Keep Fish Wet: Tips For Reducing Release Mortality - The Fisherman

Keep Fish Wet: Tips For Reducing Release Mortality

slots
For the “slots” that don’t go in the box, try to minimize air exposure, eliminate contact with dry surfaces, and reduce handling time for those stripers that are released. Photo by Rick Griffiths

By law or by choice, we all do it – so let’s do it better!

As anglers, we all release fish.  Even if you are “out to catch a keeper”, fishing regulations such as size limits mean that you will have to release some of the fish you catch.

And what do we all hope happens to those fish we let go?  Ideally, they swim off in the best condition possible to contribute to the future of their population, grow to a greater sizes and perhaps be caught again.  Whether you are out fishing to harvest something for the table or simply out to fish for the thrill of it, with the intention of letting your catch go, we all practice catch and release.

But just saying “I let the fish go and it swam off strong” is no longer good enough.  Since the early 2000’s, there has been a growing body of scientific research on how fish targeted by recreational anglers respond to capture, handling, and release.  Much of this science looks at how physical injury and physiological stress caused by capture and handling influences the fate of fish after release, and for more than for just those few seconds that anglers are able to observe their released fish for.

The science is done objectively and systematically, and looks at whether there are better ways to capture and handle fish to minimize our impacts on the fish we love. This is where Keep Fish Wet comes in.

fish
A fish’s perspective of healthy, wet release. Photo by Chris Fuller.

Grip & Groan

Keep Fish Wet (keepfishwet.org) is a nonprofit that was started by anglers who recognized that not every fish they released was in great shape.  They also realized that as we fight against other threats to our recreational fisheries, such as antiquated regulations, overharvesting, habitat loss, and climate change, each and every angler could help build resilience by taking better care of each fish they catch that is destined for release.

KEEP FISH WET
A charitable 501(C)3 nonprofit organization, Keep Fish Wet works to promote the use of science-based best practices to catch, handle and release fish. According to KeepFishWet.org, “Keep Fish Wet is not opposed to the lawful harvest of fish. We also acknowledge that even when we ‘catch and keep’, we often return some fish to the water (due to size limits, closed seasons, etc.) and therefore practice catch-and-release. Keep Fish Wet best practices can be applied to any type of fishing in any type of water anywhere in the world.”

But rather than leaving it up to anecdotes and old wives’ tales, Keep Fish Wet translates the science on catch and release to outline the best practices that anglers can use to ensure that the fish they catch and release have the best possible chances for survival. Fortunately, the science of catch and release shows that most of these best practices won’t cost you a dime but rather only necessitate subtle changes in how you interact with fish.

“The fate of fish after release is primarily determined by angler behavior,” said Dr. Jacob Brownscombe, a science advisor to Keep Fish Wet.  And, when individual angler behavior is driven by a shared community ethos – like having vibrant fish populations to target into the future – we can collectively and positively affect change through our actions with each fish we intend to release.

Before diving into how Keep Fish Wet can help you put conservation into action with each fish you release, we need to be clear that we all did the grip n’ grin at some point.  Keep Fish Wet is not about browbeating and shaming anglers or ‘educating them’ – most anglers are actually pretty darn smart, especially if they are able to convince a fish to eat.  What Keep Fish Wet promotes is that the learning, adoption, and sharing of the science-based best practices is part of a personal evolution as an angler.

For those new to the sport, helping them plan to use the science-based best practices for the first fish they bring to hand can reinforce the responsibility we have as anglers to be stewards of the resources we use.  And for the old dogs, given the right tone and support, even they can learn new tricks, especially since they have likely seen the roller coaster ride of abundance for species like striped bass over the years and are now wondering how they can help prevent another decline.

Best Practices

Given the wide range of targeted species, habitats, and situations where we intercept fish, Keep Fish Wet has distilled the science down to three main Principles: 1) Minimize Air Exposure; 2) Eliminate Contact with Dry Surfaces; and 3) Reduce Handling Time.

These are supported by Tips, many of which make the Principles easier to do, or apply to different angling situations, such as the time of year.  In some cases, there is enough science to build species-specific best practices, while in other cases a species may be imperiled enough that a special campaign is needed to help give each fish in struggling stocks the best chance of survival after release.

Fish can’t breathe out of water.  They get their oxygen in the form of dissolved oxygen in the water.  And after a valiant fight at the end a fishing line they need more oxygen to recover.  This is why it is important to Minimize Air Exposure.  At the same time, if you are minimizing air exposure, you can do your best to Eliminate Contact With Dry Surfaces (or rough/hard surfaces, too).  Fish are covered with a protective layer of slime and dragging them across the sand, across the gunnel, or putting them your lap can remove the slime (making them more susceptible to disease), not to mention cause other physical injuries.

One way to help reduce the need to air expose fish, like striped bass, is to use barbless hooks.  Barbless hooks take less finagling to remove, meaning that there will be less reason to haul your fish out of the water.  Barbless hooks also do less physical damage to the fish, plus they come out more easily should you hook yourself in the hand (or back).

When possible, keep the fish wet when removing the hook.  Keep water flowing over the gills, and use a hook removal tool to assist, made much easier with a barbless hook.

Whether in your hand or in a net, being handled (i.e. restrained) is stressful for fish.  Do what you can to Minimize Handling Time.  While doing so, be careful as you hold the fish.  Don’t squeeze or hug your fish.  Use a net when possible, and nets with rubberized bags are best as they do less damage to fins, scales, and other soft parts.  When holding fish, keep them horizontal and in the water to better support their weight and make sure your hands are wet to minimize slime loss.

The potential impacts from capture and handling on the fish we target are cumulative, meaning the more of these principles and tips you use the better off a fish will be after release.  As the science on catch and release expands, including for species like striped bass, continue to follow Keep Fish Wet and we will translate the science and continue to help you feel confident about the fate of the fish you release.

In the meantime, consider signing up to be an Advocate at www.keepfishwet.org/advocate – it’s free, a way to stay in touch, and to hear about new campaigns.  For those fish we love to target, every drop counts.

Sascha Clark Danylchuk is Executive Director of keepfishwet.org, and her husband, Dr. Andy J. Danylchuk, is professor of Fish Conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  The illustrations provided above courtesy of Bri Dostie.

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