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Scientists Say Recreational Fishing Regulations Too Lax

Biologists and decisionmakers worldwide must start paying as much attention to recreational fishing’s impacts on fisheries as they do commercial fishing’s toll.


So says a recent opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article – a collaboration of 12 scientists from Europe, Canada, United States – says the world needs to better manage recreational anglers to protect inland and near-shore fish populations, and to preserve recreational fishing itself.


One of the scientists is Steve Carpenter, director emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology. Carpenter said fish-management efforts the past 50 years have focused sophisticated science for commercial fisheries, but not on recreational fisheries.

The report notes that roughly one person in 10 fishes recreationally in developed countries. That means 220 million people fish for fun worldwide, or five times more than those fishing commercially. Still, recreational anglers typically use only one to three lines for a few hours at a time. They can’t compete with big ships setting nets and hauling up tons of flopping fish until they fill their hold.


But as the scientists wrote, the world’s recreational haul adds up and can’t be dismissed.


“Modern anglers and (those using spears or gill nets) are well equipped, efficient at finding and catching fish, and mobile—linking regional and international ecosystems through tourism,” they wrote. “Collectively, recreational anglers take a substantial fraction of fish from local fisheries, as well as from coastal areas traditionally dominated by commercial landings, thereby reducting fish abundance and size to levels considered collapsed in some localities.


“Recreational anglers can also alter food webs through the selective harvest of predators, cause fishery-induced evolution, and contribute to habitat and wildlife disturbances. And they may facilitate the spread of nonnative organisms through stocking, introductions, bait release, and vessel movements among ecosystems. These impacts augment other pervasive ecosystem pressures, such as habitat loss and climate change that threaten aquatic ecosystems, affect biodiversity, and reduce productivity.


“Social, political, and ethical conflicts within the angler community and among recreational and commercial fishermen and other stakeholders are increasingly common. For all these reasons, policymakers and managers worldwide must pay more attention to the often-ignored recreational fisheries sector.”


 OK. Fair warning. But let’s concede it’s hard to imagine hook-and-line anglers causing fisheries around the world to collapse. We’re not hearing apocalyptic talk in Wisconsin. Yes, biologists confirm some lakes have rising numbers of large-mouth bass and declining numbers of walleyes, but the causes seem linked to warmer, drier weather in recent years, which favor bass reproduction.


A recent UW-Madison news release notes walleyes do best in cool-water environments, but warming lakes in northern Wisconsin are causing stressed, less-healthy fish. Warming also favors species like bass and sunfish, which can compound walleye stress by eating their young and competing with them for food.


Further, as drought conditions occur more often and persist longer, lakes grow clearer as less organic matter flows into them. Walleyes are adapted to feed in dark water, and their young can hide better there to elude predators.

At this point, no scientists claim hook-and-line anglers are driving Wisconsin’s fisheries to the brink, even though roughly one in five Wisconsinites fishes. Yes, we fish at twice the participation rate of most developed countries.

In addition, unlike Wisconsin’s steadily declining deer-license sales, the state’s sale of fishing licenses has been stable the past 20 years. For instance, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual reports, Wisconsin’s individual anglers ranged from 1.36 million to 1.43 million in number since 2008, including 1.41 million in 2018 and an estimated 1.37 million this year. But could recreational fishing cause problems not yet worrisome? It’s fair to note that regulatory agencies can more easily track commercial fishing operations because they have home ports and they aren’t as numerous. So, as long as regulators and the regulated work together, they’ll enjoy a sustainable marine fishery.

Carpenter and his colleagues say our diverse, scattered recreational fisheries can’t easily be managed in response to warming lakes, fluctuating water levels, and other outside impacts on rivers, lakes and coastlines. Yes, we can adjust bag limits and slot-size limits lake by lake, but those changes usually take years.


Carpenter notes walleyes began struggling after longer, drier weather systems settled in 25 years ago, but management practices didn’t adapt. Walleye populations plunged in many waters traditionally considered “walleye lakes.”

The 12 researchers call for five changes that would start addressing gaps in recreational fishery science, management and policy. The first four proposed, however, are already part of Wisconsin’s fishing scene. For instance:


-- We already know recreational fishing is a multi-faceted leisure experience, and fish aren’t a primary food source for large segments of society.


-- We already offer endless ways for anglers to get organized and stay involved in the fish-management process.


-- We already offer anglers diverse fisheries. We have 15,000 lakes of infinite sizes, depths and ecosystems, and diverse fishing opportunities. In fact, regulations constantly change to accommodate those variables.


-- Wisconsinites already value their individual fisheries, and accept changes to protect them. A month ago they supported a reduction in the walleye bag limit from five fish to three for the state’s largest waterway, the four-lake Winnebago system.

Wisconsin, however, probably can’t accommodate the scientists’ fifth proposed change, nor could most states with many lakes. It’s tough to assess the health of recreational fisheries in each of our 15,000-lake ecosystems.


Or maybe that technology will soon be within reach. Carpenter said fish managers could use a carcass-tagging system to control the harvest of struggling fish species of fish. “If you hunt deer, your deer tag is a number on your smartphone,” he said. “You turn on your smartphone, go to the app ... register your deer. We could do the same thing with walleyes.”


Sound far-fetched? Stranger things have happened in Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife history. Just 50 years ago, we had no turkeys and eating muskies wasn't a taboo.

Just remember: Steve Carpenter suggested it first.

Some scientists think lawmakers and biologists must start monitoring the impacts of recreational fishing as closely as they do commercial fishing. (Patrick Durkin photo)


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