When you go fishing, one thing that comes up is do you catch to eat or catch to release? Some may not really think about it either way.
Is the fish you catch safe to eat?
Fishing is one of the best summertime activities. You’re outdoors surrounded by nature and away from the buzzing, jostling “real” world — and then there’s the fish! Grilled, pan-seared or cooked over a campfire, that crispy skin and tender meat is a real treat and it’s even good for you … except when it’s not.
“What?” you ask, “That fish was on my line 10 minutes ago. And just before that it was finning its way through a cool, clear pond. No processing, no packaging. It doesn’t get more healthful than this!”
Why Wouldn’t It Be Safe?
In a perfect world, that’s true, and fish is generally considered one of the most healthful foods around. But it’s not the fish that’s a concern, rather what’s in the fish: chemicals such as mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made organic chemicals found in items such as transformers, thermal insulation materials and plastics, among others), chlordane (an insecticide), dioxins (not usually intentionally produced, these heterocyclic hydrocarbons are created in the process of making other products, such as herbicides or during the bleaching process in paper production) and DDT, to name the five biggies.
While PCBs, chlordane and DDT have been banned, they’re all long-lasting chemicals that hang out in our waterways long after they’ve been introduced. And those big, top-of-the-food-chain specimens (think largemouth bass and walleye) get the worst of it. The chemicals accumulate in bottom-dwelling animals but are passed up the food chain to fish. And when a bigger fish eats a smaller fish, the big guy just absorbs the contaminants that came with his meal. The big fish is then eaten by an even larger fish — and on and on the chain continues, until the top dogs — er, fish — ultimately end up with the highest contamination of these chemicals. Top predators may test for chemical levels a million times higher than that of their home waters.
So How Do I Know Where to Fish?
While every single state in the U.S. has dozens (and some have hundreds) of spots that are rated as impaired, the good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local governments have been working to clean up the waterways contaminated by these chemicals; and their efforts are paying off with waters that are progressively cleaner every year. And many lakes, rivers and coastal waters of the United States are home to fish that don’t contain dangerous levels of contamination — which means that all you need to know about what fish to eat is where to catch them.
The best place to start is the EPA’s National List of Advisories, which includes federal, state and tribal fish advisories. You can easily search by state to find advisories for local fishing areas and find contact information for your local authority (often a Fish & Wildlife agency, and a great way to make sure you get the most current information). Plus, you can request their brochure, Should I Eat the Fish I Catch? which also includes tips for how to trim and cook fish to minimize health risks.
The EPA has a lot of good information about this.
Should you eat the fish you catch?
The EPA has a brochure about this and here is some of the good information to be aware of.
Fish are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a lean, low-calorie source of protein. Some sport fish caught in the nation’s lakes, rivers, oceans, and estuaries, however, may contain chemicals that could pose health risks if these fish are eaten in large amounts.
Fish taken from polluted waters might be hazardous to your health. Eating fish containing chemical pollutants may cause birth defects, liver damage, cancer, and other serious health problems. Chemical pollutants in water come from many sources. They come from factories and sewage treatment plants that you can easily see. They also come from sources that you can’t easily see, like chemical spills or runoff from city streets and farm fields. Pollutants are also carried long distances in the air. Fish may be exposed to chemical pollutants in the water, and the food they eat. They may take up some of the pollutants into their bodies. The pollutants are found in the skin, fat, internal organs, and sometimes muscle tissue of the fish.
How can I find out if the waters that I fish in are polluted?
It’s almost impossible to tell if a water body is polluted simply by looking at it. However, there are ways to find out. First, look to see if warning signs are posted along the water’s edge. If there are signs, follow the advice printed on them. Second, even if you don’t see warning signs, call your local or state health or environmental protection department and ask for their advice. Ask them if there are any advisories on the kinds or sizes of fish that may be eaten from the waters where you plan to fish. You can also ask about fishing advisories at local sporting goods or bait shops where fishing licenses are sold. If the waterbody has not been tested, follow these guidelines to reduce your health risks from eating fish that might contain small amounts of chemical pollutants.
Do some fish contain more pollutants than others?
Yes. You can’t look at fish and tell if they contain chemical pollutants. The only way to tell if fish contain harmful levels of chemical pollutants is to have them tested in a laboratory. Follow these simple guidelines to lower the risk to your family: If you eat gamefish, such as lake trout, salmon, walleye, and bass, eat the smaller, younger fish (within legal limits). They are less likely to contain harmful levels of pollutants than larger, older fish. Eat panfish, such as bluegill, perch, stream trout, and smelt. They feed on insects and other aquatic life and are less likely to contain high levels of harmful pollutants. Eat fewer fatty fish, such as lake trout, or fish that feed on the bottoms of lakes and streams such as catfish and carp. These fish are more likely to contain higher levels of chemical pollutants.
Can I cook my fish to reduce my health risk from eating fish containing chemical pollutants?
Yes. The way you cook fish can make a difference in the kinds and amounts of chemical pollutants remaining in the fish. Fish should be properly prepared and grilled, baked, or broiled. By letting the fat drain away, you can remove pollutants stored in the fatty parts of the fish. Added precautions include: Avoid or reduce the amount of fish drippings or broth that you use to flavor the meal. These drippings may contain higher levels of pollutants. Eat less fried or deep fat-fried fish because frying seals any chemical pollutants that might be in the fish’s fat into the portion that you will eat. If you like smoked fish, it is best to fillet the fish and remove the skin before the fish is smoked.
