New angling contest raises species fears

A storm has erupted over a major new angling competition after fish scientists pointed out that more than half the 11 species to be targeted are endangered.

The October 27-29 Bottom Species Fishing Challenge is offering R150000 in prizes and organisers said the target species would not be negatively affected but scientists said “accolades for killing animals already in trouble” was unacceptable.

The October 27-29 Bottom Species Fishing Challenge was initiated by Eastern Cape Motors (ECM), sponsored by ECM and Ford and organised by the Port Elizabeth Deep Sea Angling Club (Pedsac).

Two of the 11 species listed on the competition poster (red roman and basterman) are on the World Wildlife Fund’s South African Seafood Initiative (Sassi) orange list, meaning they are “depleted due to over-fishing and cannot sustain current fishing pressure... and/or their biology makes them vulnerable to high fishing pressure”.

And six – kob, poenskop, dageraad, Miss Lucy, geelbek and Scotsman – are on Sassi’s red list of “unsustainable populations with extreme environmental concerns”.

Dr Paul Cowley, a senior scientist from the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity and himself an angler, said bottom-dwelling fishes were characterised by slow growth and delayed breeding and were unsuitable for heavy exploitation.

“Most of these fish are either over-exploited or collapsed. Most are at sitting at less than 10% of pristine levels and poenskop and daggeraad are down to less than 5%.”

While it was not illegal to fish for these species while sticking to bag and minimum weight limits, it was unethical, he said. “With this competition, there will be concentrated focus on one area. It will impact negatively.”

The competition should be refocused on game fish or should be switched from “catch and kill” to “catch and release”, he said.

When bottom-dwelling fish are hooked and hauled to the surface they are unable to adjust to the changing pressure and, as their swimming bladders expand with gas, their stomachs can pop out their mouths in a phenomenon called barotrauma.

Simple catch and release is not an option as the fish will not be able to re-submerge but a “downrigger” can be deployed whereby a large, weighted and inverted hook is attached to the fish and used to lower it back to its natural depth, he said. Then the hook is jerked loose and the fish swims free.

“The opportunity is there to change the ethos of these competitions and adopt catch and release the way the rock and surf and estuary angling clubs are already doing.”

Rhodes University fisheries science department PhD candidate Alexander Winkler, writing on behalf of a group of current and previous students, said while many clubs had moved to catch and release, the upcoming Pedsac Bottom Species Fishing Challenge “seems to be a step backwards”.

Measure boards could be supplied to allow anglers to photograph their fish on board before releasing them and Rhodes fisheries students would be happy to advise on the downrigger release technique or an alternative one where a hypodermic needle was used to temporarily puncture the fish’s swim bladder, he said.

“By changing to catch and release Ford, ECM and Pedsac could educate fishing communities on this approach and set a trend for other competitions.”

Prominent fisherman and fishing writer Edward Truter said angling competitions were designed “to boost egos.

“If you want to compete, fine – but don’t do it at the expense of vulnerable species.”

EC Motors dealer principle Alan Percy, himself an angler, said the competition poster was aimed at gauging the response of anglers.

“But we’re still finalising the detail and... we will look at these concerns at the next [August 30] meeting of our organising committee.”

Pedsac chairman Richard Donaldson said the organising team had already raised the minimum weight above legislated limits to prevent too many fish being taken out. While he was aware of the red and orange Sassi listings for some of the species to be targeted he was satisfied “most of these fish are well protected” and that the tight bag limits would avoid damaging populations.

Donaldson said managing catch and release and ensuring objective judging across so many species would be impossible but they were looking to apply this approach to poenskop “as their numbers are under severe pressure”.

“The competition rules will be tweaked nearer the time and conservation will always enjoy preference in instances such as this.”

“A controlled event with minimum sizes increased is more beneficial to conservation than a normal fishing weekend where the same amount of boats or more will catch and remove much smaller fish in larger numbers.”

He said the competition would include a charity drive to benefit the Aurora centre for disabled children. Competitions were furthermore crucial to the survival of angling clubs and a new Pedsac one was needed in the face of the dwindling appeal of their previous flagship game fishing event the Tuna Classic.

Few tuna were being caught off Algoa Bay due to the impact of foreign fishing fleets and the collapse of tuna prey shoals of sardines and squid, he said.