Catch and release is a form of recreational fishing where releasing the fish (catch) is believed to be a technique of conservation. After capture, the fish are returned to the water before they are totally exhausted or otherwise injured.
In the United Kingdom, catch and release has been performed for more than century by coarse fishermen in order to prevent target species from disappearing in heavily fished waters. In the latter part of the 20th and 21st centuries many salmon and sea trout rivers have converted to complete or partial catch and release.
In the United States, catch and release was first introduced as a management tool in the state of Michigan in 1952 as an effort to reduce the cost of stocking hatchery-raised trout. Anglers fishing for fun rather than for food accepted the idea of releasing the fish while fishing in so-called "no-kill" zones. Conservationists have advocated catch and release as a way to ensure sustainability and to avoid overfishing of fish stocks.
In Australia, catch and release caught on slowly, with some pioneers practicing it the 1960s, and the practice slowly becoming more widespread in the 1970s and 1980s. Catch and release is now widely used to conserve — and indeed is invaluable in conserving — vulnerable fish species like the large, long lived native freshwater Murray Cod and the prized, slowly growing, heavily fished Australian bass, heavily fished coastal species like Dusky Flathead and prized gamefish like Striped Marlin.
Catch and release is mandatory for some species in Canada, which also requires, in some cases, the use of barbless hooks to facilitate release and minimize injury.
Catch and release is decried by some who claim it is unethical or immoral to inflict pain, stress and increased mortality on fish for sport or amusement. Some oppose catch and release only and do not oppose fishing for food, per se.
Proponents of catch and release dispute the suggestion that fish feel pain. They insist that fish have tough, bony mouths that often consume spiny, hard prey items such as crayfish and molluscs. They point to studies that fish lack the higher brain functions that physiologists often associate with the ability to feel pain. They quote direct observation of fish behaviour wherein a fish who succeeds in throwing a lure will sometimes turn around and strike at the same lure, again.
Opponents of catch and release point out that fish are highly evolved vertebrates that share many of the same neurological structures that, in humans, are associated with pain perception. They point to studies that show that, neurologically, fish are quite similar to "higher" vertebrates and that blood chemistry reveals that hormones and blood metabolites associated with stress are quite high in fish struggling against hook and line, resulting in increased mortality.
A neutral analysis of the arguments and counter-arguments demonstrates that a definitive science-based conclusion on the degree fish are harmed by the process of being caught is unavailable. It seems clear that the issues surrounding catch and release will likely yield more readily to ethical analysis than to purely scientific investigation.
Ultimately, many catch and release anglers appeal to conservationist principles. They maintain that catch and release is increasingly necessary to prevent the overharvest of fish stocks in the face of burgeoning human populations, mounting fishing pressure and worsening habitat degradation. They propose that the alternative of banning or severely restricting angling is either unpalatable, unreasonable or not feasible.
In any case, effective catch and release fishing requires minimal handling of the fish to prevent unnecesary stress, unintended injury and the harmful removal of the fish's protective slime layer. The use of barbless hooks when practicising catch and release should be encouraged. Barbless hooks can be purchased from several major manufacturers or can be created from a standard hook by crushing the barb(s) flat with needle-nosed pliers. Although some anglers still avoid barbless hooks because of the perception that too many fish escape, their use reduces injury, reduces handling time, and increases survival. Frequently, fish caught on barbless hooks can be released without being removed from the water. Concentrating on keeping the line taut while fighting fish, using recurved point or "triple grip" style hooks on lures, and equipping lures that do not have them with split rings are effective methods to minimise escapement.
The effects of catch-and release vary from species to species. It is a truism, though, that far more fish survive if released after capture than if killed after capture. A number of scientific studies have shown extremely high survival rates (90%+) for released fish if handled correctly and particularly if caught on artificial baits such as lures. Fish caught on lures are usually hooked cleanly in the mouth, minimising injury and aiding release. Other studies have shown somewhat lower but encouragingly high survival rates for fish gut-hooked on bait if the line is cut and the fish is released without trying to remove the hook. This procedure should be followed for any gut-hooked fish intended or required to be released.
- Keep the fight time to a minimum, and play the fish to hand as quickly as possible.
- Use a knotless catch and release net, or better yet, no net at all.
- Use only barbless hooks. They're easier to set and easier to remove, causing far less tissue damage than barbed hooks.
- Whenever possible, remove the hook without touching the fish.
- If you must handle the fish, wet your hands before touching it, and support it carefully. Keep handling to an absolute minimum, and be gentle.
- When lipping a fish, let it hang vertically so as not to damage the cartilage in its jaw and make it difficult for the fish's mouth to function properly, reducing its chances of survival.
- If you need to shoot photos, or weigh or tape the fish, do it quickly and gently, and get the fish back in the water immediately.
- Revive the fish thoroughly before releasing it. In moving water, point fish into current, and in stillwater gently slide it back and forth, to force water through the gills. When the fish tries to swim off, it's probably ready.
- Keep water temperature in mind. The warmer the water, the more stress on the fish. It becomes even more important to keep them in the water at all times.