The late great Lee Wulff that said that a sport fish is too valuable to be caught only once.
Wulff was an ardent angler/conservationist until he died in an angling-related accident in 1991. He was 86. His 1953 Piper Cub crashed into a wooded hillside near Hancock, N.Y while on a pilot re-licensing flight. As the story goes, his intent was to continue to fly his own plane remote areas of the North American wilderness to fish, despite his age. Wulff was one of my angling and conservation heroes.
Catch and release fisheries conservation is relatively minor in the larger scheme of serious environmental issues. It is nevertheless important for many angler-conservationists, myself included. There is no question among we anglers and fisheries biologists alike that releasing fish is often a valuable conservation activity. This is especially true for some stressed fish populations including specific populations of salmon and trout. In fact, it is the law that wild Hood Canal cutthroat be released.
But the million-dollar question is whether or not released fish actually survive the ordeal.
There are many factors that affect the survival of released fish. Playing a fish to exhaustion can cause irreversible and fatal oxygen debt. Hooking fish in the gills, tongue, eyes, and can cause excessive bleeding most often resulting in mortality. Dragging hooked fish up onto beaches can remove the outer mucous coating, which can lead to deadly infections. Handling fish too firmly can cause irreversible damage to vital organs. Keeping a fish out of the water more than 30 seconds can cause unrecoverable gill collapse.
The survival of released sport fish has been a subject of sporadic scientific research for more than 30 years. I recently re-read a paper published in North American Journal of Fisheries Management. The paper compared the mortality of Puget Sound sea run cutthroat caught with artificial lures to those caught on bait. The authors concluded that as many as 58% of bait-caught fish died within 72 hours of release. Conversely, the 72-hour mortality of cutthroat caught on artificial lures was 24%.
Other studies have shown that rate of survival is even higher with fly fishing. The vast majority of fly caught fish are hooked in and around the gums. This area is much less susceptible to bleeding and infection. Further, catch and release has been long understood and practiced among fly anglers. Catch and release philosophy is strongly promoted by the International Federation of Fly Fishers ,the International Game Fish Association, and a very broad-based range of fly fishing clubs, businesses, and organizations.
In this time of mass environmental degradation it makes sense that anglers protect stressed fish populations to some large extent. Further, I think it is the moral obligation of natural resource user groups, especially sport anglers, to do their part in protecting fish And the environments that support them.
There are exceptions to the efficacy of catch-and-release. There are healthy stocks of some sport fishes in the Puget Sound basin. I am of the personal opinion that most hatchery generated trout and salmon should be kept up to the legal limit so as to not to interbreed or compete with wild fish. On the other hand, releasing native salmon, steelhead and cutthroat using methods that do the least injury to the fish seems right. The barbless hook rule for saltwater salmon in Puget Sound areas makes release of wild (non-fin clipped) salmon makes release easier.
Many of our stressed wild fish runs need all the protection they can get.