Learn about the impacts of fishing on the environment, both the positive and the worrisome, and get some reel-y helpful fishing tips at the end to make sure your next outing keeps the fish population thriving.
Written by our resident sustainability scientist, Head of Research and Sustainability, and avid lifetime fisherman, Mark Falinski, Ph.D.
There are a lot of reasons people get hooked into the “environmentalism” movement. I grew up spending most nights fishing out on the lake, surrounded by a family that loved to hunt and fish every weekend, so I was raised to view the “environmentalism” movement from a slightly different perspective. For most of my hometown community, “environmentalism” is almost completely focused on fishing and hunting, and it goes all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt accomplished some notable things in his lifetime, many of which were covered in detail in some of our previous blogs. In his tenure in the Oval Office, starting in 1901, he established 150 national forests, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments, all while creating nearly 230 million acres of public land. Now, he didn’t do this to protect the environment or species out of the goodness of his heart, per se… The original reason behind this “public” land was for hunting and fishing. TR wanted to maintain populations of wild animals so his favorite outdoor activities could continue into the next generations, and protecting lands was the best way he knew how. His actions, and hunting and fishing more broadly, are much more impactful on environmental policies than most of us might think.
So, how are recreational fishing practices impacting the environment, and how is a changing environment and rapidly changing climate going to impact fishing? Grab your sinkers, because we are about to go deep.
COD WE GET SOME BACKGROUND INFO?
According to a survey published this year in the journal PLOS ONE, the COVID-19 pandemic was directly linked to an increase in fishing trips taken per angler (an “angler” is another way to say “person who fishes”). However, people weren’t just fishing more; they were also fishing for the first time. There was an unprecedented 10% growth in new anglers during the pandemic, most of whom were younger, more diverse, and from urban areas, according to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. This new and existing population of anglers represents one in every six Americans, making fishing the second most popular outdoor activity (after jogging) in the United States.
As the popularity of the sport continues to increase, we need to understand its interaction with the environment. There are significant differences between freshwater fishing and deep sea/saltwater fishing, and there is a HUGE difference between commercial fishing and recreational fishing. Within freshwater fishing, there is even a significant difference between fishing off a dock, from a boat, fly fishing, etc. Since we like to focus on information that you can act on in your own activities, we will start with recreational fishing here and, since a majority of fishing in the U.S. happens in freshwater (on shore and on boats), we will spend most of our time talking about freshwater recreational fishing. That means that we are talking about a person standing on a boat or shoreline with a fishing rod, not a group of people hauling up a huge net of a bunch of mackerell.
I’M HOOKED ON GOOD NEWS
First, let’s chat about the positive impacts that fishing can have on the environment and human health. Personally, when I tell non-fishing people that I grew up in a culture that included recreational fishing as a way of life, I sometimes get a bit of a stink-(wall)eye. However, just like Teddy Roosevelt predicted, saving fishing is actively saving watersheds and the aquatic populations within them. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at New York State, for example. In 2015, New York State reported that sales of fishing, hunting, and trapping licenses have contributed roughly $45 million per year to the state’s Conservation Fund (part of the Department of Environmental Conservation), which is then directed towards land and water revitalization efforts, fisheries management and population control, outreach within underrepresented communities, and dealing with invasive species (more on this later).
Without these funds helping to protect fish populations and state-mandated regulations on types, sizes and quantity of fish you can catch and keep, there is a real chance many fish populations wouldn’t exist at all, as shown by historical examples of the “tragedy of the commons.” The “tragedy of the commons,” the ultimate enemy of sustainability efforts, is basically when everyone shares a public good or space until it is taken advantage of and ruined as a result. Think of the living room at your first apartment that you shared with 4 other people. For the first week, it was clean as could be, but once everyone took advantage of that shared space (aka, overfished), it perpetually smelled like that weird Subway bread smell for the next 11.5 months (aka, the fish population decreased). But, later in life, when you moved to a new apartment and regulated the shared space with a chore wheel (aka, fishing licenses), your apartment began to smell almost normal (aka, populations remained steady) and guests began to enjoy time at your place (aka, the extra benefits of regulated fishing on the environment).
Fishing isn’t only helping with conservation efforts. It is also a source of food and emotional benefit to individuals, although aligned with a 2017 peer-reviewed study in the journal Fish and Fisheries, we must be wary of overgeneralizing the reasons that people fish. According to a 2017 study out of Harvard University, 23% of all consumed fish in America is “self-caught”, although that percentage varies greatly depending on where in the country a person lives. In 2002, the EPA reported that in some of the lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY, where 38% of the population lives below the poverty line, people were regularly fishing in the East River and consuming two meals of fish per day as a way to meet their nutritional needs at a low price. Meanwhile, a peer reviewed perspective in the journal Risk Analysis notes that fish consumption, especially of self-caught fish, is significantly higher amongst Indigenous populations than the general population, which speaks to the role that fishing plays in cultural tradition and human health, especially amongst historically marginalized communities.
