The Black and White of Recreational Fishing: Because There are Two Sides to Every Story

Looking a striped bass in the mouth

Let me be clear about something. I kill fish…I eat fish. Not only that, I make a living taking other folks out to do the same…or at the very least, we stick hooks in fish, yank them out of the water, and then put them back…mostly to ensure that we have the opportunity to do it again in subsequent years.

That doesn’t exactly make me a “tree-hugger” or “ecoterrorist” does it? But, if you’re an advocate of a reasonable, precautionary approach to fisheries management, it’s not unusual to get publicly labeled as such.

Of course, there’s a fundamental/intrinsic value to fish, the ecosystems they exist in, and the environments in which they thrive. And there’s something uniquely powerful about witnessing some of the stuff that happens at sea (or simply in the back-bays) that has little to do with catching fish. But really, if you are a sportsman, the whole idea of conservation is that it can benefit you by providing you, and future generations, with more opportunities to harass wild fish. Sure, you can try and paint that in some admirable way…but come on, man, with the exception of maybe keeping a few in the water for the next generation, there’s no philanthropic agenda here.

Still, it does seem that for most anglers/guides/charter boat operators, the opportunity to catch fish is WAY more important than how many we can put in the box. And so, I’ve always been a conservation advocate (i.e., supporting management that keeps a good number of fish in the water for us to access).

Make no mistake though, there are plenty of folks who place a higher value on how many they can take home. And there are certainly some in that group that call guys like me hypocrites for actually killing fish, while at the same time promoting conservation policies – even though the two clearly go together, in my view anyway. Recently, that sort of accusation comes from the other side of the fence too… I mean the folks that might release everything.

The point that I’m trying to make here, is that with fishing, and particularly those who do it, things are never really black and white, although folks certainly try and make them that way.

And it’s become increasingly true that anglers/angler interest groups tend to only see things one way…their way.

Yet, when you really begin to understand the fisheries management process, you start to realize that in many cases, there really is no clear high ground. Only different perspectives. And it’s up to managers to take those perspectives into account and make good decisions. Which is WAY easier said than done.

Dynamics of the Recreational Fishing Community

Moving all the way over to one side of the fence, there are plenty of “purists” in the angling community who practice only catch-and-release, and don’t intentionally kill ANY fish.

And I get that…because the extraordinary feeling you get from that tug is certainly the most important part of fishing…and releasing a fish and watching it swim away carries with it a unique sense of satisfaction that’s not terribly easy to describe. While I certainly can’t speak for everyone, killing/taking home a fish is secondary to all of that. Thus, not killing fish, so as to not deplete stocks, is of course admirable. But…that DOESN’T mean that it’s not impactful.

Discard mortality (those fish that don’t survive being caught and released) is significant in most recreational fisheries…and VERY significant in some (e.g., dead discards are around 50% of all mortality in the striped bass fishery). Yes, of course, the mortality rate for putting fish in the cooler is 100% rather than something like a 10% discard mortality rate (or right around there in most fisheries), but that still doesn’t mean the catch and release folks aren’t significant contributors to fishing mortality.

The truth is that, no matter how you frame things, fishing, even catch-and-release fishing, is a blood sport, and whether intentionally or not, we ALL kill things…as a group, sometimes A LOT of things, simply because there are generally more and more anglers releasing more and more fish.

And then, there are folks on the other side of the fence that generally do want to take fish home. For them, that’s an important part of the experience. And some will even stop fishing after they catch the legal limit, whereas the catch and release folks are likely to just keep going. Such folks may even argue that their impact on the resource isn’t any worse than the “purists,” and in some fisheries they aren’t far from the truth.

To be clear, I’m definitely not bashing the catch-and-release fishery, because for one, I’m part of that let’em-go culture. And let’s be real, it’s sure as hell more sustainable than the fillet-and-release one. But still, there are folks that continue to insist that the problems in a fishery are always the other guy’s fault (e.g., the commercial fleet, charter/party boats, etc.), maybe suggest shutting those fisheries out, while taking little if any responsibility for their contributions to a fishery’s problems.

