Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Is recreational fishing technology getting ahead of the regulations that protect fish?

Bob McDonald's blog: Scientists are warning that things like drones and underwater cameras may be tilting the playing field too much against the fish

Bob McDonald's blog: Scientists warn that things like drones and underwater cameras may be going too far

A recreational fisherman holds a 24-pound chinook salmon he caught during a guided fishing tour. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Every fishing season anglers head to the tackle shops to find the latest gadget to help land the big one. But some scientists are concerned this gives fishers a greater advantage that may require a change in regulations to preserve fish and their ecosystems.

A new report by an international group of fisheries scientists is sounding a warning that current recreational fishery regulation and management may not be keeping up with rapidly changing technological landscape. They call for monitoring of recreational fish stocks to determine whether the greater ease with which fishers can find and catch their prey is putting too much pressure on fish stocks, and whether regulations should be adjusted to give the fish a chance.

High-tech fishing

Fishing technology has evolved so far beyond the old hook, line and sinker, the dashboard of a modern fishing boat can look like the cockpit of a starship. Large flat screen monitors provide 3D views of the underwater environment around the boat. They can show water temperature, currents and can even identify fish species. 

This underwater drone made by Powervision will detect and take footage of fish. ( John Locher / Associated Press)

Underwater cameras mounted on small remotely operated vehicles can go down and take a closer look, while aerial drones scan the water from above. It is even possible to hook your line to a drone and it will fly it out far beyond where you could cast with your arm so you can cover a much wider area.

Once a line is dropped into the water, the line itself is virtually invisible and unbreakable, and on the end could be a battery operated lure resembling a minnow that twitches like a swimming fish. That lure could also be covered in chemicals that release a fish-attracting scent. Even hook technology has evolved to make sure that once the fish bites, it stays caught. 

This is not to say that recreational fishing should be banned. Far from it. In fact, the researchers point out that many of these technologies can be used to make fishing safer for the fish, allowing fishers to avoid vulnerable animals, or the wrong species, or land and release fish with less trauma and stress.

Tuna fishing rods and reels are shown in this stock image. (project1photography/Shutterstock)

Regulations not keeping up

The problem is that the technology to catch fish is evolving faster than regulators can keep up. And it's hard to predict what the impact of these technologies could have, for example, by allowing fishers to reel in fish that otherwise would never have been found or caught.

The scientists are recommending more research into the impact on the environment and adjustments to regulations to ensure overfishing doesn't occur.

Recreational fishing is, after all, a sport. And in other sports, when new technology comes on the scene giving one side an unfair advantage, the technology is either regulated or it revolutionizes the sport when everyone uses it. 

Take the effect fibreglass poles had on pole vaulting in the early 1960s. The more flexible poles provided so much more spring than the older rigid variety, that vaulters were launched to world record heights like arrows fired from bows. Many sports — hockey, tennis and golf, to name a couple — have benefited from new technology, but it is often regulated in a way that keeps the playing field as level as possible. 

One more cast before the sun sets. (Dunlop's Fly-In Lodge & Outposts/Facebook)

In fishing, the field is definitely tilted toward the human side. Fish aren't developing new human-avoiding technologies. Perhaps by levelling the playing field to give the fish a fighting chance, the old tradition of coming home with a tall tale of the big one that got away might be preserved, along with the fish themselves.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.