Tackle and Tactics
Chuck it back - it's not big enough!.
Most sea anglers must, at some time, have thrown a small fish back into the sea only to see it seized by the rapacious, hooked beak of a herring gull before being swallowed whole. Nothing odd about that I suppose. In a way it is good to see dead or injured fish or the guts from cleaned fish being recycled into the food chain in this way.
In most cases when an angler unhooks and returns his catch, in a careful and thoughtful fashion, it lives to fight another day. Indeed it is quite rare to see a healthy fish being caught and eaten by a predator of any sort. Iíve often watched a small fish swim away into the depths, anticipating its demise in the jaws of a larger cousin, but I donít remember ever seeing it happen, which makes me think that such events are quite rare.
However, it is another matter to consider the impact of commercial fishing on small, Ďunwantedí fish and on other sea creatures dragged up from the ocean floor. All types of fishing are, to some extent, wasteful. For example scientists studying the impact of all the North Sea fisheries have shown that the waste is equal to almost a quarter of the total landings. The 790 thousand tonnes of Ďrubbish catchesí discarded, each year, by trawlers and other fishing craft is a significant part (almost 5%) of the seaís total production. I would guess that this is a considerable underestimate, particularly if you consider all the creatures killed or injured by nets but not actually landed.
The material wasted by commercial fishing each year is enough to keep anglers in clover for ever more. Just consider these weights in terms of your average yearly match catches - 600 million (yes MILLION) pounds weight of flatfish, 500 million pounds weight of round fish and 30 million pounds weight of dogfish and rays. These figures are just for the North Sea - I donít know about you but Iíd be quite happy with even a tiny fraction of these as my lifetimeís landings!
Some forms of fishing are much more wasteful than others. The worst, by far, is the beam trawl, a net with a foot rope which literally scrapes the sea bed for sole, plaice and other bottom living forms. Beam trawls are widely used in the southern North Sea by the Dutch, Belgian, German and British fleets. Beam trawls destroy huge quantities of unwanted flatfish and also hundreds of thousands of tonnes of worms, starfish, whelks and other potential fish food. In round figures beam trawlers are estimated to kill and waste up to ten pounds of fish for every pound of sole landed.
There is also a net fishery for Scampi (Norway lobsters) which are trawled up from their burrows in the muddy sea bed. In this case the wastage of fish and other animals is about eight times the weight of Scampi landed.
Seine nets and otter trawls, used to catch cod, whiting and haddock, also result in massive amounts of waste fish each year: about 55000 tonnes of haddock, 35000 tonnes of whiting, 30000 tonnes of cod and 20000 tonnes of plaice. Other species destroyed in large numbers by these trawls include grey gurnard, dab and rays.
I've no evidence relating to gill nets other than what I've seen with my own eyes - masses of crabs, wrasse, mullet and small bass entangled and dead or dying in nets set in shallow water close to the shore.
Nets which are used to catch mid water fish such as herring or mackerel are, on the whole, less wasteful. One estimate suggested that these fisheries wasted only about four-percent of undersized herring, mackerel and coalfish. Nevertheless these losses amount to almost 100000 tonnes of fish per year.
I dug these values up some years ago but I doubt very much if they are any better today (probably worse). I guess that is more than enough figures for you to digest for the moment but no doubt you have all got the message by now. Line fishing in general and angling in particular are whiter than white when it comes to killing fish unnecessarily (even allowing for that prat you saw on the end of the pier with a bag full of tiny pollack or coalfish). As a sea angler not only should you be able to target which fish you want to catch but you can even try to avoid catching undersized specimens by altering your baits and tactics. Even if you do accidentally catch something small or inedible, if you are careful there is every chance that you will be able to return it, alive and well, to itís native element.
So! Where does that leave us? Unless we want to add to the carnage, there is no doubt that we, as caring anglers, should make every possible effort not to catch unwanted fish. Donít keep pulling in six-inch flounders or tiny school bass, some of them are bound to be deeply hooked sooner or later. Either try somewhere else or change your tactics. Next time you see youngsters with piles of little wrasse corpses on the quayside give them a bit of advice and try to wean them onto catching something bigger or better.
Of course the whole story of discarded fish is not quite as bad as it seems. One manís waste is anothersí breakfast. When I began this article I mentioned sea gulls eating fish. And the number of scavenging sea birds in the North Sea is believed to be something like 3.6 million in Winter and up to six million in Autumn. More than half of these feathery fish-eaters regularly gorge themselves on fishery waste. If all of the discarded fishery waste was consumed by birds then it is estimated that it could support 5.9 million of them.
Even if there are lots of birds about it is not possible for them to grab every morsel of rejected fish and things like crabs and sea urchins sink quickly after being tossed overboard. Nevertheless, fishery waste is at least equal to all the live fish, squid and plankton eaten by all the sea birds in the North Sea, and must be very important in keeping alive the huge flocks of kittiwakes and fulmars. Some birds, such as skuas, have been practically dependent on waste fish for their survival since overfishing caused a huge decline in sandeels (their natural diet) in the 1980ís.
Next time you catch a pouting, a rockling, a small pollack or an undersized wrasse or flatfish, just remember to handle it with care - donít throw it to the gulls, most birds are doing very nicely thank you and can manage without your contribution. .
If you have any comments or questions about fish, methods, tactics or 'what have you.'get in touch with me by sending an E-MAIL to - firstname.lastname@example.org
Chuck it back!