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Is Sport Fishing Fair Play?

By Pinar Istek

According to a financial analysis that the University of Costa Rica conducted in 2009, at an approximate cost of $599.1 (US), sport fishing had a significant impact on the total revenue (Gross Domestic Product-GDP) of Costa Rica. Additionally, sport fishing generated 63,000 direct or indirect jobs in the country. Yet, there is no official study or report on the ecological impact of sport fishing on the oceans.

Especially considering that Costa Rican tourism is based on an ecotourism approach, what could be the environmental impact of sport fishing in the long run? And why isn’t there an interest in discovering it?

According to Sam White, one of the tournament coordinators of the Presidential Challenge, a sport fishing tournament dedicated to the conservation and protection of billfish and inshore game fish, in 2008 (the same year on which the financial analysis is based), 33 participants caught and released 111 fish. That same year the country received 283,790 tourists only for fishing purposes, 22% percent of the total number of tourists who visited Costa Rica. With this many fishermen coming into the country, approximately 954.566 fish were caught and released in 2008.

The Billfish Foundation, a U.S.-based NGO “dedicated to the conservation of nature and the environment, and in particular billfish and marine diversity around the world, is running tagging studies. Additionally, research was conducted in Golfo Dulce by PIER (a non-profit research institute). Eight roosterfish were caught, tagged and released and over the course of two years, it was observed that all the individuals survived. However, there is still no major record of mortality or survival rate of the fish that are caught and released in Costa Rica.

About the environmental effect, Andrew Saxton, who practices sport fishing in Playa Garza, said, “A fishing captain would probably tell you it doesn’t have any effect at all. And for the most part they are right.” Explaining how small the numbers of fish that can be caught in sport fishing, Saxton also added “Let’s say you have 10 boats in a bay like Garza leaving on one specific day and they have the best day ever, all of them. Maybe they would catch 100 fish if they each caught 10.”

Andy Bystrom, an environmental consultant from PRETOMA, said that sport fishing has a low impact on the environment. “Techniques that they use are very selective with no chance of by catch,” (he continued. Having said that they don’t cause much distraction on the ecological system of marine bottom, “Sport fishers generally have been working with national authorities to try to come up with strategies that will benefit the sport fishing industries.”

In addition, Adrián Arias, Science Department Coordinator of MarViva, a Costa Rican NGO, said “If sport fishing is done properly the ecological impact is highly reduced and can even be a sustainable activity”.

Sam Bryson also commented that Costa Rica has seen a great decrease in the number of fish, but this is mostly caused by national shrimping fleets and national and international long liners. He thinks that oceans in Costa Rica, where catch and release practice is common, can support the demand that is put on it by sport fishers.

Catch and release is a technique of conservation used in sport fishing. After the capture, the fish must be released from the hook and returned to the ocean before it experiences any severe physical trauma. The idea is to preserve the fish population with a minimal possibility of damage.

Adrián Arias explains, “Sport fishing in Costa Rica has a strong catch-and-release tendency; many game fish such as marlin, sailfish and roosterfish are considered much more valuable alive than dead so they are released by many anglers…killing this fish is not accepted by many of them. If anglers follow a set of good and responsible practices, such as catch-and-release, their activity has the potential to be sustainable.”

Yet there is still a chance for the fish to go through a barotrauma. Furthermore, catch and release is practiced with the assumption that fish don’t feel pain.


Put yourselves into fish’s shoes
Just like with scuba divers, fish that are exposed to sudden pressure changes as a result of deep sea fishing can’t adjust their body physiology to adopt the new environment. According to a study by Karina Hall, Matt Broadhurst and Paul Butcher, researchers from New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, barotrauma “can cause over inflation of the swim bladder, which may squash or injure other organs. In addition, gas bubbles may block or burst blood vessels and stop blood flow to vital tissues or organs. If left untreated, barotrauma can lead to mortality”.

To avoid the impact of barotrauma, Andrew Saxton explained, the fish need to be revived to start the oxygen flow though the body. Adrián Arias commented, “Barotrauma occurs in bottom dwelling fish (such as groupers). Bottom fishing is not very popular in Costa Rica since we have important game fish such as marlin, sailfish, tarpon and dorado that live on the uppermost layers of the water column.”

Do fish feel pain? Yes and no. While a study conducted by Dr. Lynne Sneddon from University of Edinburgh discovered the existence of pain receptors in fish, Dr. James D. Rose of the University of Wyoming claims that a fish brain is not developed enough to have the psychological experience of pain.

As this question of pain remains unanswered, Sara Arrand, a resident of Playa Samara who has been actively interested in environmental issues in her personal life, asks a question: “Is the fish better off having been sport fished than it was before, when it was swimming free in the ocean; or is it worse-off?”

Opponents of fishing argue that the fish should be left alone in the ocean. Felipe Lopez, a Costa Rican biologist, asked ”How can you think that the fish is not harmed after it has been struggling for its life for hours and hours?”

