A Fair Chase?

From trolling motors to sonar and high-horsepower outboards, today’s anglers have more tools at their disposal than ever
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Technology has changed the way people fish. Is it getting too precise?

Technology has changed the way people fish. Is it getting too precise?

wish I could fish like I could back in the good ol’ days. It’s a lament that fisheries biologist Spud Woodward often hears in his work on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, but one the lifelong angler pushes back against.

“When people get to raving about the good ol’ days, and all [of today’s] limits and restrictions, I say, I tell you what, you can have the good ol’ days back, but you’ve got to turn in the GPS, the sonar, the plotter, your fuel-efficient, reliable 4-stroke engine, and turn in your on-board bait live-well systems that have oxygen injection. Then you can go back to fishing the way we used to without all those rules and regulations.”

Woodward never dreamed when he started fishing more than half a century ago that he would be using a trolling motor powerful enough to move his 25-foot boat with the touch of a button or wirelessly, or that he’d have technology to hold his boat over the fish. His Minn Kota Talon shallow-water anchor and Garmin electronics also give him advantages.

“It’s hard to measure how we’ve changed our ability to catch fish because of technology, and some people are a little fearful of acknowledging that we’ve changed it because they worry that’s going to bring criticism from the usual environmental groups,” Woodward says. “It’s an interesting concept, and it’s one that deserves some attention. If your pocketbook can stand it, you can do just about anything. The limits we used to have just don’t exist anymore.”

Add to the mix downriggers with electric motors, live wells and high-horsepower outboards, and anglers today can safely access just about any fish in almost every part of the ocean. “This has been a fisheries problem since we began catching fish,” says Greg Stunz, a Texas A&M marine biology professor and director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation, who sits on the Gulf of Mexico NOAA Fisheries Council. “It’s even more of a problem because we’re in this technological age. While people may not be increasing their time on the water, they are much more efficient.”

Within the span of about a decade, technology has given humans unprecedented access to fish, Stunz says. Like other industries, fishing has adapted technology initially developed for military purposes, including global positioning, radar and sonar.

“It’s a good thing, because you want people to have access to the resources, but it begs the question of how you manage the resources,” Stunz says. “You’ve got to have good management and good science to back up the management. The bag limits might need to be different. You’ve got to conserve habitats. You just have to become very conservation-minded and preserve those for future generations.”

It’s not just technical equipment that’s making fishing easier. Social media and online information give anglers access to once-obscure fishing spots, says Capt. Andy Mezirow, a charter skipper who operates the 32-foot Gray Light out of Seward, Alaska. “Technology has made finding all kinds of fish much easier, and it has made finding other people’s fishing spots simple, which leads to localized depletion,” Mezirow says.

Companies such as Garmin are aware of the need to balance technology advances while protecting fisheries.

Companies such as Garmin are aware of the need to balance technology advances while protecting fisheries.

In some ways, sport fishing has always been about trading fish stories, Woodward says, recalling that when he was a competitive fisherman in the 1980s, anglers would share hot spots using a secret channel on the VHF radio. “People can tell the stories now in ways they never could before,” he says.

The Pace of Technology

Improvements in technology have been consumer driven, says Garmin sales and marketing director Dave Dunn. Garmin introduced Force, the company’s first trolling motor, at the International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades in July. The motor was developed in response to angler demand. “Customers are begging companies to come in” and develop a more reliable, more durable alternative to existing trolling motors, Dunn says.

Consumers gave that same encouragement to Lowrance, which also introduced its first trolling motor, Ghost, at ICAST, says product line director Lucas Steward.

Lowrance and Garmin are among companies focusing on conservation because depleted resources not only can lead to stricter fishing regulations, but can also mean getting skunked more frequently on days anglers are permitted to target a species, Dunn says.

“Our goal is to make anglers’ time on the water more fun and productive,” he says, “but also advocate that they do it responsibly. The way we see it is, if we don’t help protect the fisheries, that’s a big part of our business that will go away.”

Focus on Conservation

The issue is something of a double-edged sword because the equipment that gives anglers access to fish carries an excise tax dedicated to conservation. Most people don’t realize that when they buy boating and fishing equipment, money goes into the federal Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, Stunz says.

“It’s perpetuating a good cycle, but of course all that is dependent on healthy fisheries,” he says. “The question is, how much can you spend before you get overdrawn? If a fish is worth $4 a pound at the dock, it might be worth $180 on the recreational side. You can redirect those funds to aquaculture to alleviate some of that fishing pressure, but still keep the economic engine going on the back end.”

Technology, a Sustainability Tool

Not all technology threatens marine life. Garmin participates in a tagging program with The Billfish Foundation that allows competitive anglers to catch fish such as blue marlin or sailfish, earn a trophy for the largest catch, and tag and return the fish to record migratory patterns if they are caught subsequently, Dunn says.

Some catch-and-release survival rates are poor, particularly for bottom fish caught in deep water that suffer barotrauma when brought to the surface, Stunz says. Descending devices like the SeaQualizer send the fish back to the bottom, increasing survival rates 90 percent on average (though not all species experience that success rate).

“Using the trolling motor at optimal speed let us present bait in an optimal manner. The fruits of our labor — a 35- pound king mackerel — was later released. “
 — Spud Woodward 

“Using the trolling motor at optimal speed let us present bait in an optimal manner. The fruits of our labor — a 35- pound king mackerel — was later released. “ — Spud Woodward 

Of all the technological advancements, Woodward says none has been more impactful than refrigeration. “When humans had to salt or smoke things they caught, people did not hoard any more than what was practical,” Woodward says. “When modern refrigeration came about, that changed the world fundamentally. If we knew how much fish and game was wasted every year because it was being put in the freezer and left there, we’d all be embarrassed by it.”

Finding Doesn’t Mean Catching

There are still plenty of challenges to being a successful angler, even if the fish are easier to find, Steward says. “You can’t make them bite,” he says.

There has been a fallacy created on television and social media that saltwater fish feed all the time, Woodward says, recounting a recent trip around schools of mackerel that refused to take his bait. “I was using the trolling motor, everything was just right, but it just didn’t happen,” he says. “In some ways, it’s a little schizophrenic. We want people to fish and build ramps and give access to people to fish, and sometimes we have to turn around and mitigate that and put in some restrictions people don’t like. But it’s always been that way.

“In the terrestrial world, the issue is game cameras and drones,” Woodward adds. “Some states out West have outlawed the use of drones for big-game hunting because it’s considered to be an unfair chase. You don’t hear much about the fair chase concept in the aquatic world.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.

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