Best Practices.

Recreational Fishing Best Practices Workshop

In partnership with
The Sportfishing Conservancy, NOAA Sanctuaries and the National Marine Fisheries Service

Bob Osborn for The Sportfishing Conservancy


Location: Richmond Hill, Georgia (Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary) 

Date: November 10, 2012


A workshop conducted with the attendance and participation by local anglers, recreational fishing leaders, scientists, sanctuary management, and conservationists to explore Best Practices for Recreational Fishing

The Sportfishing Conservancy together with Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary hosted a workshop to develop recreational fishing best practices for the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. 

While working on best practices for anglers, the workshop was closely monitored so as to provide the framework for a series of following workshops at Sanctuaries around the nation in 2013.  



Declining populations of popular fishes has required a management response. 

Federal fishery laws have gradually become more effective by mandating timely responses to depleted fish stocks and rebuilding plans based on science that have a high degree of probability in succeeding. 

Many early attempts at rebuilding overfished stocks failed because of inaccurate information regarding fishing mortality, particularly bycatch mortality.  Today science uses conservative estimates of bycatch mortality in the absence of data demonstrating otherwise.  This has in many cases required an assumption of 100% mortality for bycatch species and in the effort to reduce bycatch to zero or near zero has required vast closures to fishing opportunities.

Additionally, typical responses to overfishing has not been timely and as a result much stronger rebuilding efforts are required to meet law-mandated rebuilding timelines.  This has frequently led to large economic impacts on businesses and communities dependent upon the utilization of marine resources. 

Bycatch, the incidental catch of non-targeted species, has also led to a concern regarding less productive species.  These species are often unmanaged and problems with bycatch has led to the most recent changes to federal fishery laws to include ecosystem considerations and to establish fishing mortality limits on non-targeted species. 

Concerns about bycatch have led to more stringent regulation of fisheries and larger impacts on adjacent fisheries.  This has in turn led to a growing interest in research regarding human impacts from fishing while continuing to fish for other species.  

Until recently, marine managers, sanctuaries and fisheries have predominately interacted with commercial fishers.  The commercial fishing sector has come far in developing formal programs to reduce their impacts on natural resources.  However, the process of developing better practices and skills for the recreational fishing community has barely gotten off the ground. 

While many individual recreational anglers have taken it upon themselves to engage in best practices; these efforts lack the documentation necessary for use in management processes and the practices have not been universally adopted by the entire angling community.  Further some methods used and believed to be effective have not been vetted in science as the best practice.  

As human demands for use of marine resources has increased and the need for decisive management has been recognized; recreational fishermen have been increasingly regulated by the management processes.   This has created an immediate need for best practices.


National Marine Sanctuaries:

The mission of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries is to serve as the trustee for the nation's system of marine protected areas, to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy. 

Further, the mission of NMS goes beyond traditional fisheries management and encompasses management for entire ecosystems.  To facilitate this many sanctuaries have created research areas and marine protected areas to help establish baselines for biodiversity and ecological integrity.

To succeed at such a mission requires a tremendous amount of support from people who gain material and aesthetic benefits from the effort. 

Recreational fishermen are the largest user group utilizing nearshore marine resources and represent a very important stakeholder for National Marine Sanctuaries.  

Recreational fishermen interest spans a wide range of material and aesthetic benefits that derive from a healthy resource.


Why A Workshop?: 

Develop Recreational Fishing Best Practices.  Not only will recreational fishermen benefit from a wide adoption of best practices but so will ecosystems.  Benefits will come from lowering fishing mortality and habitat damage arising from ignorance of the best practices in utilizing resources within National Marine Sanctuaries.  While the National Marine Fishery Service has tackled this issue as problems are identified, National Marine Sanctuaries and recreational anglers have much to gain by identifying and implementing best practices in the sanctuaries.  Not only will this be of benefit to the sanctuary mission and the resources they protect but it will be beneficial to recreational anglers to lighten their impacts on resources and aid in ensuing stocks of both targeted and non-targeted species are as healthy as possible and more resilient to adverse impacts from any source.

Likewise developing best practices for protecting marine habitats will help ensure that these habitats are at their most productive and contribute to the same objective. 



