By Elizabeth Fetherston
When I was a kid, my dad, an avid freshwater fly fisherman, hooked me on fishing in Michigan streams. Looking back, those honey holes served as fun laboratories. As we learned to “match the hatch” with our hand-tied insect imitations, I began to realize that the fish are as essential to the river system as the streamside vegetation, the cobbled bottom, the insects, the water, and the two- and four-legged fishermen wading in it.
My dad, a dedicated volunteer for Trout Unlimited, taught me about these different parts of the river system during a period when freshwater anglers were realizing that certain species are more appropriate to harvest than others. He was part of a movement of freshwater anglers armed with all kinds of tackle who were dedicated to catching many types of fish: bass, trout, walleye – you name it.
This movement resulted in most freshwater fisheries being managed well for fish and fishermen. As saltwater anglers, we need to collectively strive toward similar responsibility and sustainability.
Such striving can ensure our children and grandchildren will know the pride that comes along with cooking their own catch. Doing that mostly requires us to commit to sustainable practices respective to the characteristics of each fish species in order to ensure that we’ll be able to keep fishing in places like the Gulf of Mexico.
Growth rates, age of sexual maturity, and the number of young produced all affect how quickly a population can recover from fishing pressure. These factors are built into the models used to determine when we can harvest fish, which fish are best to take, and how many fish we can keep. It’s important that we understand and accept the science-based seasons, size limits, and bag limits that managers determine. Also, being selective about what we harvest can improve fish populations.
Dad taught me the golden rule: Take what you need for a meal or two, and leave the rest. We can lessen our impacts by targeting the more resilient species. Resilient species are typically fast growing, quick to reproduce, and have shorter life spans.
Dolphins, or “mahi mahi,” as they’re known internationally, are a great-fighting, great-tasting fish. They grow almost exponentially, reproducing early and often, and are a highly migratory species, which means they have less chance of being repeatedly targeted in one specific habitat. Cobia is another species that seems resilient for the same reasons. Spanish mackerel and blackfin tuna are other examples.
Also, if you target long-lived or historically overexploited species, such as red snapper and gag grouper, strive to catch what you are allowed quickly, without throwing back a lot of small fish in the process. Fish reeled up from more than 60 feet often suffer fatal injuries — what’s called “barotrauma,” or decompression sickness. As they’re reeled up, gases expand rapidly within the fish’s body and can damage or destroy certain organs.
When you get a keeper red snapper, for example, don’t throw it overboard if it’s not a particularly big fish, while hoping for something bigger on the next drop. It likely won’t live to reproduce again, and the smaller fish taste better anyway.
By supporting healthy fisheries, we can have a healthy ocean, a healthy
environment, healthy seafood, and healthy recreational opportunities for many
years to come.
Elizabeth Fetherston is the deputy director of Ocean Conservancy’s Fish
Conservation Program. She lives and fishes out of St. Petersburg, Florida.