Prompted by B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott, anglers of the 1970s began to release their fish instead of kill them. During those early years, only the big picture was in focus, and it revealed bass fishermen to be stewards who cared about conserving the resource.
Then we began to closer examine our actions and their consequences, and we realized that not all of those released bass survived, including many caught in tournaments. We recognized that improper handling led to delayed mortality. We worked to increase survival rates by devising and promoting better ways to handle bass from lake to livewell to weigh-in stand and finally to release. In 2002, B.A.S.S. compiled a "Keeping Bass Alive" handbook for anglers and tournament organizers.
We're not there yet, and likely never will be in terms of keeping all bass alive after they are released, but we've dramatically lowered delayed mortality rates through innovation and education.
And as we've responded to that challenge, we've noted yet another, this one specifically related to tournament fishing: Stockpiling.
Traditionally, the term referred to what the United States and USSR did with nuclear weapons during the Cold War or what survivalists continue to do with food, firearms, and precious metals. But during the past two decades or so, fisheries managers have recognized it as a phenomenon that occurs when all the bass are released near the weigh-in site following a tournament or two or three . . .
What's the problem with stockpiling? At a meeting last fall with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) biologists, concerned anglers suggested that when bass are collectively released at a weigh-in site they become more susceptible to meat fishermen who catch and kill, as well as easier targets for future tournament anglers, resulting in increased chances of stress, injury, and delayed mortality.
MDNR agreed that stockpiling can damage the overall health of a fishery, and Tony Prochaska, Inland Fisheries division manager, added that the issue likely is a national one. As evidence, he pointed out that 6 of 10 northeastern states that responded to questions about this issue said it is a concern.
Telemetry work conducted in the North East and Potomac rivers decades ago revealed that some fish will leave the release area, but about half may remain for a month or more. Out in California, a study conducted during the 1990s on Lake Shasta showed that largemouth bass moved less than three miles from where they were released.
MDNR's tidal bass manager, Joe Love, says that the issue comes down to two questions:
1) Are too many fish being taken from one area, such as isolated streams and then released at a distant weigh-in site?
2) Are too many fish being released at a weigh-in area?
"We've found that the answer to both of these questions is that it depends on the weigh-in area," he said. "Specifically, it depends on the number of shore anglers fishing the weigh-in area, water quality in the area, and the distance of the weigh-in area from streams where the fish were taken."
Additional variables include the numbers and sizes of the fish weighed and the sizes and timing of the tournaments
Anglers and fisheries managers alike agree that there's an acceptable loss or mortality of fish, Love added. Otherwise there wouldn't be limits. But how much does stockpiling add to that loss, especially at popular sites where multiple weigh-ins are staged each season?
"Pinpointing the relative impact of a single factor is nearly impossible, making successful mitigation of that single factor improbable," the biologist said. "In combination with other factors affecting a fishery, though, stockpiling may affect a fishery if it increases the number of fish caught and released at the weigh-in site and the number of fish caught and eaten at the weigh-in site, both of which increases fishing mortality and reduces the proportion of big fish in a population."
Unlike habitat loss and other factors affecting the quality of a bass fishery, stockpiling likely can be managed. MDNR hopes to do that by having tournament directors specify what management practices they intend to use, such as spreading around weigh-in areas during a tournament trail and/or reducing possession limits.
"We also are working with some tournament organizations such as B.A.S.S. and PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America) to redistribute fish when they request assistance because of otherwise significant, undue harm to bass survival," Love said.
Because of so many variables, stockpiling is a more complex problem than delayed mortality, but fisheries managers and concerned anglers are working on it to better protect and enhance the nation's bass fisheries.