As a graduate student studying a disappearing pronghorn herd in Arizona I learned that scientific research on wildlife was limited in the answers it provides.
I had imagined research had all the answers, they were just hidden by a veil of coded language. So I learned the obscure jargon of the biologist, certain that with a little knowledge all would be revealed.
I’m not the only apprentice to fall for this wisdom-behind-the-curtain ruse. Early in his career, the religious scholar Bart Ehrman learned Greek so he could read the earliest existing copies of the Bible without the interference of centuries of interpreters. He figured it would allow him to better understand the true meaning of scripture.
Apparently, it did, but not with the expected result. Ehrman, a life-long Christian, became an atheist.
My knowledge quest led to a similar, though less dramatic, conversion. As I studied the research of the fading antelope I learned it didn’t provide answers to all life’s persistent questions. Often, it didn’t answer much at all. Research can be so narrow in focus that it only stacks new questions atop the ones that already confound us.
I was alerted to a new bit of research the other day, a study examining a narrow slice of wildlife biology that — due to its myopic focus on the trees — misses the forest entirely.
The study examined the effects of catch-and-release fishing — specifically the impact of being hooked — on a fish’s ability to feed. The theory is that the hole the hook leaves behind may reduce suction created when a fish expands its mouth to inhale prey.
According to a press release from the University of California-Riverside, where one of the researchers is a professor, “The results add to a growing body of literature raising questions about the practice of catch-and release fishing, which is viewed by many as a way to conserve at-risk fish species.”
That sentence perfectly illustrates the danger of studying a tree while ignoring the forest. When I googled the study the top hit was the press release from UCR — my alma mater by the way — it came as no surprise as, I scrolled the results, that after a couple poorly written stories from the mainstream press, were anti-hunting/fishing screeds, one after another.
The paper claims the hole in the mouth resulted in a 35 percent decrease in feeding efficiency. That conclusion (the tree) is almost certainly incorrect. The counter evidence includes every river in Montana (the forest), where catch-and-release has been the norm since the state stopped stocking trout in 1974, and where fishing pressure is greater than ever. If fish really suffered a 35 percent decline in feeding efficiency after being caught and released, most Montana rivers would likely be troutless by now.
We’ve all caught fish with obvious wounds from previous encounters with hooks. This spring I wrote about a healthy trout I caught while it sipped emerging mayflies during an evening hatch. When I netted the fish I removed my fly, and a large white streamer a nearby angler had lost in a tussle with that same fish earlier in the day.
The evidence is overwhelming: catch-and-release fishing, as a conservation tool, works. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that every fish released dies of old age seasons later. For instance, post-release mortality due to mishandling of fish is a real problem.
Catch-and-release trout fishing remains a remarkable success story nonetheless. In Montana it sustains both thriving riverine ecosystems and sustainable economic activity in the form of guides, fly shops and other businesses that support outdoor recreation.
But I fear the sight of all us folk out having fun catching, and releasing trout, is the sort of target-rich environment the antis can’t resist.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news.