The Ethics of Catch and Release

A few weeks ago, the New York Times hosted an online debate on the practice of catch and release.  You can see the article here. At the risk of devolving into abstruse logorrhea--I am an academic after all--there have been several thoughts percolating in my mind about this subject.   First, is my personal history with fishing.  The first time I remember going fishing was when I went on a backpacking trip with my father in the third grade to the Uinta Mountains in Utah.  I carried my small school backpack filled with micro-machines, a sleeping bag, and a spin-fishing outfit.  Looking back at it, Dad must have carried a lot of my stuff.  We went to a small mountain lake where we had a field day catching starved cutthroat trout.   My Dad and his friends kept the fish and we had one of the best meals that I can remember to this day.  

For a long time, this initial trip informed my view towards catch and release.  When fishing just for a day, one should always catch and release trout, because, well, my fishing betters told me it was the right thing to do.  Even now, when I kill a fish, I can see Larry Barriger (a family friend and expert fly fisherman) shaking his head.   I remember being told that the practice allowed for bigger fish (better fishing) and a healthier population.  But when backpacking, when you were "catching your dinner," "cook'em' and eat'em"  was perfectly acceptable. 

After reading Mark Anders Halverson's An Entirely Synthetic Fish and edging towards the lunatic fringe of fly-fishing, I have taken a different view.  First, especially when fishing for the average "stocked," non-holdover, trout, fisherman need to be aware of how manufactured their experience is.  Rainbow trout have been bred for "fighting ability" and willingness to take a fly (or bait), then subsequently released into nearly every ecosystem in North America.  Once in the rivers, the fish are generally sterile and dumb, but nontheless destructive to other piscatorial species in the stream.  In the mountain-West, they have been particularly harsh on the native cutthroats that I first caught as a kid.  Without a lengthy deluge into the nature of the "authentic experience," suffice to say that fishing for twelve-inch (the standard size) stocker rainbows just does not appeal to me any more.  I also am dismayed by the private "trout waters" cropping up in the East and parts of the West, where people buy 25-inch hatchery fish and then charge people 250+ dollars for the opportunity to catch a "trophy" sized trout.  So, in terms of stocked trout, I do not think there is a justifiable need for "catch and release," unless a manager or owner is trying to establish a "wild" trout population, described below.  In fact, in many cases, taking the non-native fish is actually healthier for the existing ecosystem. 

Wild trout--as distinguished from native, wild trout--are another matter, one that is more difficult to deal with.  Wild trout are the descendants of fish stocked long ago, in some cases, as many as 100 years ago.  Wild trout are generally healthy, self-reproducing, and discriminating fish in tune with the insects in their environment.  In places that depend on big fish for tourism and that do not have a native trout population, such as the Green River, I think that wild trout should be released.  In areas where wild trout compete with natives, such as in Yellowstone National Park, I think the natives should be preserved. 

In terms of the "ethics" of catch-and-release, i.e. whether catch-and-release fishermen are morally suspect because they are causing pain to animals in exchange for pleasure, I come down firmly on the side that catch-and-release trout fishing is a defensible enterprise.  First, it is an open question whether trout "feel" pain.  There are obviously some animals that do feel and express pain, such as my dog Greeley, and animals that do not, such as bivalves and oysters.  Trout probably fall somewhere in-between, but I feel it is more on the oyster side rather than the dog side.  Second, I feel people critical of "catch and release" fishing are focusing too much on the individual fish rather than the species as a whole.  In countries like Switzerland and Germany, where catch-and-release has been banned, populations of certain species like brown trout may fall with few larger individuals appearing.  It seems that regardless of the effect on the individual fish, it is healthier for the population as a whole if anglers practice catch and release.


Nat said...


Nice to see you blogging again. I agree, fish in the back country for dinner wonderful. Fishing in accessible catch and release streams with lots of other fly fishermen, release is the only way to go. And, native trout should be the highest priority, stocked fish from non-reproducing populations are meant to be eaten. Unfortunately, don't taste as good as the wild ones!

Anonymous said...

Fishing is a form of hunting and therefor catch and release, in my opinion, is not an authentic practice. Any type of fishing causes pain to fish and may inadvertently cause their death or injury. If you keep and eat fish (providing they are big enough) you are contributing to your own survival and it is therefor a more real way of fishing and also a deeper experience.