The challenges to adopting Best Practices for Recreational Fishing in the recreational fishing community are numerous.  The primary challenges are:

1)    Recreational fishermen come from all walks of life and only to a limited extent operates as a cohesive community through clubs, tournaments and “code groups” exchanging information on fishing practices.

2)    Many recreational fishermen are only casual users of resources taking few trips, fishing on an opportunity basis when vacationing, or touring, or when news of good fishing opportunity becomes widespread.

3)    Some recreational fishermen have taken a poor perception of fishery managers when recreational fishing opportunity is limited. 

4)    Some recreational fishermen have a lack of confidence that better practices will lead to improved future fishing opportunity.

5)    In many areas there is a lack of research and dissemination of information to the recreational fishing community identifying and vetting best practices for specific fisheries and ecosystems.

6)     There is a lack of a mechanism to put the above pieces together. 

In recent years it has become more apparent to recreational fishermen that it is important to get as much out of limited resources as is possible.  Some examples are:

The fishing tackle industry has instituted a FishSmart program to identify tackle to develop tackle aids that will aid recreational fishermen in maximizing efficient utilization of marine resources.  The National Marine Fishery Service has contributed significantly to this effort. 

There have been some jointly developed facilitated workshops  engaging a spectrum of stakeholders, including recreational fishermen, interested in management policy and decisions. One such example is the fisheries for king mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) along the U.S. southeast coast. The approach combined consensus building in facilitated workshops and decision analysis in which stakeholders could compare the consequences of alternative management options on trends in the king mackerel population and the fisheries it supports. The process resulted in a workgroup of stakeholders that developed a clear vision for its desired future of king mackerel fisheries and several alternative management options. Decision analysis was used to select the best options that were then recommended to the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC). These options were more conservative than the council’s own recommendations. Additional benefits of the process included stakeholder education, both in stock assessment methodology and in an understanding other stakeholder positions, and the development of closer cooperation among stakeholders and managers.(footnote)

Many individual recreational anglers have taken it upon themselves to provide for better fisheries through voluntary catch and release and other practices: however from a community-wide perspective progress has been uneven, sporadic, and undocumented.  

Recreational anglers understand the importance of vibrant ecosystems to provide the fishing opportunities they relish and the National Marine Sanctuary understands the importance in having people interested in their sanctuary.  


The Workshop Objective: 

Gray’s Reef managers perceived the National Marine Sanctuary objectives would be served by directly addressing these challenges with the recreational fishing community.  Therefore, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary decided to co-sponsor a workshop with The Sportfishing Conservancy as a first step to address the above challenges. 







Format:   With the participants in place, lead a facilitated process to discuss  angler opportunities, angler practices, the Gray’s Reef sanctuary objectives, and resource vulnerabilities then cooperatively compile  recommendations for a set of guidelines for angler ‘Best Practices’ and where necessary itemize areas where additional research is needed..  The purpose is to document and educate anglers, scientists and fishery managers on ways to work together to insure recreational opportunities and the health and vibrancy of the sanctuary. 

The workshop will include moderator led discussions and then break out groups for more active participation. 

The work products of this workshop will include:


  • White Paper summarizing Recommended Best Practices and research needs to improve practices.
  • Video of Best Practices [Participant Contributions]
  • White Paper on how to implement Best Practices






Participants: [Invitation only] A range of individuals representing recreational fishermen, local guides,  charter captains, scientists, and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary.



1.             Welcome

2.             Discussion of impact of recreational anglers (and their input as to their current practices) and development of Matrix

3.             Break out groups to focus on themes [or a combination of themes]

4.             Break

5.             Break out groups as above

6.             Lunch

7.             Report from Groups

8.             How to Implement Results


Themes (For each theme consider both Technique and Tools)


1.             Avoiding waste (target species, protected species, and bycatch) for both benthic and pelagic fisheries.  (Includes: catch and release, barotraumas, handling of catch)


2.             Avoiding habitat damage (includes:  boating, gear, pollution, debris, and human presence)

3.             Improving management and information systems (includes: aiding in data collection, cooperative research, and management)

4.             Final 1-2 hours:  How to implement?  What does fishing community need to do.


White Paper: 

1.        Create a White Paper on the input and conclusions from fishers and scientists

2.        Compile and distribute video of event with White Paper


Workshop Findings: 

The initial Workshop was conducted on November 10, 2012 at Richmond Hill, Georgia near a popular launch site for anglers traveling to the Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. 

