An Outdoor View: On having fun with fish

We humans have changed a bit since the 17th century, when for entertainment we suspended cats in a sling over a fire and shrieked with glee as the yowling animals were singed, roasted and turned to carbon. Nowadays, we get our kicks in more civilized ways.

Take catch-and-release fishing. I’ve done it myself, but I never felt good about it. It seemed like fun at the time, but it never felt right. There was none of that elated, satisfied feeling that comes from going home with my catch, and sharing and eating it with family and friends.

Catch-and-release fishing as a conservation “tool” began in the United Kingdom more than a century ago to prevent certain species from being fished to extinction. In the U.S., fly-fishing author Lee Wulf promoted it as early as 1936, gaining fame by writing, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” In 1952, Michigan began using catch-and-release as a tool, and fishery managers have used it ever since.

Here on the Kenai Peninsula, we now have advocates of banning the harvest of king salmon, while allowing anglers to continue catching and releasing them. We also have advocates of banning set nets in Cook Inlet, a ban that may be put to a statewide vote in 2016. These actions, their advocates say, would make king salmon fisheries more predictable and sustainable. It’s no coincidence that most of these advocates are fishing guides and other stakeholders in the sport-fishing industry.

To me, it’s glaringly obvious that Alaskans need to take a stand against allowing catching-and-releasing of salmon. The highest value of our salmon isn’t as playthings, but as food. The way things are going, we’re trading our salmon-harvesting culture for a few tourist dollars.

To believe catch-and-release fishing is moral, you have to be a little twisted. Even if fish don’t feel pain, they’re feeling something akin to pain or panic, or they wouldn’t struggle as they do when hooked. Germany and Switzerland banned catch-and-release fishing because it’s inhumane.

Let’s face it. Catch-and-release fishing is nothing but a form torture of helpless animals. It makes fish struggle for their lives. It wounds them, and often maims and kills them. I don’t mean to imply that anglers who enjoy hooking an animal in the lip, fighting it to exhaustion, and bringing it under control are indulging in zoosadism, but I can’t help but wonder why they have so much fun doing it.

Psychologist Steven Pinker, one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature, wrote in his essay, “A History of Violence,” that “The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs.”

Alaskans need to ban catch-and-release fishing for salmon before it’s too late. If it’s not stopped now, the well-organized, well-funded sport fishing industry will have us buying fishing licenses for nothing but an opportunity to fish, with no chance of ever taking one home.

If catch-and-release can’t be used as a management tool, what’s the alternative?

Instead of going where the sport-fishing industry will inevitably take us, we need to know and accept that there will be less fishing opportunity in the future. In years of poor runs, such as in recent years for king salmon, we might not be able to fish at all. As Earth’s population increases, we might have to hold drawings to see who can harvest a particular species, as we now do for hunting certain game animals.

When it comes to hunting, there is no catch-and-release, and for good reason. For the same reasons, there should be no catch-and-release in fishing.

People who want fish to be plentiful often say that they’re doing this or that “for the fish.” If we truly want to do something for the fish, not playing with them while they’re trying to spawn might be a good start.

The only thing we should be doing with salmon besides protecting their habitats is to conservatively harvest them for food. A total ban on catch-and-release fishing for them should be given some serious thought.


Les Palmer can be reached at

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