Published on Sunday, August 28th, 2016
Last weekend Vancouver Sun published an article, Doubts over catch-and-release sturgeon fishery in the Lower Fraser River after new study finds fish endure extreme stress, which raises some legitimate concerns on this fishery, but it immediately drew negative attention from those who are not familiar with it as expected.
While post-release mortality in any catch and release fishery should be a concern, most readers of this article are unfamiliar how the Lower Fraser River white sturgeon fishery is practiced. Unlike the methodology used in the study which this article refers to, air exposure is minimized as per the catch and release guidelines developed by resource managers and the recreational fishing community. We don’t hang our fish in the air after a lengthy fight as it was simulated in the study.
The white sturgeon catch and release guidelines prohibit anglers from removing fish out of the water when they are captured. Any fish over the length of 5′ must cannot be lifted up in the air due to insufficient weight support. Fish under the length of 5′ are kept in cradles that are constantly fed with water while the fish are being measured. Catch and release has its risks and there’s no doubt that some mortalities occur, but with proper practice anglers can prevent this from happening.
Higher water temperature in the summer should indeed be a concern. Coupling high water temperature with a long fight, a fish’s survival rate can be lowered. Managers should look at these factors and adjust the regulations, rather than proposing a permanent ban as many non-fishermen would like to see.
Although the fight of a large sturgeon can sometimes be over one hour long, one should not assume that the fish’s health is jeopardized. Anyone who has fought a large sturgeon knows that most of the fight actually involves the fish swimming around without even being aware of the hook while the angler can only sit back and hold onto the rod. It is unrealistic to expect an angler to be reeling and putting pressure on a fish for over one hour straight. Physically it is impossible for most people.
Despite of these potential negative impacts, lets look at the benefits which this fishery has brought to the Lower Fraser River white sturgeon population and the Fraser Valley communities.
Since this sturgeon fishery was transformed into catching and releasing, and harvesting was banned in 1995, an ongoing tag and recapture program was also established. Fishing guides have volunteered to be part of this program since the beginning, and have tagged over 50,000 fish in the past twenty years. From the data collected (length and girth measurements, locations of their capture/recapture), it has accelerated our understanding on these fish. We’ve been able to estimate the Lower Fraser white sturgeon population size and its growth, the health of each year class so recruitment rate can be determined, their migratory patterns from capture/recapture points, and locations of their spawning grounds.
In addition, this recreational fishery has generated millions of dollars from freshwater fishing licences and conservation surcharges. A percentage of these funds have been used in recovery programs for the other endangered white sturgeon populations in this province (Columbia, Kootenay, etc) which are actually endangered. This catch and release does not just benefit the Lower Fraser white sturgeon population, but its positive impacts stretch right across the province.
While some may think catch and release is a cruel practice and those who participate in it cannot persuade those who don’t agree with it, I think we can all agree that this fishery’s benefits have outweighed the presumed negative impacts. As more conclusive information on post-release mortality is formed by researchers, the fishery can then be refined to further minimize our impacts.