Arrand also commented, “I reject the economic excuse for any bad thing that is going on in the world. Just because it makes money doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it good”.

Is sport fishing a sport or not?

According to the definition of a sport, fair play is one of its requirements. Fair play requires giving all participants an equal chance. The phrase also carries other sub-meanings such as fairness and justice.

In the case of sport fishing, the fish is not acknowledged that in a little while he or she will be fighting for his or her life for hours. The fairness aspect of it remains debatable.

While sport fishermen Andrew Saxton preferred calling it “active hobby”, local Captain Ryan Bombard and Capitan Chiqui Yaniz said sport fishing is a sport. Whether it is a sport or a hobby, the environmental impact of a fight between human beings and fish over several hours of agony on fish’s end, is still a question to be studied.

An Interview With Adrían Arias, of MarViva,
on Sport Fishing

By Pinar Istek


Adrían Arias, Coordinator of the Science Department at MatViva answered VON questions regarding to the ecological impact of sport fishing on Costa Rican oceans.


MarViva is a nationally and internationally recognized Costa Rican NGO, “dedicated to conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal resources” with a focus “on the Pacific territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, covering a large part of the Tropical Eastern Pacific Corridor,” Arias said.

What kind of fish can fisherman catch in Costa Rica?”
We have important saltwater and fresh water gamefish.
Saltwater: roosterfish, marlin (several species), sailfish, snapper, grouper, dorado, jacks, tarpon, snook and many more.
Freshwater: bass (“guapote”), “machaca”, “gaspar”, and a few others.

According to a study that was supported by The Billfish Foundation, Sport Fishing is a big source of income for Costa Rica. What is the ecological impact on the ocean?
Yes, sport fishing is indeed an important socioeconomic activity for our country. As most human activities at sea there are two ways of practicing sport fishing, the right way and the wrong way! If sport fishing is done properly the ecological impact is highly reduced and can even be a sustainable activity.

Can Costa Rican oceans support this demand?
Oceans worldwide are under great pressure due to human activities. Fisheries are close to a collapse due to overexploitation and Costa Rica is no exception. Our fish stocks have been highly reduced during the last years and commercial fishermen are not doing well economically. For example some fishing practices such as shrimp bottom trawling is marginally sustainable (economically that is) and it’s mostly due to subsidies granted by our government.

Sport fishing in Costa Rica has a strong catch-and-release tendency; many game fish such as marlin, sailfish and roosterfish are considered much more valuable alive and not dead so they are released by many anglers…killing this fish is not accepted by many of them. If anglers follow a set of good and responsible practices, such as catch-and-release, their activity has potential to be sustainable.

Considering the financial benefits it brings to the country, is it worth to do sport fishing?
(If it) Is done properly (sustainably)… yes.

What could be the ecological impact in the long run?
Truly responsible sport fishing would have little ecological impact and at the same time provide an important socioeconomic activity for coastal areas and the country itself. However if practiced improperly, sport fishing can have big impacts not only on fish stocks but on the whole system…irresponsible anglers might litter the ocean, disregard other users of the seas (e.g., divers, kayakers, etc.), damage reefs with their boats and anchors, etc.

What is the survival and/or mortality rate of the fish that is caught and released?
Survival rates depend on many variables including species and water temperature. In general terms, when catch and release is done properly, survival rates are considered to be very high on pelagic species (not bottom fish).

What about “Barotrauma” that fish go trough in deep sea fishing practice?
Barotrauma occurs to bottom dwelling fish (such as groupers) when they are hooked and raised from deep waters. Bottom fishing is not very popular in Costa Rica since we have important game fish such as marlin, sailfish, tarpon and dorado that live on the uppermost layers of the water column.

Barotrauma is due to expanded gases in the fish’s swim bladder, these gases can be released by deflating (venting) the bladder with a needle…however survival rates are considered to be low.

Bottom fish such as grouper and snapper can be kept for consumption if they have a good size (and reached maturity). Of course how much fish to keep is one of the decisions that the anglers have to take and reflects on their responsibility. 

Apart from the direct impact on fish, what do you think about the pollution that might come along with the practice of sport fishing? Such as oil consumption and release and noise created…
There will always be pollution from motorized vehicles, reducing it is part of what a responsible angler has to aim for. Good engine maintenance is key not only for safety but for reducing pollution.

Much more serious pollution comes from our rivers and vehicles in the city than from sport fishing boats, but this doesn’t mean we must not address the issue. Currently there is practically no legislation regulating marine transport in our country. For example Costa Rica is not a signatory country of MARPOL.

Is it the deep sea fishing or the way and depth that people fish that can cause an ecological impact on fish population?
It can actually be a combination of both factors; fish don’t have enough time to regulate for buoyancy when brought up quickly to the surface from important depths.

*The interview was conducted via e-mail and edited from the original version.



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