October 14, 2016

Developing Best Practices for Catch-and-Release Steelhead Fisheries

With the advent of high-tech gear and social media, steelhead fisheries are becoming increasingly popular and accessible. At the same time, many steelhead populations have suffered significant declines in recent decades, with some now approaching extinction, or very reliant on on-going hatchery production. As a result, more steelhead anglers are sharing fewer and fewer opportunities to fish for wild steelhead.
Catch-and-release is one of the most prevalent tools fisheries managers use to regulate steelhead fisheries in North America. In fact, almost all wild steelhead fisheries are strictly catch-and-release, with very limited exceptions for a handful of rivers in Alaska and Oregon.
In B.C., catch-and-release has been the rule for all wild steelhead fishing since the late 1990s. Despite its widespread application, we know relatively little about how effective this tool is in providing a quality fishing experience for all anglers – while still addressing conservation concerns for steelhead populations under different situations.

The assumption is that post-release mortality is low, making catch-and-release fisheries acceptable even where populations are small. However, various studies on other species suggest that a number of factors (such as handling, water temperature, repeat captures, and other river-specific features) can influence survival after release significantly.

Furthermore, the effects of catch-and-release on individual fish may not be immediately obvious, but instead have delayed effects on their survival or ability to successfully reproduce. Small changes in angler behaviour can have major benefits for fish that are to be released; however, the development of new norms often requires convincing evidence that is species- and even location-specific. 

The debate over the effectiveness of catch-and-release to protect wild steelhead from over-exploitation rages on. To this end, the Freshwater Fisheries Society is helping to support this collaborative initiative involving research experts from two universities, the provincial government, and several local stakeholder groups. It examines the effects of catch-and-release fisheries for wild summer steelhead from the Bulkley River of the Skeena watershed as they migrate upstream to overwinter before spawning in the spring. The world-renowned Bulkley supports the largest sport fishery for all-wild steelhead in B.C., and produces some of the largest-bodied fish reported in North America.

This project is examining how catch-and-release regulations affect the physiology and post-release behaviour of steelhead and, specifically, how these traits are affected by:

  •  air exposure
  • handling during play and once fish is landed
  • gear types
  • repeat capture

This fall, migrating steelhead are being captured and rapidly assessed for physiological indicators of stress and physical injury. They are then tagged, and released for tracking. The study design separates fish tested for physiological stress from those that are tagged following angling and tracked following release. This overcomes some potential controversies that arise with other studies focused on quantifying the outcome of catch-and-release on angled fishes.

Results from this project will help influence future handling recommendations and management approaches to minimize the impacts of catch-and-release fisheries for this iconic fish. All results will be shared with stakeholders, and available via various publications.

This series has been established as a way to inform freshwater anglers in B.C. about projects, such as this one, that their angling licence dollars support. In 2015, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC began receiving 100% (up from 70%) of all freshwater angling licence fees. With this additional funding, the Society committed to broadening the scope of its activities to include joint initiatives with the Provincial Government to support projects that benefit freshwater recreational fishing around B.C. 

Author: Andy Danylchuk & Sue Pollard
Photo Credit: Andy Danylchuk & Dana Atagi