April 07, 2015
America was founded on freedom, and that included freedom to procure game and fish on the lands and waters. Historically, fish were harvested for food or trade. Even before the U.S. Constitution was written, depletion of fishery resources necessitated regulations. They had two purposes: conserve renewable fishery resources and equitably distribute them among the diverse users. With time and social change, fish took on a new value, recreation.
After World War II, recreational fishing increased exponentially, and managers saw the need to apply regulations to recreational fishing. Unfortunately, freshwater fishery management in the first half of the 20th century was in its infancy and managers had little information to draw on. Regulations relied on bag limits and protecting spawning fish either by seasonal closures or length limits. That general mentality persisted into the 1970s, and in a few cases continues today.
Let's focus on bass. Several things happened about the same time—bass tournaments, bass angler organizations, and a desire by fishery managers to provide "quality" fishing opportunities. Providing quality bass fishing was a major shift from the prevailing management paradigm, and so began a profusion of regulations designed to provide abundant, stable, and high-quality fisheries.
A Primer on Bass Regs
Bass managers generally have three choices for regulating harvest: season limits, bag (or creel) limits, and length limits. Area closures have been tried, but are extremely limited.
Seasonal restrictions on bass are biologically unnecessary, except perhaps in infertile lakes and streams at the northern edge of bass' range where the growing season may be so short that an individual bass may not acquire enough energy to spawn every year. This rare circumstance seems to only apply to smallmouths. New York was one of the last states to maintain a closed season for bass. A recent study by Dr. Randy Jackson at Cornell University demonstrated that it wasn't necessary to protect spawning bass with a closure in most New York waters.
Bag limits may help distribute the harvest among anglers, but they do little to reduce it because few anglers catch a limit. Bag limits do slow game hogs when the bite is hot, if they comply with the regulations. High bag limits or no limits may be used to encourage anglers to harvest bass when there's an overabundance of certain size classes in the population.
Length limits can be used to reduce harvest and manipulate size structure. They fall into three categories: minimum-length limits, slot limits (sometimes called protected-size limits), and maximum-length limits.
Minimum-length limits are simple—release all bass less than a specified length, commonly 12 or 14 inches. They have an important purpose: to increase recruitment, the addition of bass to the catchable population. Minimum-length limits, except for high length limits, like 21 inches, may increase the average size of bass caught, but they're not conducive to developing trophy fisheries.
Protected slot limits are used where bass recruitment is strong and the goal is to improve the size structure of a population (more big bass). Harvest of fish above and below a protected size range (the slot) is allowed, but fish in the slot must be released. Slot limits of 13 to 15 inches and 14 to 18 inches are common. The biology behind a slot limit is that harvest of bass below the protected range reduces competition for food and allows faster growth below and in the protected length range. Accelerated growth into and through the protected length range can produce more large bass. Catch-and-release anglers benefit because protected-length fish are usually abundant, and catch rates high.
A little used option is a maximum-length limit, which allows harvest of bass only below a specified length. A recent population modeling study for Florida bass fisheries found that maximum length limits of 15 or 16 inches may improve the catch rate of trophy bass more than protected-length limits. Their intent is to encourage harvest of smaller bass, thereby reducing competition for prey, while allowing large bass to reach trophy size.
You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned catch-and-release fisheries. First, bag limits and length limits involve catch-and-release—you release fish to comply with the regulations. Second, when applied correctly, catch-and-release-only regulations accomplish what a high minimum-length limit does.
Do Bass Fisheries Need Regulation?
In 1958, West Virginia biologist Robert Martin documented that bass populations deteriorated in just a few weeks in newly opened fisheries. That was before the practice of voluntary catch-and-release took hold. Today, some managers, particularly in southern states, insist that regulations aren't needed because the catch-and-release ethic is so strong that not enough bass are harvested to require one, so they become meaningless. Maybe so, but recent studies in Florida and Minnesota have demonstrated that appropriate harvest regulations can improve catch rates of trophy bass, even in fisheries with high rates of voluntary release.
