10 Tips for Sustainable Sport Fishing

Last updated on February 27th, 2022

promoting sustainable sport fishing practices

Protecting Our Fish and the Future of Sport Fishing

We hear a lot of talk about sustainable fishing practices and sustainably sourced fish (fish caught or harvested in a manner that promotes the future of fish populations, the environment and the livelihoods of those who make their living from fishing).

In the past, we didn’t see the level of concern we have now about our fish stocks being depleted or other environmental issues, for that matter. But I think today most of us are keenly aware of what happens when we overfish a species or damage the environment through indiscriminate fishery methods.

It is true that more fishermen are now trying to work sustainably, and recreational anglers are not excluded from the protection of fish stocks and the environment, as some species are in danger of extinction. That’s a good start, but more is needed.

Sustainable fishing methods are key to ensuring that future generations can enjoy seafood, not to mention the sport of fishing.

Unsustainable fishing is currently the single biggest threat to our oceans. Destructive fishing methods, such as cyanide poisoning and dynamite coral reefs, are still widely practiced around the world. And every year, millions of tons of unwanted and non-target marine animals are caught by the indiscriminate use of fishing gear.

These are often called by-catch and are often thrown back into the ocean – dying or dead. It really is a sobering fact that less than 1%  of our world’s oceans are protected. 

Did you know that more than 300,000 small whales, dolphins, birds, and marine turtles die every year after being trapped in fishing nets? It is the major cause of the death of small cetaceans.

However, every change, every movement starts with an increase in consciousness. That being said, we must do more to preserve our marine and freshwater ecosystems. We must increase our use of sustainable fishing methods and do everything we can to give them a chance to recover.

And we must do so not only for wildlife, but also for coastal communities, indigenous people for whom fishing is a way of life, and anybody who wants to see to it that fish and seafood are kept on the menu and that our oceans thrive.

Globally there are some 1 billion people who rely on fish for their main source of animal protein globally and over 200 million others who make their livelihoods by fishing in one way or another – mostly in developing nations. For those in the poorest countries, healthy oceans, lakes, and rivers mean food, jobs, and a future.

Sportfishing and the Conservation of Natural Resources

But most of the talk is about commercial fishing; what about the role of sportfishing? Because of its wide appeal, recreational fishing has also had an impact on our global fish populations, without a doubt.

So the responsibility of maintaining thriving fish stocks must also be shared by sport fishermen everywhere.

Unlike its commercial counterpart, recreational fishing has a dual value, however. In addition to its being a popular global sport, it also has an economic value – a very big one.

In the U.S. alone, recreational fishing is an industry that employs close to a million people and contributes in excess of $100 billion to the economy annually. So, we all should have both a personal as well as an economic incentive to protect its future.

It goes without saying that we are passionate about our sport, but we must be equally passionate about the protection of the fisheries that make it all possible. Most of us are aware of the detrimental impacts of pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction and other threats to our aquatic ecosystems.

We are aware that these issues, if not addressed,  will put the future of the sport we love in danger. Fortunately for us, our passion for fishing and ecological consciousness does not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they can live quite happily together.

For an example of this, we can look at the Atlantic Striped Bass and the Florida Snook and see how social awareness and sustainable practices brought fish stocks from the brink of disaster to once again healthy, thriving populations.

As sport fishermen, there are many things we can do to protect fish and other living organisms in our rivers, lakes, and oceans – from practicing catch and release to decreasing the amount of carbon we release into the environment.

10 Sustainable Fishing Practices for Every Angler

If you are serious about preserving the environment and the future angling for our children, then you’ll want to check out the accompanying 10 practical tips for sustainable recreational fishing.

Some of these tips will be familiar to you, but there may be a few you hadn’t thought about. But It’s all about doing our part.  So let’s see what we can all start doing now…

1. First Step – Know Your Fishing Regulations:

This is one of the most important things we can do as anglers. Every state has its set of regulations for both marine and inland fish species.

It is up to every recreational fisherman to know what are the local regulations, from size to bag limits, for the fish being targeted. This one alone can have a big impact on maintaining healthy fish populations.

