Study finds survival rates not an issue for catch and release steelhead, trout

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Courtesy of IDAHO FISH & GAME An angler lifts a steelhead out of the water for a picture and is timed by a researcher. A study by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found such practices did not effect survival of the fish or the fitness of their offspring.

The amount of time anglers fight steelhead and trout and the short periods some of them expose their fish to the air before release do not significantly affect fish survival or reproductive success.

Researchers found that most anglers efficiently land both trout and steelhead, and when they remove them from the water to take a picture or just to facilitate unhooking, the duration is short, according to studies by the University of Idaho and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The studies come at a time when some anglers and conservation groups are questioning the lethal effects of catch-and-release fishing.

Last fall, a coalition of conservation groups that sought to shut down or alter Idaho’s steelhead fishery pointed at the potential mortality caused by catch-and-release fishing, the use of bait as a method of catch, and exposing fish to the air prior to release, as factors that imperil wild salmon.

The groups said that the return of wild steelhead to Idaho rivers was so low that all fishing should be stopped or that practices such as fishing from boats, using bait and lifting wild fish from the water prior to release should be banned.

State fisheries managers insisted that regulations such as banning the removal of wild fish from the water, the use of bait or fishing from boats would not lead to significantly higher survival rates for wild fish.

Several recent studies seem to back up their position.

The body of research began with studies aiming to learn how long Idaho anglers fight both resident trout and steelhead and how long the fish are held out of water.

Researchers in two studies observed anglers and timed their fishing practices. They include a 2016 study published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management by James Lamansky Jr. and Kevin Meyer that revealed anglers exposed trout to air for intervals that averaged about 29 seconds and only 4 percent of anglers held trout out of water for more than 60 seconds. Fight time averaged about 53 seconds. When photos were taken, it extended the time out of water by an average of 10 to 20 seconds.

A 2016 study published in the Fisheries Research by then University of Idaho graduate student Curtis Roth, now a fisheries biologist for Idaho Fish and Game at Salmon, showed anglers on the South Fork of the Snake River fought trout for an average of 40 seconds and more than 83 percent landed fish in less than 60 seconds. The average time fish were lifted from the water was about 19 seconds, and 99 percent of anglers held fish out of water for less than 60 seconds.

In 2016 and 2017 Idaho Fish and Game biologists Luciano Chiaramonte, Don Whitney and Joshua McCormick found steelhead anglers on several Idaho rivers exposed fish to air for intervals of about 28 seconds, and 88 percent did so for less than 60 seconds. They documented that when anglers took a photo of a steelhead, they held it out of the water about 1.7 times longer than those who didn’t take photos. Fight time averaged 130 seconds, and those using fly fishing gear took an average of 1.54 times longer to land fish than those using traditional gear. The work was published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.

Additional studies by Roth published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management evaluated the effects air exposure had on short-term survival of cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout. They also looked at the effects that being caught, exposed to the air and released had on short- and long-term survival, as well as reproductive success of Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

Roth and his colleagues used hook and line to catch and tag the fish from a handful of southeastern Idaho streams and then exposed them to the air for intervals for 0, 30 and 60 seconds. They later recaptured the trout through electro-fishing, where a low current is applied to the water that causes fish to be momentarily incapacitated. They found no difference in survival among the groups.

Michael Quist, an associate professor of fisheries management at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resource who was one of the co-authors of the papers by Roth and has followed the department’s work, said the conclusion of all the studies is clear.

“Our take home on this is 1) anglers are not holding fish out of water long enough to cause an issue, and 2) even at air exposure periods longer than most anglers are holding fish out of water, there is not effect on survival or reproductive success so population effects are absent, there is no effect.

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