The findings of the workshop are organized into 8 categories.  The findings are compiled from the multiple breakout sessions.


Finding Category 1:  Knowledge of rules and regulations, and familiarity with the resources and conservation objectives of sanctuary.

This category was frequently mentioned by workshop participants.  One of the easiest ways to spoil a vacation is for a vacationer to receive a citation because of ignorance of rules and regulations.  This can sour a participant on the sanctuary and recreational fishing who otherwise if knowledgeable about the rules and how to apply them would represent an asset to the sanctuary.  

Numerous suggestions were made on how to aid fishermen in increasing their knowledge of the rules and regulations and their application.  

First, participants suggested that anglers should know licensing requirements for recreational fishing and should know how to identify the various species that might be caught in the sanctuary.  Being knowledgeable about species likely to be encountered will aid anglers in obtaining the correct licenses and permits and enable them to only retain species for which they have permits to retain. 

Additionally, being able to identify species will aid anglers in properly handling the specie if live release is intended.

Suggestions on how to improve compliance with rules and regulations and build support for the conservation objectives of the sanctuary is closely linked to the approaches for increasing adoption in the other categories such as support of businesses and partners to provide kiosks, videos, posters and internet pages to increase knowledge among sanctuary recreational fishermen. 

Explicit suggestions included producing and distributing literature (booklets and/or pamphlet) and video on recreational fishing in the Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.   Suggestions for distribution included attaching literature and video links to the websites for the Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary and registration pages for the Sportfishing Conservancy Sanctuary Classic registration pages.  In addition, retail partners such as West Marine and Guy Harvey might be enlisted to provide kiosks in stores aiding in the distribution of literature specific to the Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

It was also suggested this bottom up approach to information could be used to aid the Georgia Coastal Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources ("DNR") to distribute their information such as posters and fishing regulation guides and to encourage anglers to place regulation/fish measuring stickers on their boats. 


Finding Category 2:  Fish Handling Techniques

Fish handling was singled out from best practices fishing gear as a critical separate element for angler education.   Utilizing the correct equipment such as dehooking devices aids in fishing handling but anglers need to learn that handling techniques can vary by species and by the size of the fish.  Large fish intended for release because of their weight can be harmed by removing from the water because of improper support leading to damage to internal organs.  Large fish can be better unhooked, photographed, and released while still entirely or mostly in the water. 

Smaller fish removed from the water for dehooking and release need to be securely held to avoid dropping the fish on the deck of the boat an event that can injure a fish leading to eventual death.  Dry hands, gloves, and towels should not be used to handle fish because it may remove protective slime coatings from the fish.  Wet hands for some species is not adequate because a slimy wiggling fish can easily escape a grip and many coastal fish species sport nasty sets of teeth or sharp gill plates preclude lip gripping the fish or gripping it by its head.  Anglers should also be careful to avoid poking the fish in its eyes or gills while holding a fish as these organs are sensitive to damage.   Scientists engaged in fish survival employ wet chamois, wet towels, or wet gloves to aid in handling caught fish and avoid dropping the fish on deck.  Scientists emphasized that dropping a fish on the deck was often terminal and certainly more traumatic than using a wet chamois.

Anglers should consider covering the eyes of a wiggling fish to calm the fish down.  This can not only aid in dehooking the fish but will also reduce the level of stress in the fish and improve its chances for survival.  Additionally this will aid in not banging of the fish against objects or dropping of the fish.

Anglers should consider cutting the line instead of unhooking a fish when a fish has swallowed or partial swallowed the hook.  More damage can come from trying to unhook a deeply hooked fish than allowing for the hook to disintegrate on its own.  It was recognized that minimizing permanent injury or death from swallowed hooks will be aided by using appropriate kinds of hooks and using hooks that will corrode rapidly.

Anglers who wish to photograph a caught fish should have their camera ready to go before catching the fish.  The time a fish is kept out of water is critical to its chances for survival.  Scientists in the workshop said no more than 5 minutes should be considered the worst case limit and noted that less time out of the water will improve survival rates. 