Can I clean my fish to reduce the amount of chemical pollutants that might be present?
Yes. It’s always a good idea to remove the skin, fat, and internal organs (where harmful pollutants are most likely to accumulate) before you cook the fish. As an added precaution: Remove and throw away the head, guts, kidneys, and the liver. Fillet fish and cut away the fat and skin before you cook it. Clean and dress fish as soon as possible.
Mercury is found throughout the tissue in fish, so these cleaning and cooking techniques will not reduce the amount of mercury in a meal of fish.
Some chemical pollutants, such as mercury and PCBs, can pose greater risks to women of childbearing age, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children. This group should be especially careful to greatly reduce or avoid eating fish caught from polluted waters.
The purpose of this is not to discourage you from eating fish. It is intended as a guide to help you select and prepare fish that are low in chemical pollutants. By following these recommendations, you and your family can continue to enjoy the benefits of eating fish.
There has always been and always will be people that go fishing to catch and eat. They are not doing it for sport, they are doing it to catch a good fish and eat it.
Some people go fishing just to enjoy the sport of it and do what they say, “catch and release”.
Catch and Release Fishing
Catch and release is a practice within recreational fishing intended as a technique of conservation. After capture, the fish are unhooked and returned to the water. … Using barbless hooks, it is often possible to release the fish without removing it from the water (a slack line is frequently enough).
Catch and Release the Right Way
Upon releasing a fish, most anglers figure that if it swims away, it’s just fine and will survive. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily true. In studies on hooking mortality, biologists hold fish for observation, usually for several days. What they’ve found is that a fish which appears all right at the time of release may have suffered trauma, injury from the hook or damage from handling, which leads to death later. That the fish swims away under its own power doesn’t assure its survival.
In holding fish for longer periods of time biologists have been able to determine the factors that induce mortality. Which brings us to some undeniable hard information about catch and release: fish that are hooked in the gills or in the gut have a much lower rate of survival than those hooked in the outer portions of the mouth. If you rupture a gill with a hook, a hemorrhage ensues and the fish bleeds to death. Gut hooked fish survive poorly for several reasons including bleeding, impaired feeding ability, infection, and disease.
Many people think they can bring that deeply hooked fish to the boat, cut the leader, and the hook will rust out right away. There is not data that would suggest the hook rusts away in a short period of time. What is clear is that deeply hooked fish have much lower chances of survival than lip hooked fish. If a fish is gut hooked, you do get better survival by cutting the line rather extracting the hook, but the survival rate is still unacceptably low.
You can greatly improve the survival of the fish you release by not feeding line to them when they bite. Circle hooks and modified circle hooks radically decrease the rate of gut hooking and this is well documented in studies.
Mortality is also affected by exhaustion. A big fish fought on ultra-light tackle can’t be forced to the boat until it’s totally gassed. This can stress your catch past the brink. Exhaustion creates extremely high levels of lactic acid – potentially fatal. Also, large fish have a problem with overheated muscles that begin to break down in the course of a long fight. An exhausted fish has a lot of problems avoiding predators after release.
Each second you keep a fish out of water decreases its chance of survival. In a Canadian study, rainbow trout kept out of the water for 30 seconds had more than double the mortality of those left in the water. Rainbows left out of the water for 60 seconds had 6 times the mortality of those kept in the water! Holding a fish up for a picture may be a death sentence.
Fish have a protective outer layer of slime. Handling them with dry hands can remove that slime and leave them prone to infection. Knotted nylon nets can have a similar effect. So, don’t net the fish, don’t lift them out of the water, don’t hold them up for mug shots with the camera. Keep them submerged, reach over with a hook-out and set them free.
Lastly, consider gills an internal organ. Reaching into the gill plate to hoist a fish for a photo or to get to a hook is not recommended. It can damage sensitive tissues, increase chances for infection, or induce hemorrhaging.
Doing it the right way is like this:
Pinch the barb on your hook flat so it’s easily removed. You should also start by using the right hook. Circle hooks are the ideal choice for catch and release fishing.
Bring the fish to the boat as quickly as possible to avoid extreme exhaustion. Don’t use ultra-light gear for catch and release.
Keep the fish in the water and resuscitate it. Handle the fish gently with wet hands or moist gloves. If you must net it, use a release net made of soft knotless fabric and keep the fish under water in the net. Don’t lift the fish up in the air or squeeze it. I know you want a picture before you let it go, but that photo-op may kill the model.
If you plan to keep a fish or two for the table, let the hook-up decide what you kill. Many people who claim to practice catch and release are in fact doing what commercial fishermen call “high-grading”. They are sorting out the smaller fish, looking for the bigger fish. If a trophy size fish is hooked in the lip for an easy release – let it go. If you catch a smaller fish that is bleeding – keep it.
Have tools and a plan. At Angling Unlimited, we use a hook-out device called the “Fish Hook Extractor”. It’s the best tool for the job I’ve seen. Have the tool ready along with gloves for holding the line and protecting your hands. Make sure your eyes are covered in case the hook flies free. Locate the hook, then decide how to approach it.
Fish responsibly. Alter your method or your gear to minimize hooking mortality. That may mean going to circle hooks or setting the hook a little sooner. Apply deeply hooked fish to your bag limit and release the fish with good survivable hookup. If we are responsible in our approach today, it will mean more fish in the future for everyone.
We hope this helps you understand fishing to eat and fishing to catch and release and which you may want to do ahead.