And then, on the other side of the spectrum, there seem to be plenty of folks who feel like science-based, precautionary fisheries management isn’t necessary, and that their on-the-water observations of a “healthy stock” should be the Holy Grail upon which managers should base decisions. Because fisherman never lie, and anecdotal observations from geographically specific areas should somehow trump real science. I mean sure, the data used by managers is far from perfect, but it’s not completely bogus either, as some folks make it out to be. In case it isn’t clear, while I do understand that perspective and why people have it, well, it’s flat out wrong…for obvious reasons. That said, we can’t discount what are often clear signs of abundance, particularly when they aren’t 100% geographically isolated and specifically when the science indicates an increase in abundance too. Yet some folks certainly seem to do that, simply because they didn’t have an exceptionally good fishing year.

But let’s move on.


Indeed, people subscribe to different camps, trains of though, etc., and stick to them, often despite what the science says on one side, and/or what folks are seeing out on the water on the other. That’s been going on for as long as I can remember. And really, it seems to have gotten worse.

I’m not going get into why, because it’s not really relevant to this piece, but I will say that social media has pushed a lot of us deeper into our own camps, and has allowed us to surround ourselves with only those people who share our narrow world view, while avoiding engagement with those who might challenge it. The issue with that is we often fail to understand the “other” side of the story, or even admit that there is one.

Furthermore, there are a lot of folks who don’t understand why fishery managers make the decisions they do. Because most (if not all) fisheries management issues are incredibly nuanced, and the choices managers have to make are almost NEVER simple or easy. And managers are often perceived as horrible, irresponsible, stupid people, when the truth is that, while yes, some do appear to lean one way or the other, most of them are well-educated public-servants trying desperately to find middle ground while ensuring stocks are healthy and fishing mortality is sustainable.

And it’s true that most anglers don’t really understand the science, the process and everything else that contributes to those decisions, nor do they understand that there are other, reasonable points of view. And so, they greatly simplify what are often very complicated issues, and take black and white positions.

They perceive that those positions are the “right” ones because they serve their needs and their needs alone. Yet, we have to acknowledge that marine fish are a PUBLIC resource, and that while folks may think their way is the right way – for them, for the resource – they also need to understand that other stakeholders may have different wants/needs.

What managers are required to do is take into account all stakeholder perspectives when making decisions. In the end, managers need to be equitable, and more importantly make decisions that result in sustainability (i.e., prevent overfishing and rebuild or maintain a stock at healthy levels). And while I hate to even say it, that may mean effectively addressing the dead discards that come from the catch-and-release crowd.

Where We Are Now

Here’s where the recreational fishing community seems to be now though. You have the far-left folks pushing extreme measures, which could unnecessarily exclude some stakeholder groups from the fishery, and maybe even shut down access, even for the catch-and-release folks… And while I’m generalizing here, some don’t seem to fully acknowledge the impact that even the conservation-minded anglers have on the resource. Then, you have your far right pushing for a liberalization in measures, simply because THEY see a lot of fish around. And neither seems to really understand what the hell is going on.

And the reasonable folks in the middle, who understand how things work on the management front, and why they work the way they do, who advocate for reasonable precautionary management while allowing for some access? Those folks often get categorized in one of the two camps – you’re either a tree-hugger or you’re a fish-killer – or they simply get drowned out by all the noise. And that sucks.

How do we fix that? I honestly don’t know. But we could all start by understanding that we’re not the only stakeholder. And we sure as hell have an impact on fish stocks. And that what’s truly important in all of this is long term sustainability of the fishery, and those who participate in it.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

1 comments on “The Black and White of Recreational Fishing: Because There are Two Sides to Every Story

  1. Very informative! Did not realize the mortality rate of released fish. I have been crushing the barbs on hooks and cutting hooks off of treble hooks. If I see the bass is small I do not beach it, just give slack line without a barb fish shakes off quickly. When I see the fish will not make it, dinner, and I do love eating fresh fish. Often thought of casting a lure without a hook. Perhaps a new way of fishing needs to be taught.

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