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Originally published in Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine: Nov/Dec 2007
Catch and Release Tournaments
The good, the bad, the ugly of live-release contests
By Capt. John McMurray
Historically, sportsmen have been the most effective leaders of the conservation movement. However, our record is far from perfect. From the perspective of conservation, it is difficult to defend the traditional “dead-fish” tournament. At their worst, they encourage anglers to kill overfished species, including sharks and billfish, merely to win a cash prize and transient bragging rights. Even at their best, they promote the retention of large, fecund fish that might better contribute to the spawning stock and subordinate the entire, complex angling experience to a competitor’s standings on the leader board. The sight of dead marlin lying in a dumpster after being weighed in is no less offensive than the fact of commercial overharvest and bycatch, and provides commercial fishers with some justification for continuing their own destructive fishing practices.
Unfortunately, kill tournaments continue to increase in popularity. The American Fisheries Society listed an annual total of 978 such events in 2006. Thus, it’s not just about perception. The negative impacts of tournaments on fishery resources have concerned fishery managers for years.
Decades ago, freshwater tournament organizers realized that kill tournaments benefited no one. They created intricate catch-and-release largemouth-bass and walleye contests with public weigh-ins and release events that advertisers could sponsor. It was brilliant, and today the freshwater tournament circuit is larger and more profitable than its saltwater equivalent.
Slowly and reluctantly, the saltwater community is following suit. Freshwater tournament organizers such as FLW now also put on large saltwater release tournament series. Although such contests are still in the minority, they are a big step forward. However, they are not perfect by. Post- release mortality remains a big issue.
Unlike fish caught by traditional catch and release anglers, those taken in tournaments are subject to considerably more stress, generated by being held in live wells for extended periods, the transport and weigh-in process, the use of fish for photographic opportunities, and tournament release procedures.
Striped bass tournaments exemplify the problem. Boats that target striped bass rarely have live-wells big enough to adequately accommodate a tournament-winning fish. Furthermore, anglers targeting striped bass frequently fish in rough water that either makes the use of live wells difficult or batters the fish kept within such enclosures. Thus, holding a release tournament for striped bass was not practical. The advent of the “Striper Tube”, while still not yet widely used, has created a new release-tournament option that seems to be catching on.
The device is a vertical 40” tube with an electrical pump at the bottom which circulates sea water over a fish's gills. It allegedly allows anglers to keep fish alive and healthy for an unlimited amount of time so they can participate in a live weigh-in without killing the fish. The American Fisheries Society has determined the Striper Tube will keep fish alive as claimed, but only in cooler water conditions. Its vertical design appears to calm the fish and reduce its activity, contributing to post-release survival. Hopefully, the availability of such a device will encourage at least some tournament sponsors to adopt a catch and release format.
However, there are also legal issues to consider. “Highgrading,” the release of a smaller fish already in possession in order to replace it with a larger one, is illegal in many states. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is currently scrutinizing the FLW’s striper release tournament for just that reason, since New York does not permit high-grading for any marine species.
Specs and Redfish Tourneys
While there are many studies of release mortality in marine recreational fisheries and in freshwater tournaments, there is only one study of saltwater tournament-related mortality. Dr. Gregory Stunz of Texas A&M, through a grant from Coastal Conservation Association, recently conducted a study assessing tournament-related mortality of spotted seatrout at 10 live-release fishing tournaments held in Texas.
Combined overall mean mortality was 22.9%. Of that figure, 10.4% of the fish were weighed-in dead, 14.1 percent died in tournament and an additional 1.9% died during a 14-day observation period in laboratory tanks.
Mortality rates were higher during the warmer months, a finding that is consistent with other release mortality studies. Thus, tournament organizers should avoid scheduling events during late spring and summer, in order to maximize survival.
Stunz’s results also suggest that hooking location is a major factor influencing mortality, and that fishing with artificials minimized the number of fish hooked in vulnerable areas. Thus, tournaments interested in reducing mortality should ban the use of bait, or at the very least require participants to use circle-hooks.
While the study suggests that spotted seatrout mortality in live-release tournaments exceeds that observed under normal catch-and-release fishing practices, it also suggests that tournament-related mortality rates are low considering the amount of handling that occurs. This is encouraging for the continued support of live-release fishing tournaments, and not just for specs. “While this paper was on spotted seatrout,” notes Stunz, “I would think red drum would have even lower mortality.” Stunz is currently looking for funding to complete a similar study for red drum.
Billfish Release Tournaments
There are no tournament-specific mortality studies for big game fish. Many scientists feel that recreational fishing is recreational fishing, regardless of whether or not it is conducted during a tournament. However, this may not be the case. During release-tournaments, the idea is to get the fish hooked, to the boat, and released for points as quickly as possible so that the boat can move on to the next fish. “The fish is angled and handled quickly, thereby minimizing stress and reducing release mortality.” notes Dr. Greg Skomal who has done extensive work on pelagic fish release mortality. “During kill tournaments, which typically have self-imposed and federally mandated high minimum sizes, time is taken to measure the fish at the boat, thereby increasing handling time and physiological/physical trauma that may result in mortality if/when the fish is released.”
The required use of circle hooks in offshore release-tournaments would greatly reduce release mortality for pelagic fish. NMFS planned to put such a rule into effect this year, but withdrew the proposal for a period of one year, at the urging of s handful of tournament organizers,, despite studies indicating that the use of non-offset circle hooks, instead of J-hooks, would reduce post-release mortality of white marlin by as much as 66 percent, which could translate into about 500 additional fish surviving each year. Given the dire condition of the white marlin population and lawsuits brought by conservation groups seeking to compel NMFS to recommend listing white marlin under the Endangered Species Act, the tournament organizers’ opposition to circle hooks is puzzling, since the additional 500 marlin killed by J-hooks this year strengthens the litigants’ arguments, and threatens the end of all offshore tournament fishing
Dead fish displayed to the public during kill-tournament weigh-ins harm the credibility of anglers who argue for needed fisheries conservation measures. While one can argue that all tournaments cause some harm, catch-and-release tournaments are certainly a better alternative than those requiring that fish be killed. Saltwater anglers may finally be embracing such events. Although commercial fishers and PETA types love to wail and moan about release-mortality, with care such mortality can be kept within acceptable levels. That’s good news for the fish and for the anglers that target them. Hopefully we will see more release events tournaments in the near future.