While not directly linked to environmentalism per se, fishing is also directly linked to improvements in human mental health outcomes. A PLOS ONE analysis of fishing during the COVID-19 pandemic noted that one of the main reasons for an increase in fishing outings was an unprecedented need for “stress relief”. A working paper from 2011 from the Australian government linked fishing to improved satisfaction in life, reductions in stress and anxiety, and significant benefits to children with behavioral and mental health issues. For example, as a result of fishing’s ability to reduce PTSD, groups like Heroes on the Water have begun introducing veterans to fishing as a fun therapeutic activity.
Like the old saying goes (kinda): “Give a person a sustainably caught fish, and they eat sustainably for a day. Teach someone to fish sustainably and they can be good to the planet for life.”
CASTING A WIDE NET ON THE ISSUES
I don’t mean to open this can of worms, but I am very aware of some of the issues that accompany the adrenaline of landing a big old Northern Pike (see attached picture of a miniature version of me for proof of a big old Northern Pike).
One of the most pressing issues in freshwater fishing is the introduction of invasive species to American watersheds. A quick definition here: a “watershed” is a region comprising land, rivers, and lakes that all inevitably drain their water into the same final destination. The one you live in can be found in the “How’s My Waterway” tool from the US EPA. Okay, back to the invasion. Starting decades ago, shipping containers entered the Great Lakes from abroad andeptied leftover water from their boat, releasing water, eggs, bacteria, and small organisms that traveled with them from thousands of miles away into those lakes. NOAA has been on alert, saying that these new species can significantly damage food chains, alter the plant and algae life in the water, and damage boat engines, releasing gasoline into waterways. For a complete history of the related fish population destruction and reconstruction, we highly recommend The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, which covers, in detail, the environmental and economic impact of nearly every foreign species in the largest collection of freshwater in North America, the Great Lakes.
While fish populations have since steadied, and new laws have hit the books regulating shipping boats, anglers who frequent multiple lakes are now speeding up the transfer of zebra mussels and round gobies, two of the newest invaders harming native fish populations. Zebra mussels, which have no known native predators, filter out algae from the water, which starves native species. They also clog and damage water treatment infrastructure, power plants, and lakeside homes, with an estimated annual mitigation cost of more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, gobies munch on the eggs of native fish species and aggressively overtake spawning locations, slowly decreasing the populations of native fish. Plus, since they can survive in murky and nasty waters (including both salt and freshwater), they have a clear evolutionary advantage over the native fish populations, and can spread extremely rapidly. If you are an angler that regularly brings a boat to multiple lakes, take care to completely clear out your bilge, use hot water to kill off zebra mussels attached to the hull, and fully disinfect your boats to ensure you aren’t further harming your local fish population’s food chain (and never dump fish from one lake into another).
One of the biggest sources of ocean pollution by weight is nets and traps, which can add up to roughly 640,000 metric tons per year. However, this amount, while substantial, is the waste from commercial fishing and does not include the waste produced from recreational fishing. Recreational fishing gear can still harm waterways and the species within them, even though this impact is significantly lower than that of commercial fishing. For example, lead sinkers used in fishing can dissolve into water over time, damaging the water supply, and when they are ingested by local waterfowl, they have been shown to cause lead poisoning. There have also been instances, like what was found in a study in northern Patagonia, of fish, birds, turtles, and other aquatic creatures getting caught in broken fishing line, hooks, plastic bait bags, or plastic trays for tackle.
While that’s not ideal, the biggest waste from recreational fishing is actually “consumption waste”, otherwise known as the uneaten portions of fish or fish that later die in the water after being released. The amount of wasted fish is equal to around 50-60% of all consumed fish, by mass, according to a peer-reviewed study from the journal Fish and Fisheries. Beyond consumption waste, as well as plastic and fishing tackle waste, there is the issue of gasoline consumption and release. This is especially true for those who use a boat to fish or travel to various fishing spots. A 2017 study described the increases in drag from towing a trailer or boat behind a pickup truck or SUV and found that the increase in drag, plus the increase in total weight, will likely knock 15-25% off of your gas mileage. The faster you travel, the more greenhouse gases you will inevitably emit. While on the water, some boat engines can be real gas-guzzlers, too. At full throttle, most fishing boat motors only get a paltry 3 mpg. To make things worse, studies have linked poor refilling practices at dockside gas stations to hazardous spills, and have found that two-stroke engines release roughly 1.1 billion pounds of oil and gasoline per year during use. These spills negatively impact drinking water supply and the native fish population.