Other considerations and suggestions recommended included the use of a vacuum space bag with some water in it to hold smaller fish or the use of a sling to hold large fish near the water while dehooking.  These techniques can help reduce injury to the fish.  Also it was noted that if a water bath is used to hold the fish temporarily before decompression or dehooking on hot days some means of keeping the water cool should be used to reduce thermal shock to the fish.  Blocks of ice brought on hot days could be used to accomplish this.

It was felt by many participants that more research is needed in the area of fish handling.  Also it was noted that it would be helpful to provide information to anglers on these issues as part of the literature and videos produced in Category 1.


Finding Category 3:  Decompression Techniques:

Barotraumas injury to fish caught at depth has recently become a very important issue in conservation.  Fish with swim bladders brought from depth will float if released and become very vulnerable to bird, shark, and marine mammal predation.  Also a fish with an inflated swim bladder may not be able to effectively move water over its gills and die of suffocation at the surface.  Natural deflation of the swim bladder requires absorption of the gases in the blood stream and takes many hours to complete. 

Most resource agencies have promoted ventilating the swim bladders up to recently.  Now that is changing.  Decompression as opposed to venting a fish bladder is becoming recognized as a superior means for fish survival.  Decompression is less invasive to a fish than venting, which requires the insertion of needle into the side of a fish to the swim bladder.    To ventilate a fish properly requires some knowledge and practice to avoid accidentally damaging adjacent internal organs.  Also the needle wound that results from venting could allow for post release infections of the wound.  Decompression as the preferred alternative is particularly important for recreational fishermen because of the skill that ventilating requires. 

Some concerns exist for decompression techniques because of the additional time it requires to get fish to depth.  This is particularly a concern for commercial fishermen and party and charter boat operators where large numbers of fish may caught at one time.  Much of these concerns are being addressed by education as methods have been and are continuing to be developed to streamline the decompression process.  

Some education is needed in utilizing decompression devices.  If an inverted hook and weight system is used anglers must know the proper amount of weight to use and the appropriate method of getting the fish off the hook at depth.  If a fish elevator is used (an inverted weighted box) anglers need some knowledge of how to get the fish in the box and then inverting the box without dropping the fish.  

Also it was noted that it would be helpful to provide information to anglers on these issues as part of the effort in Category 1.  Another suggestion for promoting decompression practices was to provide decompression kits in marinas for anglers to borrow and use.


Finding Category 4:  Best Practices Fishing Gear and Proper Application

This is a large category.   A lot of fishing gear has been developed in recent years to aid fishermen in catch and release fishing which has grown in popularity as anglers have been increasingly adopting a more conservative approach to fishing of only retaining many of the more popular sport fishes for immediate consumption and choosing to release others so that they can grow larger and possibly be available to make another fisherman's day on the water. 


Recently fishing tackle manufacturers have joined together in a FishSmart program to develop, label, and promote various types of fishing gear to aid anglers in catch and release angling and to promote conservation by increasing the survival rate of untargeted fishes incidentally caught.  The labeling of this gear as FishSmart or  “Best Practice” gear will enable recreational fishermen to identify products that have earned the label. 

In addition to this effort the National Marine Sanctuaries and various other localities will need to add program to connect the correct FishSmart gear to the local fishery and the types of fish targeted or untargeted species there is a fair chance of encountering.  

Additionally this category of best practices needs to extend beyond FishSmart gear to include the appropriate fishing tackle for the locality and conditions to minimize unintentional mortality of fish caught for release or fish unintentionally caught.

Examples would be choosing between the use of circle hooks versus J-hooks, choosing the appropriate line class gear to ensure fish are not excessively exhausted before intentional or unintentional release, using appropriate size hooks to minimize the swallowing of hooks, using barbless hooks to ease the dehooking process, and using non-stainless steel hooks so the hooks will quickly dissolve away if swallowed.

For Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary many anglers expressed the need for anglers to at a minimum have a pair of long nosed pliers for dehooking fish, a descending release device, and other appropriate dehooking devices dependent upon the fishing strategy that will be employed by the angler. 

Another suggestion to aid in adoption it was noted that most of the gear necessary or aiding in the release of fish can be homemade.  Dehooking devices can be fashioned by bending heavy gauge wire like a bucket handle, slings can be built using commonly available vinyl fabrics and broom handles.  Decompression elevators can be made out of boxes with weights and ropes attached.  

