In partnership with The Sportfishing Conservancy, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries
Location: Hilton Garden Inn, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Date: Wednesday, June 12
This Best Practices Workshop — third in a continuing series —was a joint effort of The Sportfishing Conservancy, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and representatives of the Northeast Region, NOAA Fisheries. Its goal was to bring together scientists, fisheries managers, recreational anglers, charter captains and fishing tackle retailers, to engage in an exchange information on tools, techniques and strategies for improving the survival rate of recreationally caught fish. This was the first of these events to adapt a shortened, 2-1/2 hour evening format that encouraged participation by those working daytime jobs in the fishing industry and elsewhere.
Statistics show that nationwide, recreational fishermen now release more fish than they keep — meaning that even a small improvement in fish survival rates can have a great impact on the resource. In addition to the potential for improved recreational fish survival, these workshops are also important to promote the concept that fishermen, scientists and fisheries managers can work together to improve conservation and enhance recreational opportunities.
The Stellwagen Bank Best Practices Workshop was moderated by Tom Raftican of The Sportfishing Conservancy with the assistance of Paul Perra, coordinator, recreational fishing program, Northeast Region, NOAA Fisheries, and Craig MacDonald, superintendent, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Following introductory comments and an overview of the goals for the evening, a short video presentation was shown featuring Dr. Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology at California State University, Long Beach. This video (filmed at an earlier workshop) shared the results of Dr. Lowe’s studies on barotrauma and its effects on recreationally caught rockfish off Southern California. Dr. Lowe observed that, while fish caught in deep waters exhibited physiological changes when brought to the surface by recreational anglers — bloated body cavities, distended stomachs and eyes “crystallized” and protruding from their sockets — that even these severe effects would quickly reverse when fish were rapidly returned to their natural depths. Through catching deepwater rockfish, outfitting them with satellite transmitters and tracking and observing them over time, Dr. Lowe was able to show that these fish can not only survive, but return to normal behavior. Special laboratory studies were also performed that indicated that a fish’s eyesight returns to normal, even after the eyes are extended and the optic nerve stretched. The highlight of this taped presentation was video footage showing an actual fish being lowered in a special release cage outfitted with cameras, showing the effects of barotrauma reversing and a fish – once appearing dead – swimming away. Following the taped presentation, tools and methods for returning bottom fish to their natural depths were discussed.
This landmark research proves that catch and release techniques can work for deep-water species. Even though these studies were specific to Southern California rockfish, the lessons learned indicate that these same techniques for getting fish back down quickly may work equally well on other species around the country.
Craig MacDonald of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary presented information on the importance of reducing encounters between recreational anglers and the whales that frequent the region. Because offshore sport fishermen and whales often “hunt” the same areas of Stellwagen Bank in close proximity, there is concern about these interactions, from collisions with boats to accidental entanglement of whales in fishing lines and lures.
To help fishermen better understand the actions and behaviors of these whales (so they can do a better job of avoiding interactions) a video was presented detailing a study of these whales using radio tracking and cameras. This study showed new and interesting feeding behaviors and travel patterns, and the understanding gained from this new information can help anglers do a better job of avoiding encounters that can be dangerous to both parties.
Following this presentation, Tom Raftican of The Sportfishing Conservancy took attendees through a variety of tools for safely handling, unhooking and returning fish to depth — ranging from high-tech to homemade — and explained their use.
Those in attendance at the Stellwagen Bank Best Practices Workshop represented a cross section of recreational anglers, charter skippers, fisheries scientists, resource managers and conservationists. Following presentations, attendees were divided into two groups to discuss what they had learned and share ideas about best fishing practices for their region and their fish species.
This group discussed the idea of reducing the number of hooks on popular plugs used for striped bass and bluefish, suggesting from one angler’s experiences that plugs modified this way will not only make it easier to unhook fish, they actually fish better. Another angler reported success in both catching and releasing fish easier by using circle hooks on his surface plugs.
Also covered was the need for species and/or regionally specific fish-handling recommendations, i.e. for “toothy critters” such as bluefish. The idea was discussed that a wet shammy cloth to control fish removes less of the beneficial slime coat than touching fish with wet hands. For surf fishermen (a popular technique in this area), don’t lay fish in the sand, which causes slime removal and skin abrasion.