While fishing is well-regulated and fish populations are well maintained by local, state, and federal government agencies, there is still a gap in access to the sport between different socioeconomic classes. There is a clear advantage in catching larger fish that is afforded to those who own or rent a boat, relative to those from lower socioeconomic classes who can’t afford that same luxury. Plus, a $20-50 annual fishing license can be prohibitively expensive for some. A 2006 study found that illegal fishing, including fishing without a license, was more likely to occur in low-income areas and those populations are therefore more likely to be fined as they try to put food on the table. Not to mention, Indigeous populations have been fishing for sustenance for thousands of years, long before the arrival of immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. Yet, their rights to fish local waters have recently been challenged by the state of Maine. Meanwhile, decreasing salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest has taken a toll on Indigenous peoples, their culture, and their main source of nutrition. It is clear that the needs of the most vulnerable among us who require fish for sustenance, and not just sport, can only be met by responsible fishing practices and lobbying local governments to support fishing by those who are most reliant on it.
HERE’S SOME REEL-Y GOOD ADVICE:
For those of you who want to fish now, and for the foreseeable future, without worrying about hurting the planet, here are a few tips:
- This may be a stinker, but stop using lead sinkers. Usually we say that if you already have something in your bag, keep using it, because buying a new thing always comes with some other environmental impact. But, lead sinkers can be easily replaced on the cheap by steel, brass, tungsten, or a bunch of other materials. Replacing lead sinkers removes a horrible neurotoxin from the water and from birds’ stomachs.
- Keep your eye out for more biodegradable fishing lines and properly dispose of your line. Polyfluorinated and nylon monofilament fishing line can last in the environment for at least 50 years (with some studies showing up to 600 years), while biodegradable lines can break down in the water in less than 5 years. Unfortunately, biodegradable lines have been a hard sell for most anglers, since they can be easier for fish to see in water and they lose their strength faster than more traditional lines. Until the time when scientists can figure out how to make a strong line that can also break down in the environment, your best bet is to make sure to dispose of wasted line in collection bins found at many marinas, docks, or bait and tackle shops, so that line can get a second life by being transformed into other plastic goods. Please do not throw that line out in the water.
- Use (eat?) as much of a fileted fish as you can. A majority of waste from recreational fishing comes from leftover fish guts. Get as much out of a filet as possible (my dad swears by eating walleye cheeks, no joke), use the bones in a stew, or use some parts of the filet as bait on your next outing. For anything still leftover, discard the fish parts in the water far off from shore for other fish to munch on, or compost the remains. If you throw the fish guts in the trash, you are directly contributing to the landfill methane problem, so avoid that at all costs.
- If you are using a boat to fish, consider an electric motor alongside, or to replace, the gas-guzzling one. A study out of Newcastle University found that electric motors, even those that are retro-fitted onto a boat later on, release significantly fewer toxic emissions (like NOx and carbon monoxide) to boaters and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 10-40%. Plus, electric motors are significantly quieter than gas-powered ones, so sneaking up on fish just got a bit easier.
- Limit fishing for catch-and-release and try to (legally) keep the fish you do catch. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission puts the mortality rate of catch-and-release fish at somewhere between 5% and 20%. If you are planning on going out on the water to fish, try to keep what you catch for dinner (as long as it is legal to keep by state regulations) to avoid the possibility of a lost life through catch-and-release. If you do catch a fish and plan to release it, there are a few way to increase the chances of fish survival:
- One study from UMASS noted that when a fish has swallowed a hook into its esophagus, it is four times more likely to survive if the line is cut instead of removing the line from the fish’s throat. In lab studies, nearly 50% of these fish were able to release the hook and spit it out within 2 days.
- Avoid mechanical lip-gripping devices and use your fingers instead, as these devices can injure the bones in fish lips.
- In some cases, if the fish appears to be imbalanced or in poor condition, some scientists suggest keeping the fish in a bucket or livewell for a short period of time to let it recover its bearings before releasing it back to the wild. Think of it as a drunk tank, but for fish. After recovery is done, slowly guide the fish into the water, and it will return to its normal state much faster.
- Travel smarter to your fishing hole to limit the release of carbon emissions. When towing your boat to the lake for the weekend, lower your carbon footprint and increase gas mileage by driving around 55 mph on highways (when you can), responsibly clearing all water from the bilge to lower overall towing weight, put the cover over your boat to reduce the impacts of drag, invest in a low-weight trailer, and try not to make long treks with your boat too common of an occurrence. Once you get to the water, try to launch your boat from the closest marina to your secret spot to make up for the extremely low gas mileage of most fishing boat motors.