C&R, but they are not the only motives. Pragmatism and strong personal beliefs also come into it. Many people don't like the taste of trout or dislike processing them. A few are also squeamish about the act of killing. More and more people fish for sport and not for food. Of course, some do both but, like I, are selective where they do it. Occasionally I meet someone who has embraced C&R as a new religion and preaches its merits whatever the dynamics of the fishery. Clearly, everyone has their own motives why they do it. After all "To kill or not to kill" is a question we all must answer every time we hook a fish.
Fortunately this article is not about the philosophical nor ethical side of the C&R debate. I have only mentioned some aspects of it to ensure that the reader can recognise another, more practicable application. It is the use of C&R as a modern management tool.
C&R Management in New Zealand
To the ordinary angler who already releases fish voluntarily the legal designation of C&R on a fishery may only seem a natural change from one philosophy to another. To the smart fishery manager however, C&R is a tool with which he/she can manipulate fish populations and angler harvest towards a predetermined goal. However, after talking to many anglers and quite a few Fish and Game councillors and professionals and after researching some New Zealand programmes I am sure that there is wide-spread confusion about the two roles of C&R.
In New Zealand C&R management has been a reluctant bride. There seems to be an underlying fear that once the Genie is out of the bottle it may be too hard to get back. Sadly, the greatest opposition comes from some Fish and Game councillors and staff. Now, moves are afoot to do away with C&R waters altogether. The official "justification" is to ward of animal rights protesters but my hunch is that some circles there exists a deep-seated paranoia that C&R is bad for license sales. Whatever the outcome of this debate the Genie is well and truly out of the bottle and has been enthusiastically welcomed by an ever-increasing number of New Zealand anglers.
In the few waters where C&R does exists, it seems to have come about through angler pressure, rather from a conviction by the authorities that C&R can be a good means to a good end. To my knowledge only a few C&R trials use specific upper size limits to protect large fish. One of those is in the headwaters of the Rangitikei River where sheer killing pressure has made catching a double figure trout a rare event. Most of the credit for its implementation must go to veteran river guide Jack McKenzie of Mangaweka who has witnessed the slow decline of large headwater fish over the last two decades. The new regulations have not been in force for very long but already larger fish are becoming more numerous. This simple and logical conservation measure is but one example of the range of possibilities that C&R management offers. Another is the increase in the size limit for Taupo trout when it was shown that summer lake angler were taking too many immature fish thereby starving the winter river runs. At some Rotorua lakes slot limits have been promoted as a means to bring back the double figure fish that were such a spectacular a feature of the big fish programme of a few years back. All these examples are not new inventions but well-known features of the C&R spectrum. The notion that C&R always means "Zero Kill," (which is the most restrictive form of C&R) suggests that C&R as a variable management tool is not widely understood by those we entrust with the future of our fisheries. There is no "Rawleigh's, One Cure for All" management formula. It is high time that we recognised that trout and their habitats are not the same everywhere and that we no longer can have our cake and eat all of it.
So what is catch and release?
C&R is a management tool that uses anglers to make predetermined changes to fish populations for the benefit of anglers.
We are all familiar with the traditional minimum size limits and the forever shrinking bag regulations. Yet, few anglers realise that this has been a practical application of part of the C&R package. The only problem with this "tradition" is that the same restrictive regulations have been applied year after year over vastly different types of fisheries without ever testing their merits. (The latest example of this "one size fits all" management style is the "no lower size limit" regulation that is soon to be applied nationwide, even in waters with extremely poor recruitment). By contrast the modern application of C&R regulations seeks to achieve measurable results for specific goals. Applying "No Kill" C&R across the whole country would be just as idiotic as removing all size and bag limits.
C&R management has been developed in the United States where some fisheries are under such enormous angling pressure that they would not survive without such intervention. There it usually forms part of a special regulation package to provide fishing opportunities that anglers want and where this is ecologically achievable. The rub is that it takes a great deal of effort to accurately ascertain angler views and much research to confidently select management options for individual fisheries. Without such efforts the results usually fall short of expectations. From what I have read there have been some spectacular flops when this pain staking groundwork has been neglected. New Zealand C&R experimenters must be careful not to fall into the same trap.
