All over North America, families gather together whenever the weather is nice to enjoy the great outdoors. Often, we life to venture out of our cities and towns in order to enjoy “unspoiled” nature. We go to lakes, streams, forests and coasts. And for a lot of us, there’s nothing like fishing. Of course, fish stocks the world over are in precipitous decline, and the government typically limits the amount of fish you’re allowed to kill. And so, progressive and humanely-minded fishers go out to enjoy some harmless catch-and-release fishing.

But wait a minute. What’s so humane about catch and release, exactly? We’re still catching a living creature with a hook through their face, with which we drag them up into a boat or dock where they cannot breathe, where we then photograph ourselves with the struggling, panicked animals before pulling out the hook and sending them back into the waters. That doesn’t sound humane. Most of us wouldn’t consider it humane to treat mammals in a similar fashion. Can you imagine “hunters” catching bear in a trap in order to photograph them, before releasing them back into the forest after letting it sweat for a while? It’s outrageous. So why doesn’t it seem outrageous when we do it to fish?

A bit part of the answer to that question is probably simply that fish are so different from us that we find it difficult to empathize with them. Therefore, our trivial desire for some mild entertainment seems more important than the mental and physical well-being of these aquatic animals. Even today, many people maintain the delusion that fish are incapable of experiencing pain — a strange myth that has never been borne out by any research.

We would find it horrifying to see this sort of behavior targeting other animals, not to speak of other humans. But somehow it has been branded as a humane alternative to keeping the fish. But notice the profound difference between the two activities. The reason people started catching fish in the first place had nothing to do with a leisurely occupation of their spare time. They did it so they could eat. The death of a fish is a sacrifice to maintain the population of the predatory species — us. This is all well and good. But what is going on, then, with catch and release? Sure, the fish isn’t dying in this case — they are only suffering. But what are they suffering for? The answer, obviously, is nothing. We are inflicting this pain and fear on other animals for no reason at all other than that we find it more entertaining than sitting in a boat reading a book.

But, like everything else that we do, there are real-world impacts of our decisions. Sport fishing and catch-and-release programs are so popular now in the Unite States and Canada that heavily-fished populations are experiencing actually experiencing genetic changes in response to the extreme stress of being caught and released regularly.

Catch and Release Negative Impacts

The Impacts of Catch and Release

It’s easy to think that as soon as the fish is released back into the lake, that they immediately forget about the whole experience and get back to doing whatever it is they do. That’s because we forget that fish are animals. In lakes where catch-and-release fishing is heavily practices, individual fish can expect to be caught several times a year. This is hugely stressful for them, and all that added stress takes up much-needed energy. Researchers have now found that there are many negative impacts on fish populations.

In heavily fished lakes, some species have adapted is by lowering their metabolism and growing smaller. Fish, accustomed to the unimaginable reality of being hooked several times a season, are responding by conserving their energy. This is happening because the stronger, bigger and more energetic fish are even more likely to get caught more often, and so it is the slower, smaller and more lethargic fish that are less likely to be caught who now have an evolutionary advantage. For bass, one of the most commonly fished species, catch-and-release practices can severely disrupt nesting behaviors, and damage reproductive rates. These impacts

Clearly, no one thought about what the implications would be on the genetics of these animals. And that’s exactly the problem with so much of our activity in relation to other creatures on this planet: we simply do not think about how our actions will impact them. Often, we simply do not care. But many fishers actually do care about the health and well-being of our fish stocks, and want to be responsible stewards. So we need to think carefully about our own motivations, and weigh the value of our amusement against the ecosystemic and personal health of the creatures we live with.

If you don’t need to eat the fish in order to survive and thrive, then don’t catch them. Because they also have a right to thrive, just like we do.