Monday, March 23, 2015

Sustainable fishing: how we practise it

My niece, Susan Baughman, let this big pike go

A conventional idea of a sustainable fishery is that it is one that is harvested at a sustainable rate, where the fish population does not decline over time because of fishing practices. -- Wikipedia

Nature is a wonderful, miraculous thing. It produces a bounty that will sustain us forever as long as we treat it with respect. This starts with taking the time to learn about its systems. The more we look, the more awestruck we become about the interconnectedness of everything.
And where do humans fit into this?
A lot of us have experienced moments of revelation about this and these have come the most often while we are fishing! As our boats move with the rhythm of the lake it dawns on us how the Sun's energy is creating the temperature changes that causes the wind that makes the waves. We see other fishers -- feathered ones like bald eagles, ospreys, ducks, loons and kingfishers; furry ones like mink, otters and bears; and tiny ones like fishing spiders and dragonfly nymphs. If we look even closer we would see crustaceans like tiny freshwater shrimp feeding on microscopic phytoplankton which feed on the Sun's energy through photosynthesis. We realize that not only are we among a group out on the lake, we are a part of it. That is the epiphany -- we are part of it, not above it, not lord and masters of it, just one of the connections on the web.
It can be a life-altering moment because, as simple and basic as this concept is, it can shatter what we have been taught to believe about our place in the universe, that we are the apex predator, that all of Nature was put here for us to conquer, even that we are the most intelligent species. It is like opening a door to another world, like seeing the night sky for the first time and finding that there isn't just one Sun out there but billions upon billions of them.
And this one too
Some people never have this moment, mainly, I think, because it makes them feel insignificant. But for those of us who do the effect is just the opposite; we are blown away that we are lucky enough to be a part of such an immense, incredible creation. And all we have to do to keep the whole Blue Marble running as it has for billions of years is to not ruin it.
For more than half a century now, we at Bow Narrows Camps have lived and breathed fishing. And by "we" I mean not just my personal family but our bigger family that includes our guests, many of whom have been coming here nearly as long as me and who know a great deal more about fishing. A lot of them could have expressed what I just did above with more elegance and clarity, and most of the rest feel similarly but keep their thoughts to themselves unless asked.
The interesting thing is that probably none of us started out this way. Our respect for the natural world grew and changed over time as we learned more about it and observed that as the human population tripled in those 50-plus years, a lot of the planet has been altered to something we don't like.
And so we cherish the still-pristine places like Red Lake and the Boreal Forest all the more and have adopted practices that will keep it healthy. When it comes to fishing that means doing it in a sustainable manner, a way that ensures it will not decline over time.
You might think that all this means is following the law -- the fishing regulations and limits. It certainly means doing that at the bare minimum. I say minimum because the fact is fishing regulations are only partly founded on biology and the rest on politics. Here's an example, for years Eastern Ontario did not have the same four walleye, four northern pike limits as Northwestern Ontario. It had a six and six limit. It also didn't have many fish. However, a vocal group of anglers in that region for at least a decade successfully prevented the lower limits needed to rebuild the fishery.
In the Northwest we not only adopted the four-fish maximum but also a no-keep slot size for northern pike and a one-over-18-inch rule for walleye. It's the same species of fish in both places but the difference was in the Northwest we are accustomed to great fishing while in the East surveys showed anglers were happy if they caught a single fish in a day! Eventually, they weren't happy and the regulations were changed.
And this one. She only kept smaller fish to eat.
The very existence of slot sizes and the one-over rule, however, point to a biological fact that anglers and many camps like ours were quick to realize. Take pike, for instance. Biologists said two thirds of the breeding population of northern pike are in the 27.5-35.4-inch slot size. So, by letting these fish go we would be ensuring that two-thirds of the breeders survived. Well, just about the remaining one-third of the breeders are those fish bigger than the slot size. Plus, since the bigger the fish, the more eggs they produce, these are the most important fish. Furthermore they very likely carry the genetics for fast growth and large size. They are the very fish we want to see more of. Consequently, we all began letting them go. We did it as individuals, as camp suggestions and as camp rules.
