5 Ethical Fishing Quandaries

What would you do if you were faced with these difficult ethical fishing decisions?

As an angler, you may or may not have encountered these situations, but it's pertinent to try and understand why they continue to be a hot item of discussion, and think about how you would respond.

Fishermen have asked these questions for years, so at this point it's just about finding some common ground.

When we go fishing with our friends and family, it's meant to be fun and enjoyable, not stressful or risky. We certainly get influenced by the drive to catch bigger fish, and more of them, but it's the decisions you face when ethics are on the line that can define you as an angler.

Let's face the real truth here: If you can't look yourself in the mirror and confidently say you're acting ethically and following all the regulations, then you're doing it wrong and should probably stop. Or at least change your ways.

You may not agree with certain rules, or you may not even know about them. Heck, you may assume that since there's no one around to witness your lapse of judgement, then there can't be that big of an impact. But don't kid yourself. That's false.

At one time or another in our fishing lives we will eventually be faced with one of these fishing quandaries, and hopefully we all can make the right, ethical decisions when we are.

1. Your Fish Swallows the Hook

There are many schools of thought about what happens when you have hooked a fish so deeply in its throat that removing it will most certainly kill it. For saltwater anglers it is almost a non-issue since the saltwater can and will corrode a hook in no time. Although there is much debate on this, the short answer is that there is a better chance of the fish losing or shaking off the hook before it ever dissolves.

The unfortunate part is that older hooks were made from materials less likely to survive for much time in any water, where today's hooks are made from much more durable substances and are specially coated to wear slowly. It seems that in many cases, the angler's only recourse is to cut the line as close to the offending hook as possible.

As we have seen, there are some good methods of getting a well embedded hook out of a fish's throat that may save it or at least give it a fighting chance to live. If you've fished long enough, you know quite well what ripping the hook from deep inside of a fish's throat means: its death.

This is because of the increased risk of damage to vital organs and the threat of bleeding, but there is an alternative. The video above shows the technique.

Start by opening up the last gill flap on the fish to give yourself the best access point to the hook itself. Using a closed pair of needle nose pliers, enter under the gill plate and grab the shank of the hook, twisting it gently to aim the eye of the hook back towards the gut of the fish to give it the chance to come free.

In my lifetime, I've caught fish that already had hooks in their mouths, even in their throats, and they're still eating and living. I've also found dead fish floating on the water (particularly northern pike) that had a lure stuck in their mouth.

While there's no way of telling if that's what killed it, it still seems obvious that it had something to do with it.

So, what's the ethical approach here? Ultimately, it involves knowing when to attempt a hook extraction and when it isn't worth the risk. And it also involves knowing the right method when you do decide to take action. Doing everything in your power to keep a fish alive when you don't intend on keeping it is paramount.

2. Barbed vs. Barbless Hooks

ethical fishing

Craig Raleigh

This can be a moot point since in many areas, especially public fishing areas, because the law simply states that no barbed hooks may be used. The fact remains that no one wants to lose a fish, which is certainly why the barbed hook was invented.

In areas where the fishery is an old ecosystem and the aquaculture is renowned, fish stocks need a more viable and appropriate way to please both the fishermen and the fisheries management teams that watch over them. It's a simple procedure for our fishing methods and our esteemed fishing industry to come together to ensure that future generations have access to the same quality sustainable fisheries that we had.

And barbless hooks go a long way towards doing that.

Still, many manufacturers such as Gamakatsu now make many barbless versions of their famous hooks—even treble hooks—to comply with barbless hook regulations everywhere. It seems as though just as many anglers the world over are starting to come around to this modern version of ancient history's most well known fish-catching tool.

If you're heading to a fishery where barbed hooks aren't allowed, can you guess what the ethical decision would be? Make sure you have barbless hooks in your fishing gear collection.

3. Year Round Fishing 

Winter Trout Fishing

Do fish actually need a break from fishermen? In many states across the country, seasons close on certain species for a portion of the year, and then they reopen again. Because we respect and listen to the same scientific community that spends their lives monitoring the wildlife in our world, we expect that their opinions (based in science) make the most sense.

More and more, state wildlife departments are leaning toward keeping angling seasons open on many game fish species in the effort to keep as many varieties of fish as possible a legal catch for anglers everywhere, especially once the water freezes.

Every state, it seems, has an open season that fishermen look forward to, but what if we didn't have seasons anymore?

Fishing seasons often protect fish during their spawning season and limit the catch to prevent overfishing certain waters. Most laws and regulations are meant to protect these natural resources so that fish populations remain healthy and viable.

The bottom line is, if you think it's okay to fish for a species that's out of season, then you should reconsider before doing something unethical.

4. Fishing During the Spawn

Few topics get anglers as vexed as fishing during the spawn. Those against fishing during the spawn contend that it disrupts the breeding cycle in a way that cannot be refuted, resulting in fewer fish in the future.

Still, one study suggests that, particularly bass fishing during the spawn, does not effect the breeding cycle and therefore does not harm bass populations as a whole. 

This all makes for a very contentious situation between anglers that are adamantly opposed to fishing during the spawn (any spawn) and those who feel there is no issue with it, and that it can produce some of the best fishing of the year.

Sure, it's not the same thing, but it needs to be said that we sure do well hunting wild turkeys during the spring breeding season, or whitetails during the rut, without affecting their populations.

In the case of trout, it can be a much more precarious situation. Native fish can be targeted in areas where natural reproduction not only occurs, but it is a major part of the overall ecosystem.

It's important to remember that one angler's perceived violation is another's idea of a guilt-free reward for his or her hard work. The idea of locating and targeting a fish directly from its spawning bed (or redd, in the case of trout and salmon) is anathema to some considering that the fish are so easily found.

The argument goes on, and it's difficult to determine what the ethical thing to do is. If you're strictly catch and release fishing, you're in the clear in our books. If you're keeping fish you knowingly catch from a bed, then you're deliberately hampering a portion of the fish's next generation. That's a move that's tougher to convince of its merit.

5. Catch and Release

Thanks to folks like Ray Scott, the phrase catch and release is now a household term for fishermen everywhere. Not only that, but due to influence from tournament angling, and venerable pro anglers and personalities like Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston, and Bill Dance, we are now more likely than ever to release fish, even trophy-size monsters, rather than keep them.

Fish stocks of many species have benefitted from this valued method of sustainable fishing. It's meaningful to put healthy and active fish back into the water to live and fight again, and that's all thanks to a conservation-based mindset. So, is there any good argument against it?

Of course there is. The bottom line is that many folks, myself included, love to eat fresh fish. It's one of the best parts of the pastime.  

Since most states have fishing regulations that allow fishermen to keep a certain amount of fish within certain size restrictions during the open season, then staunch defenders of catch and release fishing don't have a strong enough argument against the sustainability of the regulations.

The biggest ethical quandary involved here is what you do with the fish that you don't release. If your intentions include preparing and eating wild-caught fish without being wasteful, or putting the fish's carcass to some sort of use, you should be able to call yourself ethical. 

Concluding Thoughts

At any time during a fishing experience, there can be a certain bycatch. Even the most ardent, rule-following fishermen can set a hook into an unintended fish.

That's not so much an issue as intentional rule breaking is, and that's what's at the heart of these questions.

If we set out with the best intentions, and educate ourselves in the matters of the rod and reel, then we're setting ourselves up to be as ethical as possible. That's the point to get across, and the takeaway to leave with.

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