Catch and release fishing is becoming more popular these days for fish species where stocks are limited.
Catch and release helps protect stocks of slow growing fish that are prized by anglers.
But do fish really survive after being release?
The answer is yes – most fish do survive after being released.
According to a comprehensive analysis of academic studies on catch and release fishing, more than 80% of released fish survive.
Catch and Release Mortality Rates: How many fish released survive?
This 2005 study called a review of Catch and Release Angling Mortality with Implications for No Take Reserves looked at more than 270 studies into this topic and found that the average mortality rate among the studies was 18% and the median mortality rate 11%.
That means between 82 and 89% of caught fish that are released survive.
The study found increased uptake of catch and release fishing and since 2005 there has been a big emphasis on proper handling of fish to be released, so it may well be that mortality rates among released fish have lowered significantly since then.
The study pinpointed some of the factors that make a fish destined for release less likely to survive. These were:
- hook location – fish hooked in the gills, brain or eyes were more likely to die)
- natural bait vs lures – using bait resulted in fish being hooked more deeply and less likely to survive
- removing hooks from deeply hooked fish – cutting the line was found to be better for mortality than trying to remove hooks from deep in the fish’s stomach
- J hooks vs circle hooks – circle hooks were found to be better from a mortality perspective as the fish are usually hooked only through the mouth
- depth of capture – the deeper the fish is caught the less likely it is to survive release thanks in part to pressure effects on the the swim bladder
- warm water temperatures – were associated with lower dissolved oxygen content and higher mortality
- extended playing and handling times – the faster fish were released and the less they were handled the more likely they were to survive
How to Maximise the Chances of Released Fish Surviving
To be honest the study aligns with all our instincts as fishermen and women. And with the right care and education we can get to a situation where nearly all fish released survive. Here are our tips on maximizing the survival rate of the fish you catch.
- Speed to Release Caught Fish
Be as quick as you can to release an fish that you aren’t keeping. This means using sufficient line weight to land the fish quickly, getting the hook out quickly and not delaying if you are taking a photo.
- Keep any fish caught wet
You can increase the chances of a fish caught surviving by keeping it in the water the whole time you are removing the hook. Using a net helps to keep the fish immersed. Proper handling of fish includes supporting their stomach when you do pick them up if you have to remove them from the water for a picture.
- Barbless Hooks
Using barbless hooks helps with getting the hook out quickly and returning the fish to the water without delay.
- Avoid contact with your hands
This didn’t come out so much in the studies, but avoiding contact with the fish with your hands is also a factor in reducing mortality. Your hands can strip the protective slime from the fish and the heat differential between your hands and the fish can cause it discomfort.
- Fish with Lures or Flies Rather than Bait
The other thing you can do to reduce mortality for catch and release fishing is to avoid using bait. Fish caught with bait tend to ingest the hook more deeply and have significantly poorer chances of survival.
Debate over Catch and Release Fishing
The study we referenced earlier showed a big increase in the percentage of anglers fishing catch and release. In 1981, just 35% of fish caught were released, but by 2001 that was 60%.
Catch and release has enjoyed soaring popularity in the US and is well and truly accepted practice in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a range of other fishing nations.
But in Switzerland and Germany, catch and release fishing is actually considered inhumane under the law and is banned!
When Should You Fish Catch and Release?
This is an individual decision, but for me, I will fish catch and release in the following circumstances:
- The fish population is low or it is a threatened species – pretty self explanatory. I think it is ethical to fish catch and release for populations of fish that are threatened as it puts a value on these fish beyond eating and often changes the way people look at the fish and they end up supporting efforts to preserve it.
- The fish is not a good table fish – there’s not much point taking home fish that just don’t taste nice.
- The rules mandate catch and release – always check your local bag limits and fishing regulations
- The fish you have caught is a slow-growing species – there are many fish that are popular angling targets that are slow growing and take more than 30 years to get to a large size. While these may sometimes be good eating, you should avoid taking these fish for the table.
When It Is OK not to fish catch and release?
The flipside to this is when to take home a fish or two for the table.
I will happily take home fish that are in relative abundance and are good tasting.
Trout are probably a good example here – I would take home a trout caught in a lake with a decent population, but not from a river where stocks are low.
Same applies with various ocean and freshwater fish.
The other situation where you want to take a fish is if it is a noxious fish and rules dictate that it can’t be released. Fisheries authorities have introduced fish that are trying to eradicate and they will make it illegal to throw these fish back. Whether or not you are taking these fish to eat, it is important to make sure you kill them humanely (more on how to do this here and here).