Also, know the species of fish you are likely to encounter. It would be pointless in knowing size and bag limits if you could not properly identify the fish you just caught.

Speaking of bag limits, you don’t always have to take your limit on any one species. Just because the regulations say you are allowed 6 snappers per day per angler, it does not mean you should fish your favorite spot every day and take the limit each time. Sometimes one or two will do. Let’s be ethical anglers!

Regardless, there are no excuses for not being up to date with your state’s recreational fishing regulations. You can pick up a copy the next time you are at your local bait and tackle shop, or you can get one online from your state’s fish and wildlife conservation website.

And of course, it should go without saying, let’s make sure everyone has their necessary fishing licenses and stamps. The fees from licenses help to support the research and conservation programs that protect our fish stocks for future generations of anglers.

2. Practice Catch and Release – Let ‘Em Live to Fight Another Day:

Yes, yes, I know – we hear this all the time, and perhaps don’t have to beat to death the importance of throwing back fish, especially those big, fat trophy-size catches. But it is worth saying a thousand times if it drives the point – if you throw them back, you give them the chance to live, mate and reproduce more fish for us to catch.

Familiarize yourself with the methods that have been adopted by catch-and-release anglers everywhere, like making use of barbless hooks for less damage to the fish while unhooking it, and even circle hooks, which are less likely to gut-hook the fish and increased the chances it will survive on release.

But if you happen to gut-hook a fish, try to cut the line as close as possible to the hook and release it. Chances are you will not be able to remove the hook without further injury to the fish. Using non-stainless hooks can also help in this situation as they will eventually rust and degrade, reducing mortality rates.

Keep your catch in the water as much as possible while removing the hook/lure to minimize stress to the fish. Don’t remove it from the water so you and your five friends can all take photos with it. If it’s a catch of a lifetime and you must snap a shot, be quick about it and return the fish to the water as soon as possible.

3. But Don’t Throw Back Invasive Fish Species:

Though we generally preach catch and release, there are times when you can help conserve the natural order of things by not releasing certain species. Yes, this is the opposite of what we championed in the previous tip, but we are talking about invasive fish species here, which have wreaked havoc on many water ecosystems globally, introducing disease, depleting the food resources and displacing native fish from their habitats.

invasive snakehead fish and conservation

invasive snakehead fish

These fish, many of which come from distant parts of the world, have been accidentally and intentionally introduced into our ocean and freshwater ecosystems.

In the U.S., from coast to coast, we are battling with voracious and aggressive non-native species such as the snakehead fish,  Asian carp, lionfish, northern pikeminnow and many others.

So what do you do if you hook one of these outsiders? Well, for example, if you are fishing on the Delaware River in New Jersey and you hook an invasive flathead catfish, don’t throw it back it. The state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife requires that you destroy it and report your catch to the state’s Bureau of Freshwater Fisheries, which is working with federal wildlife officials to monitor and check the spread of these non-native fish. The procedure quite is much the same in most other states.

Invasive fish have become such a problem throughout North America and the U.S. that many states now have reward programs, or a bounty of sorts, on them. Yes, you could even make a few bucks while ridding our waters of these unwanted intruders!

4. Don’t Be a Lightweight – Use Tackle that Match Your Target:

This one kind of goes hand in hand with catch and release, but it’s one we don’t often give much thought to.

Using tackle that is too light for your target will cause you to fight the fish for prolonged periods of time, greatly increasing the chances of reeling in a fish that is too exhausted to survive upon release. 

Make sure your tackle is appropriately matched to your target species to help increase survival rates.

5. Use Lead-free Tackle – Lures Containing Lead Are Toxic to Fish:

Most of us have heard about the awful effects of lead-based paint on children who ingested paint chips. Recently, we only have to look at the health crisis in Flint, Michigan caused by old water supply pipes made with lead. Well, it’s very similar to fish – lead is toxic. So, when we use lead sinkers, jigs, and other tackle we are essentially poisoning our fish and other natural resources.

