”Bound By Water” is a monthly column focused on all things water in the state of Florida from fisheries to conservation to the people who affect it. Come on in; the water’s wet.
Across remote atolls, backyard ponds, those far-flung bends in the river, and throughout the delta of islets and old-growth mangroves scattered in sub-tropical latitudes, there’s a thread of solidarity among all anglers. Sadly, no matter the subset, anglers improperly handle catch-and-release species from tarpon to salmon, largemouth to snook.
The leading motive often tends to be the “grip-and-grin” photo opportunity so many anglers vie for—the one that oftentimes upends those quiet in-between moments and instead becomes the goal. The instant gratification of social media beckons. Hence, a fish held high, dry, and plopped back into the water as though being thrust into some magical elixir has become the norm.
But have you ever tried holding your breath for 120 seconds and then falling abruptly onto the ground. Good to go, right? In the last decade, with the rise of social media’s omnipresence, the currency of a good fish picture has risen exponentially.
“It created a demand for those types of images,” Bryan Huskey, the founder of the Keepemwet organization, explains. He believes the shift took a turn for the worse with the proliferation of Instagram content. “In the last year or so, I’ve seen the needle begin to move.”
When Huskey began adorning his posts with the hashtag #keepemwet, he thought it was a clever jab at all those aloof anglers proselytizing catch-and-release fishing—yet they were the very anglers posting visual evidence of poor practices. Huskey’s sly play on words molted into an organization in 2013 after the outcry of concerned anglers criticizing those who’d purport conservation ethics but posted images mishandling fish became apparent. Be it public video or photos, it was evident anglers espoused conservation ethics, but didn’t practice them.
Backed by a small team, Huskey rallied a group of organizations, companies, and media outlets together to promote three simple tenets: One, minimize a fish’s exposure to air. Two, prevent fish from contact with dry surfaces. And three, handle fish as little as possible. Now it seems the movement, abetted by a number of other organizations, is becoming impossible to ignore. But Keepemwet isn’t the only player advocating change.
The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) remains a poster child for organizations promoting sound conservation, fish release practices, and the overall value of fisheries throughout Florida and elsewhere. They’ve flooded the field with research, and their work has positively impacted the health of Florida’s fisheries and habitats, alongside state agencies like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). To think of the value of bonefish, tarpon, or a permit without offering a nod to BTT’s role in protecting those species, would be unthinkable.
Dr. Aaron Adams, the BTT’s director of science and conservation, says, “We’re making progress, but we need more,” referring to widespread awareness of release practices.
“Our rule is that if the fish is out of the water and it’s not still dripping, it’s been out too long,” Adams says. In a similar tone, Huskey echoes the same sentiment as he explains that keeping fish in the water eliminates air exposure, and mitigates the likelihood of crushing or dropping it onto a dry surface, where it might incur additional injury.
In brief, the BTT and Keepemwet’s movement revolves around a slew of principles aimed at effective handling practices, but the paramount rule is to simply keep the fish in the water. Doing so inevitably reduces handling, and by proxy, increases the fish’s post-release chances for survival. To put it into perspective, the BTT says a bonefish exposed to air for more than 15 seconds is six times more likely to die after it’s set free.
Perhaps the most prevalent and overlooked misdeed anglers commit is handling a fish with dry hands, or worse yet, hands doused in sunscreen because the solution removes a fish’s protective slime membrane that protects it from bacteria. Handle fish with clean, wet hands, and if possible, use rubber nets as opposed to nylon. From the moment you set a hook, the tools, location, and haste you take in releasing your catch is as important as how you handle it.
Inevitably, all anglers play a role in the future of any fishery, so, take note.
For example, warmer water temperatures make conditions less hospitable in tributaries, lakes, or on the flats, give a fish the chance to revive as depleted oxygen levels in the water come into play. Moreover, minimize the time spent fighting a fish to the point you’re not exhausting it. While some species have a greater tolerance for high water temperatures, it’s still a factor that affects fish across the board. When south Florida water temps creep above the 90 degree mark during the summer, bonefish and tarpon show increased signs of stress, though bonefish especially seem to be more vulnerable to high temps—more so than say a redfish or permit, according to BTT. The maxim holds true for coldwater species like salmon, steelhead, and trout, as well. As temperatures increase, so does the stress on the fish.
Looking at the plethora of grip-and-grin photographs out there, it’s easy to see the common thread remains the mishandling of fish—on everyone’s Instagram feed or Facebook timelines. Flippantly holding a large fish with one hand, leaving its body unsupported, or worse, holding a fish (like a bass) by its bottom lip and elevating it horizontally, damages its jaw and can cripple it for good.
In 2008, Adams and Keepemwet’s Science Advisor, Andy Danylchuk, along with Steven Cooke and Cory Suskie, published a study about the effects of lip gripping devices on bonefish and found that while no fish died within a 48-hour window, 80 percent of fish sustained mouth injuries. More troubling, 100 percent of the fish held in the air with a lip gripping device were injured, and between the two approaches, 40 percent of fish sustained “severe” wounds—injuries like split mandibles or separated tongues (from the floor of a fish’s mouth). Similar abuses plague largemouth bass, but snook and juvenile tarpon receive similar treatments when held at awkward angles. According to the FWC, holding snook this way can damage their isthmus, a network of ligaments that connects their head to their body, which ultimately leads to slow starvation.
With all this in mind, Adams said, “I do think there’s been a shift. You can see it on social media.” In the last few years, if anglers posted photographs improperly handling fish, they’d hear about it, and that’s curbed the trend significantly. A few years ago, Adams and a colleague drafted letters urging magazines to avoid publishing images that promoted or condoned the mishandling of fish, and they mailed them out en masse. Ultimately, both Adams and Huskey believed those outlets fashion the way anglers take photographs and handle fish, and if they’re unintentionally promoting pernicious practices then they validate the behavior.
Even with increased awareness, Adams warns, “All this is going to be especially important as the amount of fishing pressure continues to increase,” stressing that catch-and-release fishing could become an unsustainable conservation tool if mortality rates continued to increase. In order to protect those fisheries, Adams believes fisheries-management agencies would be forced to implement additional regulations with more stringent, judicious measures. In theory, those measures could go so far as to severely limit the access anglers might have to recreational fisheries.
So what are we as anglers to do going forward? Adams stressed persistence—working collaboratively on educational outreach and advocating for practices that more effectively address the sustainability of catch-and-release fisheries. Still, with the ground swell of organizations like Keepemwet emerging, Adams is optimistic.
“We just need to keep beating the drum,” he said.
There’s no need to shame those mishandling fish, but it’s undoubtedly our responsibility as anglers to lend a hand where we can, so practice some probity the next time you’re on the water, whether it’s with your own catch or by thoughtfully imparting some knowledge on a fellow angler. If you want a fish photo, lean over the gunwale, or hop into the drink altogether to make sure your catch stays wet—barely raise it above the surface to snap a photo, hold it carefully, and make sure to revive it properly. Huskey says anglers can create a similar, if not better, image by thinking of a fish’s health first, and our egos as anglers, last.
As the venerated conservationist Lee Wulff mused, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.”