If the habitat is good, regulations help produce sustained, high-quality bass fisheries. But it's not just about regulations. It's also about careful fish handling and working for high survival rates at tournaments.
Today's fishery managers can predict the effects of a particular regulation. They enter into a computer model the growth rate, mortality rate, and exploitation rate (portion of the population harvested by anglers per year) and the computer predicts how the population will respond to a specific regulation. This is a significant fishery management advance, but the predictions are only as accurate as the input data. Most agencies can't afford to acquire highly accurate data for more than a few fisheries. And few managers thoroughly evaluate regulations after they're implemented to see if the predictions were correct.
Regulations assume compliance. Unfortunately, some anglers illegally harvest bass. Conservation agencies face ongoing budget constraints, which reduces enforcement.
Managers sometimes are guilty of implementing a regulation because anglers want it. I learned years ago that implementing a bad regulation—one that's unnecessary or one that can't be fully justified by biology—is worse than no regulation. Regulations are accepted by anglers because an agency has credibility. Losing credibility with a biologically indefensible regulation, even though it may be what anglers want, jeopardizes the acceptance of future regulations.
In what may seem like a contradiction, regulations do have a social component. Today, managers have to solicit and consider public input before moving a new regulation forward. Bass anglers are diverse and can be generally grouped as harvest-oriented, catch-and-release, or tournament anglers. At times, of course, anglers fit different categories. But regulations that would be welcomed by one group may be opposed by the others.
Researchers who study the needs, preferences, and other sociological aspects of anglers suggest a market segmentation approach, providing different opportunities to satisfy different angler groups. That might work if lakes came in equally accessible clusters, but that's rare. Manage one lake to satisfy one angler segment, and the other anglers have increased travel costs to fish waters that suit their preferences.
Regulations also need to be dynamic. Bass populations and angler catch and effort need to be monitored, and regulations adjusted where needed. A good example is catch-and-release-only fisheries. Initially, regulations typically produce improvements in bass size. But with time, lunkers die and dense populations of slow-growing bass fail to reach trophy size. Changes in angler effort resulting from the increased fishing quality may also necessitate adjustments to sustain high-quality fishing.
I'll go out on a limb and offer a regulation strategy that might achieve improved bass quality and, as much as possible, satisfy all angler groups. It's simple: lakes with low recruitment get a 16-inch minimum-length limit. Lakes with strong recruitment get a 15-inch maximum size limit. Bag limits are 5 bass per day per angler. These are generic regulations that can be tweaked for different fisheries using computer population models.
Harvest-oriented anglers, which comprise a shrinking minority today, might gripe about the 16-inch minimum, but these lakes are recruitment-limited and cannot support high harvest. Many harvest-oriented anglers will relocate to maximum-length-limit lakes that will benefit from increased exploitation.
Tournament anglers and organizations will flex every muscle to prevent maximum-length limits. These lakes will contain the high-quality bass populations tournament anglers seek, so forward-thinking tournament organizers would be wise to be open-minded. Management agencies and tournament organizations should work together to formulate exemption programs that require careful handling of tournament-caught bass to ensure maximum survival of fish that would otherwise have to be immediately released. Simply put, if tournament organizations can demonstrate near 100-percent survival, an exemption from the maximum length limit won't harm the population. Digital photos and "paper" events also can be combined with immediate release.
Whether a management agency has the political clout to attempt this or a similar regulation strategy remains to be seen, but there's room for optimism. Florida is proposing a 16-inch maximum-length limit statewide that seems to be garnering angler support. But with or without innovative regulations, sustained, high-quality bass fishing will require good habitat, good water quality, and conscientious anglers and tournament organizations willing to harvest bass when regulations encourage it.
*Dr. Hal Schramm, Starkville, Mississippi, is an avid angler, veteran fishery biologist, and freelance writer.