Released Fish: Neither Discards Nor Bycatch

Bluefish

Bluefish photo by John McMurray

Language has power.

Although words seem ephemeral, they have the ability to transform how we perceive every part of our world.

Just consider the words “used car.”

When you first hear them spoken, you might think of some hard-driven clunker sitting on a lot amid dozens of its kind, with a price and some sort of come-on phrase luridly painted across its whole windshield. You might also think about semi-bald tires, sawdust in the transmission, and maybe a fast-talking, ethically challenged salesman or two.

So there aren’t many folks selling “used cars” any more, particularly at the major dealerships. These days, they sell “pre-owned vehicles.” Many are even “certified pre-owned.”

Mercedes might have started that trend, although these days you’ll see pre-owned Fords, Nissans and Hyundais, too. Even though you know, in your head, that they’re all just used cars, down in your gut “pre-owned vehicles” seem somehow superior to that “creampuff” you bought years ago from a guy in a plaid suit who couldn’t stop chewing on cheap cigars.

Words can, is such ways, upgrade the mundane.

They can downgrade the virtuous, too.

If you’re a responsible recreational fisherman, who takes pains to limit your kill and returns most of your fish to the water, you might be surprised to learn that neither the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) nor federal fishery managers explicitly recognize the concept of voluntarily released fish.

Instead, federal fishery management takes a strange and seemingly inconsistent approach to catch-and-release angling.

One of the clearly stated purposes of Magnuson-Stevens, which governs all fishing in federal waters, is “to promote domestic commercial and recreational fishing under sound conservation and management principles, including the promotion of catch and release programs in recreational fishing. [emphasis added]”

The law also defines “bycatch” to include “fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, [including] economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program. [emphasis added]”

Both Magnuson-Stevens’ statement of purpose and its definition of “bycatch” refer to catch and release “programs,” not to the general practice of catch and release. Regulations adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2008 state that “A catch-and-release fishery management program is one in which the retention of a particular species is prohibited. In such a program, those fish released alive would not be considered bycatch.”

So if I was fishing south of Long Island, and I caught and released a sandbar or a dusky shark, neither of which may be legally harvested, that released fish would not be considered “bycatch.” On the other hand, if I released a bluefish that happened to show up in my chum slick on the same day, that bluefish would be considered…

It’s not really clear what.

The bluefish would not have been “harvested.” Since no law or regulation prevented me from keeping the fish had I opted to do so, it wouldn’t be a regulatory discard, and because I released it because I chose to, and not because “of an undesirable size, sex, or quality,” nor for any “other economic reasons,” it wouldn’t be an economic discard, either. Thus, such voluntarily released bluefish doesn’t seem to fit the definition of bycatch.

Yet, under current NMFS regulations, it would probably be classified as bycatch, and/or as some sort of undefined “discard,” with all of the negative connotations those words imply, just because Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t contemplate recreational catch and release fisheries. That creates a problem, because managers are required to “minimize bycatch” pursuant to National Standard 9 of Magnuson-Stevens, and so minimize “discards,” too.

That puts catch-and-release anglers, and catch-and-release fisheries, in a very strange and very undeserved place.

The simple act of releasing a fish, something that conservation-minded anglers have always deemed laudable, has been twisted by the language of fishery management into an act that, at best, has no legal standing and, at worst, managers ought to prevent.

The shared characteristic of regulatory and economic discards is that fishermen don’t want to catch the discarded fish in the first place. For commercial fishermen, discards of any sort just take up valuable time on the water that could be better spent catching something with real market value. For anglers, days spent catching shorts and out-of-season, non-target fish are usually not too much fun.

Fish caught by a catch-and-release angler, who heads out on the intending to let everything go, are something essentially different, and something that Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t even contemplate. Such fish are not “discarded.” They are not returned to the water because of legal restrictions or because they are perceived to have little value.

Instead, such fish are usually caught during the open fishing season, and are frequently big enough to keep. They are released not because they are worthless, but because they are held in such esteem that, in the words of the late angler and author Lee Wulff, they are deemed “too valuable to be caught only once.”

Unfortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t see things the same way that Lee Wulff did.

While a significant portion of the fish released by anglers probably do represent legitimate regulatory discards, having been undersized, over-limit or out-of-season when caught, a significant portion are also legitimate “releases”—fish that could have been retained by an angler who just preferred to set them free.

NMFS’ failure to distinguish between discards of unwanted fish and intentional releases of targeted species needs to be remedied, because it has real and unfortunate policy consequences. Such consequences are clearly illustrated in the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s (MAFMC) Bluefish Fishery Management Plan (Bluefish Plan), which provides that “If the commercial quota was less than 10.6 million lbs, the quota could be increased up to 10.6 million lbs if the recreational fishery was not anticipated to land their allocation for the upcoming year.”

The key word in that provision is “land”; as the management plan is written, the goals of the recreational fishery are deemed to be the same as those of the commercial fishery—harvesting bluefish. No consideration was given to the catch-and-release fishery at all, even though about 65 percent of all recreationally-caught bluefish are returned to the water.

Since bluefish can be strong-tasting, especially if not bled and iced down as soon as they are caught, they are not particularly valued as food. However, they are valued for their fight, and many anglers are completely content to catch and release bluefish all day, without keeping a single fish.

In effect, the Bluefish Plan penalizes anglers for releasing their catch, by reallocating unharvested recreational quota to the commercial sector, instead of leaving such unharvested fish in the water so that anglers could catch them, and probably release them, again.

In 2018, the MAFMC began work on a new Bluefish Allocation Amendment that might have permanently reallocated the unharvested portion of the current recreational quota to the commercial sector, had a new operational stock assessment not found that recreational landings were higher than previously believed, and that the bluefish stock was overfished. Such proposed amendment classified all released fish as mere “discards.”

It is somewhat ironic that if anglers did their best to kill full limits of bluefish every time they went fishing, and then used the unwanted fish for fertilizer or just dumped them at the local landfill, the issue of reallocation would not have come up. But because anglers are returning live fish to the water, to help maintain abundance, provide good fishing in the future, and perhaps bolster the spawning stock, they could see some of their quota transferred to the commercial sector.

That’s a situation in very dire need of change, whether we’re talking about bluefish or any other species.

In a troubled ocean where an increasing human population, warming waters, resource extraction, pollution and a host of other factors place increasing stress on fish populations, catch-and-release angling should be recognized as an effective way to do what Magnuson-Stevens requires—maximizing recreational opportunities, while protecting marine ecosystems.

Federal fisheries managers need to embrace catch and release as a tool that furthers important goals, and stop regarding voluntarily released fish as just another sort of bycatch or discard, to be minimized whenever it is possible to do so.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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