Fisheries Biologist, NY,NY born & raised, 30 years with In-Fisherman Communications as TV host, magazine web content editor. National Freshwater Fishing HOF and MN Fishing HOF Angler.
Steve and I discuss an article he has just written and released along with Ron & Al Lindner of Lindner Media about the effects of Barotrauma on freshwater fish and the potential harm anglers are causing fish catching & released from them from depth. It’s an eye-opening fact-filled discussion about what we thought we knew and what we need to know. How as anglers we can protect the species we love to chase and can we safely pursue them in deep water. We get first-hand thoughts from the original “scientific-angler” on climate change, changes in our fisheries and angler habit transformations over his distinguished career. He also provides us some glimpse into the mind of a true bass head and what drives this pursuit. Away from fishing, Steve provides us how he balances his life and the pride alongside his Hall of Fame career. It’s a good mix of science and personal life that you will never see on TV, nor learn from written word. I’m sure you will enjoy the Wildside of Steve Quinn….
Barotrauma/C & R Executive Summary
Barotrauma: the Biggest Threat to Catch-and-Release: By Steve Quinn with Ron and Al Lindner
Catch-and-release (C & R) has a hallowed history in North America, first gaining impetus among trout anglers in the 1930s. Famous fly fisherman Lee Wulff coined the phrase, “Gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once,” which became the rallying cry of C & R proponents. They emphasized the idea of fishing for fun, rather than for food. They also noted the benefits to populations when fish are released to grow and multiply. This concept caught on in the 1970s among muskie anglers and in the bass world where tournaments adopted a release format.
This ethic was slower to develop among anglers targeting walleyes, catfish, and panfish, species traditionally viewed as “food fish.” Representatives of commercial walleye fisheries fought what they saw as an attack on their traditions and economic base. It took years and widespread implementation of slot limits to foster release of walleyes. Biologists managing catfish and panfish faced conflicting attitudes toward releasing fish, whether by regulation or voluntarily, that proved difficult to resolve.
C & R found a divergent reception in some European countries where many people opposed voluntary release, believing that “using fish for sport” was cruel. Animal-rights advocates succeeded in banning C & R in Germany in 1998 and Switzerland followed in 2009. In the U.S., animal-rights activists have made news by rallying against sportfishing, as well as trapping, hunting, and other perceived animal abuses. They have sought to insert animal-rights material into educational curricula for youth, though polls suggest they haven’t made major inroads in altering the positive outlook of Americans toward sportfishing.
These challenges to C & R pale in comparison to one that anglers and fishery managers have generally “swept under the rug.” It’s the growing problem of barotrauma—the physiological damage to fish caught from deep water. Ron Lindner relates a story from the early 1980s. Using a vintage flasher, he and brother Al found crappies suspended 30 feet down. “We were catching one after the other,” Ron relates, “and releasing many. I looked around and said, ‘We got a problem.’ Fish were floating, unable to swim down. This lesson was reinforced on a trip to Florida for red snapper where fish came up with stomachs protruding from the mouth, and with bulging eyes. Released fish struggled to swim down, but most floated into oblivion.”
Barotrauma affects species without a pneumatic duct connecting the esophagus and gas bladder, the organ that provides buoyancy. Due to physics, as a fish is raised from 33 feet (one atmosphere), the volume required to contain the gas inside doubles. Because this bladder is elastic, it resists stretching, but gradually succumbs to pressure and expands, preventing fish from swimming back down. While immediate release from moderate depths (20 to 30 feet) typically causes minimal problems, holding a fish at the surface for several minutes brings problems. Keeping them in a livewell for hours causes severe symptoms.
This problem received little attention in the freshwater realm, outside of walleye and bass tournament anglers on deep waterways, who learned to “fizz” fish using a hypodermic needle. Inserting the needle into the gas bladder allows air to escape, allowing fish to descend. Physiological studies showed fish healed quickly, but problems arose when anglers stuck needles in the wrong locations, damaging other organs. As a result, some agencies discouraged or even banned “fizzing,” while others continue to allow or even recommend it.
Given the great popularity and economic value of recreational saltwater fishing, often targeting species in water deeper than 50 feet, marine managers were way ahead of their freshwater colleagues in addressing this problem with lab and field studies. In October 2019, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council mandated that all commercial and recreational fishermen targeting grouper or snapper have a descending device to release fish. Products such as SeaQualzer (SeaQualizer.com) and Rocklees Fish Descender (RockLees.com), clip onto the jaw of a fish and carry it down. Smaller versions of these would work for freshwater species, preventing waste of valuable fish. Simpler versions based on clips and sinkers have also been devised by garage engineers.
High-tech side-view sonar systems make it easier than ever for anglers to find fish in deep water. Traditional release, whether by regulations or voluntary, wastes gamefish, including trophy-size specimens. With this effort, we hope to encourage angling organizations, fishery managers, and tackle manufacturers to educate anglers about this problem and work together for technological solutions, regulations, or new policies to maintain the health of fish populations for future generations.