Should fish be killed, just to prove they were there?

Bob Mallard twoBob Mallard recently had a letter published in my local newspaper that challenged the process of killing fish just to prove they are there.

Over the years I challenged the use of gill nets by fisheries biologists, because all the fish that are caught in the nets are killed. I am pleased to report that I’ve been told the use of gill nets has been significantly reduced, but they are still being used, and that still bothers me.

Bob’s column challenged the use of fishing techniques that often kill the fish, used in a survey of sea-run trout.

I’d like to know what you think. I’ve posted a question in my Sportsmen Say Survey on my website, which you can access here. The question asks: Should gill nets, that kill all the fish caught in them, be used in fisheries research projects?

Please read Bob’s letter below, and then take the time to answer the question. Thanks!

Bob Mallard’s letter

I recently participated in a fish survey project in Downeast Maine.  It was part of an effort to “identify and protect” previously unknown populations of pond-dwelling and rare sea-run brook trout.

Led by Maine Audubon, the project is a partnership with Trout Unlimited (TU) and Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IFW).  The project utilizes volunteer anglers to identify populations of fish so that IFW can better focus their efforts and resources.

I think we’d all agree that killing rare or at-risk fish just to prove they are there would be a questionable practice.  This would be especially true if it were not intentional.  But that is exactly what we are doing—to at least some degree; killing fish just to prove they are there, and unintentionally.

When I first learned that volunteers were allowed to use bait, and were actively doing so, I was concerned.  I became especially so as the ponds got smaller and smaller, and the project moved to coastal streams that are home to rare sea-run brook trout and endangered Atlantic salmon.

I presented data showing the dangerously high incidental mortality rate associated with bait fishing.  For example, according to the Native Fish Society, “Taylor and White (1992) showed average mortality of trout to be 31.4% when using bait versus 4.9 and 3.8% for lures and flies, respectively.”  This means that roughly 1 out of 3 fish, including rare sea-run brook trout and endangered Atlantic salmon, caught with bait during surveys die after being released.  Conversely, the incidental mortality rate drops to below 1 out of 20 when using lures and flies.

I suggested an “artificial lures only” policy as a compromise to the two extremes—bait and fly fishing only.  This would allow folks who do not fly fish to participate in the surveys, just not use bait.  Seems like an easy call, right?  Wrong…

My suggestions were met with accusations of “extremism.”  I was told I was being “exclusionary” and “uncompromising.”  All that was offered was a “best-practices recommendation” on the Audubon/TU project website.

“Extreme” is defending a practice that has an incidental mortality rate six-and-a-half to more than eight times higher than the alternatives.  “Exclusionary” would be requiring flies which cannot be used in conjunction with conventional fishing tackle.  “Uncompromising” is taking an extreme position, bait, while refusing to embrace a compromise position, lures.

The Brook trout Survey Project is doing some good and necessary work.  But the sponsors need to “require”, not “recommend”, best-in-class practices in regard to how volunteers handle our rare and at-risk fish, especially now that they are working in very small ponds and coastal streams.  They need to lead by example as they set the bar for the rest of us.  When conservation groups like Audubon and TU allow, and defend, practices that compromise our self-sustaining native fisheries, we all lose—especially the resource.

Can we afford to lose even one Atlantic salmon at this point?  Should we unnecessarily kill any rare sea-run brook trout?  Do we really need to kill fish just to prove they are there?  I believe the answers are no, no and no…

Bob Mallard, Skowhegan, Maine

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.