Catch and release

A form of angling where fish, once caught, are then released, known as «catch and release», is prevalent in a number of countries. The authorities are now considering whether the concept should be introduced as a way of limiting catches in some Norwegian rivers. The «catch and release» concept is a new principle in natural resource management compared with the catch regulation measures adopted previously. «Catch and release» completely separates fishing from its original purpose, which was to procure food. In the view of the Council, it is important to support and develop attitudes that safeguard natural resources and manage them in a sustainable manner. This also entails a respect for life. There is little doubt that fish experience pain and stress in connection with fishing, regardless of whether they are killed or released. The difference is that a fish that is caught and released is subjected to this stress merely to satisfy people’s need for recreation. The suffering and damage inflicted on the fish in this connection is disregarded. The Council does not find it ethically acceptable to use live animals in this way. If the fishing stock is so low that it will not tolerate harvesting the alternative in the view of the Council is not to fish. Against this background, the Council advises against the introduction of «catch and release» as a resource management measure in Norway.


Angling is a popular leisure pursuit enjoyed by many people. There are also commercial interests associated with hobby fishing, primarily salmon fishing, since landowners with fishing rights can make a good income from the sale of fishing licences. Hobby fishing, like other outdoor recreation, also has local benefits. While hobby fishing in the sea is rarely regarded as a threat to fishing stocks, hobby fishing in rivers and lakes involves a considerable drain on some fish populations. In several places in the world, among them North America, Great Britain and Ireland, it has gradually become the normal procedure for fisherman to release fish after catching them («catch and release»). This is perceived as a compromise that takes into consideration both the interests of the anglers and the weak resource base. Hobby fishing can be allowed to continue as a sport while ensuring that a vulnerable fishing stock is not overtaxed. In these countries, anglers have gradually come to accept «catch and release» as a model for resource management.

The Directorate for Nature Management is now considering whether the «catch and release» principle should be introduced as an instrument for limiting catches in Norway.

Request for comment

The Animal Protection Board in the Lærdal veterinary district has requested the Norwegian Council for Animal Ethics to consider whether «catch and release» fishing is ethically acceptable. The request for comment asks whether «fishing purely for the sake of recreation is playing with live animals».

Norwegian hunting traditions

It is a basic tenet of Norwegian hunting traditions that it shall be possible to harvest nature’s surplus resources. The purpose of hunting and fishing, including when it is done for recreation, has been to procure food. An additional bonus has been the experience of the outdoors and, not least, the excitement. Many people say that this is just as important for them as the catch itself. By means of legislation and restrictions, the authorities have attempted to regulate hunting and fishing in order to ensure sustainable exploitation of natural resources and prevent local overexploitation. For this reason, fishing, particularly in rivers and lakes, has traditionally been subjected to various restrictions, such as the ban on fishing for trout during the spawning period in the autumn, the minimum size for lobster or the ban on using certain types of fishing gear, e.g. otter boards, in some lakes.

«Catch and release» in other countries

The «catch and release» concept is practised in somewhat varying ways in the countries where it has been introduced. The restrictions may be either voluntary or statutory and either apply to all fish or to specific sizes only. It may be permitted to retain one or a small number of fish, while releasing the remainder. However, in many countries, all fish caught shall be released. In England, for example, the fish are collected in a keepnet in the water as they are caught. At the end of the day, the fish are counted and weighed before opening the net and releasing them.

Special hooks have been developed that reduce the likelihood of the fish being fatally injured. The hooks may lack barbs, enabling them to be easily removed, or they may be made of a material that rusts rapidly, and which is allowed to remain in the fish.

Consequences for the fish

A number of studies have been carried out of mortality in connection with the release of caught fish. These studies are of course subject to a degree of uncertainty since it is not certain that at all dead fish are retrieved. Damaged fish may die after a long time or become easy prey for predatory animals or fish. Mortality is reported as less than 1 per cent or as much as 60 per cent. Mortality depends on the species, type of fishing gear, temperature of the water and handling in connection with removal of the hook. If the fish is hooked in a vital organ such as the gills, gullet or gut, mortality is extremely high. It appears that artificial bait, such as flies and lures have less tendency to hook deeply than hooks with natural bait. An active food-seeking fish is also more vulnerable to serious damage than a sexually mature salmon or trout, which has a very limited food intake. On the basis of the knowledge we have, it is estimated that mortality in connection with «catch and release» river fishing of Atlantic salmon lies at around 5 per cent.

The time that elapses from when a salmon or trout is hooked until it is landed varies from a few minutes to up to an hour for the largest. There is no doubt that it is a strain for the fish to be caught. It must be assumed that the hook causes pain, and the situation will at any rate give rise to a considerable stress response. The fish may be completely exhausted.

The same fish risks being caught more than once. In a river at Yellowstone National Park in the USA where «catch and release» is practised and there are many anglers, a fish is caught on average nine times during the course of a season. A fish was actually reported caught four times on the same day.

Assessment and conclusion

The «catch and release» concept represents a breach of the Norwegian fishing tradition. It turns fishing into a pure sport or entertainment, disengaged from its original purpose, that of procuring food. Recreation becomes the central aspect. The concept also involves something fundamentally different in relation to the catch regulation measures that have been applied by the authorities to date. Suspending fishing for certain periods, protecting individual species or applying rules concerning mesh size are all regulations that apply to fishing to provide food, whereas «catch and release» signalizes a change in the main purpose of fishing to being purely a matter of recreation.

In the view of the Council, it is important to support and develop attitudes that safeguard natural resources and encourage their sustainable management. However, there is little reason to believe that the «catch and release» concept promotes such attitudes. On the contrary, the Council is anxious that the concept will conceal the necessity of respecting nature’s own limits, as long as the object is to allow unlimited fishing to take place.

Fish are more than merely a resource. They are living creatures subject to pain, fear and stress and, when they are treated in accordance with the «catch and release» principle, are made to suffer damage that, after hours or days, may result in death. Recent research suggests that fish experience pain and fear in much the same way as warm-blooded animals. As time goes on, this should have consequences for the way we treat fish.

Many parents attempt to teach their children respect for living creatures and nature. One shall not fish more than one needs for food. One does not fish to throw away the catch, even if fishing is fun. That is a waste of resources. If one continues fishing just to release all the fish one catches, one is causing them unnecessary suffering (cf. section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act).

It may seem paradoxical that the Council finds it more ethical to kill the fish than to release them. If the fish could choose themselves, they would undoubtedly choose to live. However, this is not the point. The good deed, i.e. releasing the fish, is namely dependent on first inflicting suffering on the fish in the form of pain and fear. Just as it is not acceptable to trap birds or animals purely for the fun of it, the Council does not regard it as acceptable nature management to permit that fish be subjected to pain and stress by fishing them for no other reason than to satisfy people’s need for recreation. If the fishing stock is too small to be harvested, the alternative in the view of the Council is to stop fishing. Neither regard for anglers nor for landowners’ income from the sale of fishing licences can in the view of the Council defend a management system where no importance is attached to the suffering inflicted on the fish. Against this background, the Norwegian Council for Animal Ethics advises against the introduction of «catch and release» as a resource management measure in Norway.