How to Throw Back a Fish

Catch-and-release can be kill-and-waste if you’re not careful

Paul Greenberg

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A too-big striped bass is brought boat-side for release (photo by Carl Safina)

Sometimes I wish that the fish on the end of my line was the one that got away.

Take a night earlier this month. It was the full moon out in Montauk, Long Island, a time and place which east coast anglers know is a nearly unbeatable combination. The strong moon tides stimulate something in striped bass and the roiling rips off Montauk tumble prey in such a way that makes a striper feeding frenzy something of an inevitability.

We humans came into this world as predators. It is not unnatural for us to kill for our food. But it isn’t at all natural to torture fish with endless battles and days-long sessions of catch-and-release.

But here’s the regulatory rub. The sportfishing community has been overfishing striped bass for the last decade at least; overfishing being defined as catching and killing more fish than can be replaced by the breeding population in a given period of time. Part of the reason overfishing has persisted is the tendency of anglers to high grade their catch. Since the per person limit on stripers is now just one fish, anglers got in the habit of releasing smaller fish until they got their hands on a “BOFFF” — a big old fat female fish as fisheries biologists sometimes call the largest and most fecund members of a given species. Soon we were losing BOFFFs too quickly and the stock was plummeting.

How then to protect the BOFFFs? Enter something called a “slot limit.” A slot limit makes keeping a fish below a certain size and above a certain size a no go. For striped bass a slot fish must be no smaller than 28 inches and no bigger than 35. The idea being that if you protect the big fish you shore up the breeding potential of the stock. This has worked extremely well in the Maine lobster fishery. In 1933, Maine fisheries commissioner Horatio D. Crie pushed through a new “double-gauge” law, prohibiting the taking of both very small and very large lobsters — essentially a slot limit. Just prior to the law’s enactment, Crie promised, “If a double gauge measure is passed … you will see the lobsters continue to increase from year to year…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org