The very same principle is true for walleye. Let the big ones go. These fish first begin to spawn at 18 inches. So, keep and eat the ones beneath this size.
I once wrote a blog about the ramifications of keeping big walleye. See The Stunning Reality of Keeping Big Fish.
And since it is usually a story, not facts, that sway people, I also wrote Fishing on Mars.
In fact, this blog and our website are full of examples of how and why we release big fish.
Just about everybody is on board, but not all. Why do people keep big fish these days when we all know better? It could be in our genetics. Some anthropologists call it the greed gene. There could also be a competitive gene.
I often think when I see someone these days bring a big fish into camp that they are saying: "Look at me! I am the greatest! I have killed a mighty fish!"
The two genes would be satisfied. One, that by proving his prowess, the fisherman is better than  everyone else and two, he brought in a lot of meat so that the "village" won't starve.
The irony is the other anglers in camp are not impressed that this person has killed this fish, one that they might have released the year before and which now will no longer be sustaining the population. Also, the big fish was a lousy choice for a meal. It is probably at least 20 years old and has been accumulating all the heavy metals in the environment.
As I said before, it takes a story to open people's eyes and at least get them thinking about changing their minds.
When Northwestern Ontario first went to the four-fish limit, there was quite a bit of grumbling one evening in our dining room. Dave Amdahl, one of our long-time anglers, asked the group this simple question: "By a show of hands, how many of you still have fish in the freezer from last year's trip?"
The room was a sea of raised hands. Obviously, they didn't need all the fish they had taken home. No one ever said a thing about the new limits again.
At our place, the camp buys everybody a conservation fishing licence which allows them two northern pike and two walleye. Of course, they also need to follow the northern pike slot size and one-over 18-inch walleye rule. Two-thirds of our guests use this licence rather than purchasing the four-and-four full-limit Sportsman's licence. And of the two-thirds with the conservation licence, probably one-third to a half don't take any fish home. They just eat fish fresh while they are at camp. We also have perhaps a dozen anglers who never keep a single fish all week, not even for eating.
As for keeping big fish, my guess is only five per cent of our anglers keep big northern pike. It's a higher percentage for keeping big walleye, perhaps 20 per cent. Walleye anglers have been the slowest to see the light but what has happened is they are keeping smaller "big" fish. Where in the past they would have kept the biggest fish they could get, perhaps a 32-incher, now they keep a 20-incher as their "one-over."
Their reasoning is that this fish has more meat on it than the under-18 and they think they are doing the population a favour by keeping one 20-incher than, say, two 16-inchers. So their heart is in the right place but they just don't understand the system. The 20-incher was a prime breeder and would have produced perhaps 200,000 eggs before the two smaller fish even reached breeding size.
We all need to learn to leave the big fish in the lake. The part of the population that we can harvest without harm are the smaller fish beneath the spawning size. For walleye this would be the 14-18-inchers. For northern pike it would be 20-26-inchers.

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Anonymous said...

Great blog post Dan. Wish the people at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources would read it. You're right about other fisherman not being impressed by those who keep really big fish. A couple years ago, as I was dropping fish in the Bow Narrows fish house bins, I noticed a bin that contained several pike that were significantly above the slot size. For all of the reasons you've listed, it bothered me to see those fish harvested. Because the fishing at Bow Narrows is so good, almost everyone catches big fish. There just doesn't seem to be a good reason to keep them. Keep encouraging everyone to put the big fish back. Sooner or later, even the holdouts will get the message.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog about conservation. We are having discussions about slot limits for walleye on the Mississippi and maybe reducing bag limits for all fish including pan fish. We are much better conservation on the River, because of what we have learned at BN

Anonymous said...

Some of the people in our group get confused by the one over rule and think they can only have 3 under 18" and need one over 18" to have a full limit. After a few years of explaining I think they are finally starting to understand that they don't 'need' one over 18" and a limit can be 4 under 18".