Also expressed was the need for outreach materials to educate anglers on ways to handle and release fish. The suggestion was given to develop different materials for novice and experienced anglers. Another suggested two levels of outreach: general information (no sand, keep fish off the deck, handle fish horizontally and support their bodies, etc.) directed towards “weekend warriors,” and species-specific information directed at pros and captains.
This group also discussed the importance of using appropriate tackle for the target species, as well as tackle that minimizes bycatch. The trend towards catching larger and larger fish on lighter and lighter tackle is problematic, as it leads to extended battles and exhausted fish. A professional angler remarked that a little bit of added drag pressure could make a big difference in landing a fish quickly. It was noted that the longer you fight a fish, the more time must be spent reviving it.
Members of the group also voiced concerns over predation issues, i.e. sharks (or seals) taking released fish, particularly if using deep-release devices such as weighted baskets (more research needed on this).
If new regulations are made, they need to make sense for a particular species. For example, the idea was proposed that large tuna, if they can’t be unhooked at boatside, should be brought on-deck through a transom “tuna door” for hook removal and release. It was shared that West Coast long-range sportfishing boats have successfully used boatside slings to tag and take samples from yellowfin tuna up to 300 pounds.
Much attention was given to the use of circle hooks. While they work well at hooking fish in the mouth (especially for novice anglers) the primary issue is that “circle hook” is a loosely defined term. There is no standardization of size, and many types of hooks call themselves circle hooks. Non-offset circle hooks (some manufacturers call these “tournament approved) are best for conservation. Outreach materials (such as a card you can keep on the boat) could recommend circle hook sizes for each target fish species. Need charter operators (opinion leaders) to buy in.
Although they are not seen as much as in previous years, the use of stainless steel hooks for bait fishing should be discouraged.
The presentation on barotrauma spurred conversation on whether these same deep-release tactics could work on Stellwagen Bank. Species such as cod, Pollock and cusk (a species seen as threatened) could benefit if practical ways to release them could be devised. More specific research is needed in this area. Again, the question of predation by seals and sharks was raised; no sense in re-pressurizing bottom fish if you’re just feeding the sharks. The challenges of re-compressing and releasing bottom fish on a charter boat — where there may be many fish coming over the rail at once — were brought up. For a technique and/or equipment to work, it has to be practical in this environment.
Discussions also focused on the 7-year cycle of sand lance (a key prey item for striped bass) and concentrated numbers of striped bass. When feeding on sand lance, stripers exhibit scuff marks on their chins. Whale abundance is another indicator of sand lance concentrations. Understanding this data could assist in striped bass management and charter fishery planning.
The idea was proposed that the annual Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers (RISA) show would be a good way to reach charter and party boat captains, who have the capacity to influence many recreational anglers.
The cultural phenomenon of popular TV shows like “Wicked Tuna” is bringing more people on the water – many of them inexperienced.
Several specific recommendations were covered, based on these participants’ local expertise: If possible, don’t take any fish on deck that you intend to release. Handle them as little as possible, and never with dry hands. Use hook removal devices. If you must handle a fish, use a wet towel or moist hands, and support the fish at the head and the belly (horizontally). Revive the fish alongside the boat until he’s ready to swim; this will reduce predation. Use circle hooks for most fishing application (except for sharks). Use rust-prone carbon steel hooks for sharks (since these are usually left in due to the danger of de-hooking). It was also recommended that stainless steel hooks never be used.
The need for using appropriate tackle for the species was discussed. It’s best to get the fish in as quickly as possible. The need for more training for novice anglers was stressed.
Based on the interest level of participants and the fact that many stayed on after the end to ask further questions and examine some of the “tools of the trade,” the Stellwagen Bank Best Practices Workshop can be deemed a success. Many of the participants were overheard making statements that they learned something new, and that it gave them a lot to think about. Not surprisingly, an event such as this often raises many new questions as participants think of ways to take the core conservation lessons and adapt/apply them to their area of recreational fishing expertise. This is how progress begins. One theme was recurrent in both groups — the need for further educational/outreach materials and venues to share information such as this. All the anglers in attendance exhibited a genuine interest in improving conservation of the resource, so that they may continue to enjoy sport fishing with future generations.
Tom Raftican (right), discusses some of the tools anglers can use to increase the survival rate of sport-caught fish.
A fisherman shares an idea during the group discussions.