Also it was noted that it would be helpful to provide information to anglers on these issues as part of the literature and videos distribution strategies discussed in Category 1.


Finding Category 5:  Trip Planning

Trip planning was brought up by participants.  First it involves addressing all the above categories of best practices before getting on the water.   Knowing the rules and regulations, knowing how to identify the research areas closed to fishing at Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, knowing how to ID the species likely to be caught both targeted and incidentally.  Knowing the correct gear to bring and where to put release tools and your camera so they are immediately ready to use when a fish is caught.  Trip planning also involves preparing your vessel for safe operation.  Accidents at sea are bad for the fishermen, for responding agencies, and often bad for the environment.  Ensuring your vessel is in good condition and of an appropriate design for a trip to Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary is critical.  It is also critical that you carry the appropriate safety equipment mandated and recommended by the US Coast Guard.  Anglers need to ensure they carry sufficient fuel to complete the entire trip, carry maps, charts, and navigational aids such as GPS.  Anglers should have bottom charts so as to carefully pick drift zones that will place the boat in the best location to catch their targeted species and avoid unintentional catch or drifting into research areas.

Also it was noted that it would be helpful to provide information to anglers on these issues as part of the literature and videos distribution strategies discussed in Category 1.


Finding Category 6:  Respecting Resources and Habitat

Over the years people have learned more about the role of marine species within an ecosystem.  Each specie at Grey's Reef NMS enjoys a particular role in the ecosystem.  There are no "trash fish" at Grey's Reef NMS.  Additionally the sanctuary was created to provide an additional layer of protection to the unique habitats at Grey's Reef NMS.  Habitats are at least as important if not more important than the individual species to marine ecosystems not just at Grey's Reef NMS but elsewhere as well. 

Participants singled out the need to respect all species encountered at Grey's Reef NMS.  They also noted the need to use appropriate gear and to learn how to fight fish intended for release in a manner to increase the individual survivability of that fish.  Participants noted that if you are encountering protected species or catching too many unwanted or untargeted fish to move to another location.

Additionally participants noted that anglers need to respect anchoring prohibitions within Grey's Reef NMS.   Anglers should use drift strategies to avoid entering research areas or bottom contact. 

Finally, participants noted that anglers need to avoid disposing of any trash and in particular discarded fishing line and properly dispose of these materials when back on shore.

Also it was noted that it would be helpful to provide information to anglers on these issues as part of the literature and videos distribution strategies discussed in Category 1.


Finding Category 7:  Building Confidence in Best Practices So They Are Adopted:

Participants noted that the best way to get recreational anglers to adopt best practices is to provide evidence to them that the practices will lead to greater survivability of released species, and help ensure access to their chosen activities.

Along with strategies recommended in Category 1 producing educational videos and/or providing internet links to manufacturer videos and instructions for FishSmart gear, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and to scientific research by way of the retail partners, the Grey's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, and the Sanctuary Classic Fishing Tournament will help anglers become aware of the effectiveness of these techniques and lead to a desire to adopt the practices.

Additionally, some areas need continuing scientific research to best identify the better practices.   Involving anglers in developing practical approaches to survival will aid in both building confidence in the program and its adoption.


Finding Category 8:  Building Respect for Fishermen is a Best Practice:

Participants noted that an important element of best practices is being courteous to and respecting all other persons enjoying the Grey's Reef NMS.  Anglers should avoid conflicting with other users and not move in on other fishermen, divers or sightseers in the sanctuary.  Every person with a fishing rod in their hand or visible on a boat is considered by others to be a "fisherman".  The objective of best practices is to not only improve resources but to ensure future access to these resources by future generations.  The National Marine Sanctuary system is to serve effectively the role that National Parks serves on land.  This effectively makes them ocean parks and they are dependent upon having a robust group of stakeholders who respect the mission of these areas. 

A number of suggestions directly addressed this issue with regards to being courteous to others so others can enjoy these great places.Some suggestions indirectly touched on this area like enlisting the aid of fishermen to help achieve the mission of sanctuary through development of best practices and programs to advance the mission of the sanctuary.



Department of Fish & wildlife