As the name says C&R always involves letting fish go. Yet, this is where the similarity with our ethical motives to return fish ends. C&R management reasons "WHY" we should let them go. I shall go into the different reasons in more detail when I discuss what C&R can and cannot deliver. Let's start with the bad news first.
What C&R cannot do
It cannot increase the carrying capacity of the habitat. (Carrying capacity is fixed by the number of seats in the restaurant not by the number of would-be diners.)
It cannot increase terminal size or terminal age of fish. (Terminal size and age is the largest and/or oldest a fish can grow in any particular habitat without premature harvest or accidental death.)
It cannot increase the size of fish in waters with high natural recruitment. (Stunting, because of over crowding, is a more likely outcome.)
Maximum slot size C&R cannot guarantee stable trout populations in low recruitment fisheries. (Often old fish die in big numbers under adverse conditions and leave a temporary size/age group gap. Some overseas countries with long, hard winters often experience heavy losses during that time of the year).
How do C&R options work?
C&R improves angler interest and involvement in fishery management.
Its correct application requires a high degree of understanding of individual fisheries and their use by anglers. This has a positive spin-off on many other management decisions.
Number related C&R regulates fish harvest.
Minimum size related C&R influences recruitment.
Selective C&R can fine-tune the harvest from among the most productive age/size/species groups. The same measures can be used to protect them.
Maximum size C&R can promote the survival of more fish to their terminal size.
Targeted C&R can protect a more vulnerable species (i.e. rainbow trout) from over or premature harvest.
Selective C&R can in some situations adjust the imbalance between several species.
Flexible C&R allows for the logical progression of a range of recovery options when a fishery has suffered a reversible decline. Starting with Zero Kill other targeted options are put in place as the fishery recovers.
Total C&R or "No Kill" theoretically leaves the fishery in as natural a state as if there were no angling. Minus, of course, the hooking mortality. Remember, this is the theory! It might not work out quite like that in the field. It is however the logical option in waters with few fish and poor recruitment that receive unsustainable fishing pressure.
C&R always requires the banning of bait fishing because of its 60 - 70% post release losses. (Mortality rates for fish caught on artificial flies or spinners are as low as 3 - 5 percent.)
C&R often creates smart trout. This may not always be undesirable since educated trout become a special challenge for the advanced angler. This in turn stimulates the development of new tackle and innovative angling techniques. It also improves the skill level of anglers.
Despite the greater sophistication of returned trout C&R generally improves catch rates because of the greater number of available fish.
C&R is also good for the whole fishing related industry. Guides practice it religiously as their livelihood depends on fish being there for their next clients. Happy anglers buy licenses, new boats, 4x4s to tow them and plenty of tackle.
C&R initially causes a drop in participation by those anglers who are used to liberal regulations. However, improved catch rates and more big fish ultimately attract more sports minded anglers to C&R waters.
Perhaps the greatest visible benefit of Zero-Kill C&R to anglers is that (disregarding seasonal migration, etc.) fish are as numerous at the end of the season as they are at the beginning. This is in stark contrast to other low population waters, many of which are hardly worth fishing after an early season hammering.
No doubt there are more ways to employ C&R than I have listed here. As I have already said the purpose of this article is to show there is more to C&R management than the current perception of "Zero Kill." Fishermen have nothing to fear from well-founded C&R programmes despite a lot of negative propaganda. Far from it C&R produced measurable results
By world standards we still have some very good trout fishing often within a short drive from home. However, the warning signs that all isn't well in paradise have been here for a long time. Trout fishing has been steadily declining almost everywhere despite drastic reductions in bag limits. Sure, much of the malaise is habitat related but there is a significant component related to fishing pressure also. It is here that the various C&R options offer some relief while the politics of habitat restoration slowly grind on.
There is ample US evidence that if it's used in the right place, at the right time and above all for the right reasons Catch and Release Management does work. We would be fools to throw it away.
Herb Spannagl email@example.com is retired conservation officer and national park ranger with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Currently councillor for NZ Fish and Game. Married with two adult son and daughter, one cat and one German Wirehaired Pointer. And he throws Sexyloops :-)