Man fishing

How Does Recreational Fishing Affect The Environment?

Volumes of doctoral thesis and scientific research are yet to fully quantify the extent to which recreational fishing affects the environment. Nonetheless, decades of authoritative observations have revealed our influence on marine and aquatic ecosystems certainly hasn’t  been good. In response, regulatory institutions in developed nations implemented laws and sanctions designed to mitigate angling’s environmental impact.

The primary driver of regulatory measures is the conservation and improvement of fish populations. Over time, these measures have led to a considerable portion of the global angling community being conscious of and active in environmentally responsible fishing.

But according to the most recent data, fish stocks in our oceans and waterways remain critically low with dire projections for the immediate future. Are recreational anglers not doing enough to secure a sustainable fishing future? How exactly do we impact the environment? And what are the solutions?  

Fishing And The Environment: The Current State Of Play

Recreational fishing is global, deeply cultural, and social. It’s also worth hundreds of billions of dollars to the US economy alone and is just one competing interest in the 1.5 trillion dollars earned from ocean/coastal industries. Current estimates speculate 10% of the world's population fish for fun. Clearly, recreational fishing is an indelible weave in our socioeconomic fabric.

Given angling’s economic contribution, you can safely assume regulators aren’t going to flick a switch and relegate our pastime to history. On the contrary, regulatory intervention sought to alleviate the environmental pressures attributed to recreational fishing, so that it could be sustainable, and even thrive.

By and large, modern anglers in developed nations are reasonably well-versed in sustainable practices and are compliant. Yes, some don’t care, and that will always be the case. Sanctions work to some degree to mitigate their impact.

Throughout our fishing lives, we have all witnessed locations that suffered terribly through heavy recreational fishing traffic, associated pollution, and habitat degradation that resulted in dangerously depleted fish stocks. But we’ve also witnessed many of these locations return to comparable abundance with the implementation of environmentally sound regulation.

Recreational fishing is thriving. And while our environmental credentials are not perfect, we have made profound inroads toward a sustainable fishing future relative to the destructive free for all of our forebears.

Modern Recreational Fishing Can Be Positive For The Environment

In so many ways, we remain disconnected from our general environmental impacts. Bread, milk, and eggs come from the supermarket and electricity comes from a power station. The mines, farms, and their toxic by-products are out of sight and rarely contemplated . But fishing is a visceral interaction with a critical and finite resource.  

We become directly aware of our environmental impact, particularly having embraced regulations and the reasoning behind them. We’ve returned home from our favorite spots empty-handed many times, knowing we share responsibility for the baron waters. Fortunately, it’s hurt us enough to become active in its prevention, and sanctions have further encouraged this behavior.


Our passion for sustainable fishing  encourages environmental stewardship we might not otherwise develop. Moreover, our first-hand experience of our influence on marine and aquatic environments transfers to other aspects of our environmental impact. Fishing reconnects us with the natural cycle of life, and the interconnectedness of ecosystems. Through fishing, we adjust our values, which compels us to adjust our behaviors. And we discover that sustainable fishing practices are pretty easy to adopt.

Key Environmental Considerations For Every Angler

These days, many anglers fish responsibly as a matter of habit. Perhaps the most significant trend in recent years has been the enormous growth in catch and release.

Research has found that at least 90% of fish released after catch survive. And it’s estimated that 30 billion fish are released each year. That’s a phenomenal number of fish returned to breed, sustain and even increase fish populations.

There’s no doubt we can increase the survival rates of released fish with the broader adoption of four best practices:

  1. Increase education in the appropriate handling of fish intended for release.
  2. Learn how to pierce air bladders of fish caught from depth so they can quickly return to the appropriate depth in the water column on release.
  3. Reassess and continue to reduce our use of J-style hooks, treble and barbed hooks.
  4. Fish with heavier line classes to reduce the time required to fight/play fish which leaves them dangerously exhausted.

Fishing Regulation Compliance And Involvement

The reasoning behind seasonal closures, catch, and size limits are obvious. These measures are designed specifically to combat overfishing. But while there’s still no definitive equation quantifying recreational fishing’s impact, the numbers underpinning restrictions can seem speculative, even arbitrary. Nonetheless, our collective compliance enhances conservation by default – we are compelled to take less.

If you have something to add to regulatory conventions, you can participate. In the US, we can become involved in the regulatory process. Don’t underestimate the value of your experience as a tool to advance beneficial fishing practices – get involved.

Habitat Protection

700 million anglers create a staggering amount of trash . The plastic bait bag you leave in the water doesn’t seem like much, but collectively we create literal mountains of dangerous plastic waste. Plastic is shown to have a detrimental effect on the earth's biomass, from plankton to humans. Leave nothing behind, including the small offcuts of fishing line, lead sinkers, and fishing hooks.

Tread lightly when waterside. Lands adjoining waterways are linked to marine ecosystems. Heavy foot and vehicular traffic degrade this critical link, impacting biodiversity. So too does the bank erosion caused by boating activity. Boats and other powered marine equipment should not be leaking fuel and oil. . No citation is required to emphasize the devastation oil causes to marine environments.

Return All Trophy Fish To The Water

Studies have shown that it’s better we keep smaller fish and return mature fish to the water. That’s because the most mature fish are the most prolific breeders. Yet, the restrictions on taking large fish are very limited as compared to immature fish.

Further to this, large fish retain large growth genes. They also retain the best survival genes. By keeping trophy fish we are likely breeding out large, strong fish from the gene pool. Our desire to keep trophies may be one of the most detrimental angling traditions.

Learn how to assess the age of a fish, and ALWAYS return trophy specimens to the water. Take a quick photo, and do everything in your power to ensure that the fish survives. This is particularly important in closed waters, where there are no migratory fish to replenish the gene pool.

Why The Continued Decline In Fish Populations

According to studies, the world will run out of seafood in 2048 – the oceans will be emptied of fish. Recreational anglers are working with regulators to ensure our industry is sustainable. By and large, the results in developed nations have been very positive.

Unfortunately, ours is not the industry responsible for the most devastating overfishing.  Between 970 to 2,700 billion fish were caught in the wild each year between 2007 and 2016. Per capita food fish consumption grew from 9.0 kilograms in 1961 to 20.5 kilograms in 2018. 

When a single bluefin tuna can sell for as much as 3.1 million dollars, and fishing fleets are so vast they can be seen from outer space, the problem seems insurmountable. Add to this the habitat destruction caused by coastal sprawl, and a weekend angler’s hook selection seems inconsequential.

I hope that commercial fishing yields soon become so low as to interrupt economic viability, allowing the oceans some time to recover. In the interim, I’ll keep up my end of the environmental bargain as a dedicated recreational angler.

For those interested in commercial overfishing and the plight of our oceans, this film provides insight into the grave problems at hand. Having watched it,, I am committed to steering clear of all commercial fishing products including seafood restaurants, and commercially produced bait. It just seemed a logical step considering the efforts we take to ensure recreational fishing remains sustainable.

Final Words

Recreational fishing that is underpinned by sensible environmental considerations is not only sustainable, but it’s also beneficial. The measures we need to employ are easily achievable  and by adopting best practices, will not degrade our enjoyment of the sport. On the contrary, we’re shoring up our angling future.

Commercial fishing poses a different and more pressing issue. My suggestion is to become aware, share your understanding, and take whatever action you deem fit to distance yourself from the causes of industrial-grade overfishing.

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*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.