Well, according to a study sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fish and other wildlife, such as loons and eagles, exposed to excessive amounts of lead can develop a host of problems, affecting everything from their nervous to reproductive systems.

Worse still, lead also kills loons, eagles, seagulls and other animals that might eat fish that have swallowed lead sinkers.

Many states have adopted regulations to limit or even phase out the use of lead ammunition in hunting as well as the use of lead tackle in fishing. In fact, in 2013 California became the first state to pass legislation to completely phase out lead ammo, with the end date set to 2019.

Of course, these efforts have also met with resistance as many hunters and anglers disagree with governments imposing what they see as overburdening restrictions on them.

But the good news for anglers is that we can now buy lead-free sinkers, split shot, jig heads and so on! Today we have several good non-toxic fishing tackle alternatives (made from tungsten, stainless steel, and other eco-friendly materials), from small and big internet tackle stores to popular big-box retailers such as Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s.

There just is no good reason not to use lead-free sinkers/weights and artificial lures that do not poison our fish and their habitats.

6. Don’t Be Rough – Go Easy on the Fish:

Being taken out of its natural environment is already stressful for the fish. Let’s not add to it by being rough or manhandling your catch. We’ve seen it all, from slinging the fish over the pier railing and slamming it to the ground to ripping out the hook from its mouth and to sticking fingers in the fish’s gills.

The gills serve as lungs for the fish. Damage them and the fish has little chance of surviving, no matter how promptly you return it to water.

Another tactic often seen is handling the fish with a rag or towel. I’ve always wondered if that guy is afraid of touching the fish or smelling fishy. Hello!… it’s called fishing – you are supposed to smell a little fishy. I imagine though a lot of guys do this so they have a better grip on the fish.

Regardless of the reasons, this will remove the fish’s natural protective coating and only increase its chances of coming down with disease and infections. So don’t do it. Use nothing but your wet, bare hands and return them to the water as quickly as you can. Go easy on them so they can live another day and provide another angler with the same enjoyment.

7. Pack It Up – Don’t Be a Litterbug:

This one really bugs me! In truth we have all done it at one time or another, whether consciously or not. People leave all kinds of waste along the coasts and in the water – empty beer cans, potato chip bags empty bait and lure packaging, etc… This has major environmental consequences.

The problem is that trash and debris in the water, such as discarded fishing tackle, nets, cigarette filters, and grocery bags, can be mistaken for food by fish, mammals, and birds. If wrapped around them or consumed, it can lead to suffocation, starvation, cancers and a host of other issues.

How many times have we all seen tangled mounds of monofilament line carelessly discarded on fishing piers, jetties, bridges or other popular fishing spots?

Discard your used fishing line in a designated receptacle if provided. If not, take it home with you and discard it – don’t leave it behind for birds and other animals to become entangled in.

The point here is to be ethical about properly disposing of all your trash or taking it home with you if need be – for recycling and composting, if possible.

Going further, If you are serious about helping to preserve fishing and protecting the environment, pick up any trash you see, – even if it is not yours. You’ll be doing it for the sport of fishing and our environment.

8. Practice Carbon-conscious Fishing – Keep Your Boat Shipshape:

As we stated earlier, climate change is big a threat to our fish stocks and many other organisms found in and around our waters.

For example, a National Park Service report shows that increased emissions from cars and industrial and agricultural activities have caused significant changes, namely acidification, to the water chemistry in the headwaters and streams of the southern Appalachian Mountains. The consequence is a brook trout population put at increased risks.

A different study highlights the fact that half of the 3 dozen or so fish species in the northwest Atlantic have moved northward in recent decades in response to rising water temperatures.

You can do your part to fight these dangerous trends by cutting down on the amount of carbon your fishing boat or other fuel-powered watercraft and equipment emit. Replace your propeller with a new, more efficient hydrodynamic design, which will reduce drag and improve fuel economy. Also, install an electric fuel gauge to help you keep an eye on fuel consumption and find the most fuel-efficient cruising speed for your boat.

environmentally-friendly fishing - kayak fishing

Also, don’t forget to stick with your manufacturer’s recommended engine maintenance schedule. Finally, ease up on the throttle – you’ll save fuel and help out our air quality as well as the fish below. But If you really want to be carbon-conscious, try kayak fishing, which is 100% human-powered and a blast!

9. Use Every Part of Your Catch If You Keep It:

Maybe, you like a good fish dinner. You took your catch home, cleaned it, cooked it and ate it. But it is likely that, unless you are a shark, you probably will not eat the whole fish. Don’t throw the rest away.

We’re not suggesting that you make jewelry out of the bones.

But Instead, compost the fish parts with plants, waste such as sawdust, peat moss, wood chips, leaves or bark. The microorganisms in the pile feed on waste and, over several months, becoming rich humus – there’s nothing better for growing plants!

Do not worry about the smell because heat from the microbes will pasteurize the pile, eliminating the odor, as well as any disease organisms.

Find other ways of utilizing the entire fish, or at least most of it.

10. Share (Knowledge) – Educate Children and Other Anglers About Sustainable Fishing:

This last one is very important as it can pay future dividends. Kids naturally will take to fishing if introduced by an adult. That is how many of us got our start.

So, teaching them about conservation and getting them to have respect for the environment and the sport of fishing will not be too difficult. The best time to start anything is when we are young.

Not everyone will have an inclination for conservation or take the time to learn about ways to protect our fish and sport. But by sharing a few tips with another angler, you can have a positive influence on his or her behavior.

In addition to education and helping others to understand the importance of fishing responsibly, You can also get involved with sportfishing conservation groups and even volunteer your time to help spread the message. An online search may bring up several in your region.

Your Thoughts on Fishing Sustainably?

Well, there you have it. These are just ten ways we can all help ensure the future recreational fishing for our kids and theirs. There are so many other things we can do, of course.

Do you have anything to add to the conversation? We would love to hear your tips and opinions on the sustainability of our favorite sport.

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About Dorado

John Pardal, aka Dorado, is the editor as well as an author for Reel Adventure Fishing. He has fished extensively up and down the U.S. Atlantic coast, throughout much of Florida and a bit of the Caribbean. John loves writing about all aspects of sportfishing and is passionate about conservation and promoting sustainable fishing.

6 thoughts on “10 Tips for Sustainable Sport Fishing

  1. Kairi Gainsborough

    These are great tips for being a responsible fisherman. Making sure that you discard your used monofilament fishing line properly sounds like a great way to avoid the dangers it can cause to wildlife. My husband and I are planning on chartering a boat to go fishing for our vacation this summer. I will make sure that we are responsible for disposing of our garbage properly.

    1. Dorado Post author

      Hello Kairi, thanks for stopping by. Agreed, we all need to be more responsible and help protect the sport we love. Good luck with your fishing vacation, and let me know if I can assist in any way.

  2. Kelly

    Coming from an environmental background, I am very happy to read this. I completely agree with your suggestions on how to fish sustainably and why it should be done. I actually had no idea that cyanide poisoning and dynamite on coral reefs were still being used as fishing methods around the world – that’s a very scary thought! It’s important that we all do our part, and hopefully we can achieve sustainability in the fishing industry.

    1. Dorado Post author

      Absolutely Kelly, we are all responsible for the conservation of our wildlife and environment. As anglers and outdoor enthusiasts, we can individually do little things that can have long-term, positive consequences.

  3. Chris Winters

    I like the idea to cut back on the amount of carbon in your fishing boat to help to protect the environment. I am an avid outdoor sportsman, so I have a deep love for nature. I’m always looking for sports supplies that are more environmentally friendly.

    1. Dorado Post author

      Hey Chris, thanks for adding to the conversation. Yeah, there are so many things we can do as anglers to protect our environment and wildlife, and most of them are pretty simple as highlighted in the post and accompanying infographic. Regular maintenance of boats and other fuel-powered watercraft will go a long way toward helping the cause. Good luck with your new site!

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