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Is Pole and Line Fishing Sustainable? [Pros vs Cons]

    is pole and line fishing sustainable

    Humans have been fishing for tens of thousands of years. Back then, it would have looked a lot different to today’s heavily industrialised fishing systems. 

    Pole and line fishing sounds simple enough but how sustainable is this practice in reality? 

    Throughout this blog we’ll concentrate on the pros and cons of line fishing. We’ll also take a little look at other fishing methods as a comparison for sustainability. 

    By the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of whether pole and line fishing is sustainable.

    What is pole and line fishing?

    One rod – one hook – one fish.

    Pole and line fishing, otherwise more simply known as line fishing, is a basic form of rod fishing which usually uses baited hooks to attract fish. Pole and lining fishing can be operated by a person or mechanically.

    This technique targets large schooling fish populations that can be attracted to the waters’ surface using lights, items that shine (lures) or by scattering bait as a food source.

    One of the most well known fisheries using this technique is the tuna fishery industry. This tends to occur in tropical waters. You may have seen the ‘pole and line caught’ mark when buying a can of tuna in the supermarket. 

    Tuna can be caught one at a time as they are so big. Atlantic bluefin tuna can reach lengths of 4m and weigh over 600kg!

    The basic premise is this:

    • Tuna are attracted to the boat by bait fish which are thrown into the water from the surface.
    • Fishermen then cast their rods into the water.
    • The fish are attracted to the shiny lure and the hook.
    • The tuna can then be landed and sold back on land.
    pole and line fishing of tuna in maldives
    What commercial pole and line fishing looks like. Source: Greenpeace

    The pros of pole and line fishing

    There are a good number of sustainability pros when it comes to line fishing:

    • Small scale
    • No waste or unnecessary bycatch
    • Consumed locally
    • Doesn’t damage the habitat and ocean environment

    Pro 1: Small scale fishing

    By its very nature, using one pole and line per fisherman means that only one fish is landed at any one time. A simple and pretty sustainable method on the surface.

    Some even say that fishermen operating in this way have a direct relationship with each and every fish they catch. On commercial vessels it may be a little more intense than this, but pole and line fishing operates on a much smaller scale to net fishing.

    For example, between 2011- 2014 fishermen in the Maldives brought in an average of 84,000 tonnes of tuna each year. During the same time, purse-seine fishing netted about 2.6 million tonnes of tuna per year.

    Pro 2: No waste fishing with very little bycatch

    In a way, pole and line fishing is extremely efficient, only catching what is needed, with no waste. 

    In a recent study, bycatch (excess catches of unwanted fish) of line fishing within the Maldives amounted to only 0.65%.

    If we compare this to other methods of fishing, the bycatch rate for longline tuna fishing is 28%, while the rate for purse-seine fishing is 5%. Purse-seine are the huge nets used in commercial fishing and this figure may seem a little small, but the authors of the study noted ‘the current sampling coverage was insufficient to give any reliable estimate for low-occurring species, such as marine turtles and some oceanic pelagic sharks’.

    So, not only does line fishing reduce waste, it also means that vulnerable or endangered species are not caught as often. And if they are caught, they can be released back into the water with limited damage or injury.

    Pro 3: Consumed locally

    It’s also the case that a large proportion of fish caught from pole and line fishing is sold or consumed locally, meaning there is a lesser impact from exportation. Therefore, there are less CO2 emissions from exporting fish across the world for consumption.

    If we take the Maldives tuna industry as an example, more than half of the tuna caught is eaten locally. This can also drive the tourism industry for artisanal fisheries and towns.

    Pro 4: Doesn’t damage the habitat and ocean environment

    The simple line and pole technology also means that the equipment does not usually come into contact with the seabed or coral reefs. It’s a big positive for the environment as it means that line fishing isn’t associated with damage to the marine habitat.

    Fishing methods such as trawling however severely damage the ocean bed. This destroys vital habitats for marine life and results in large amounts of bycatch.

    Aside from the sustainability standpoint, pole and line fishing is also a very simple and traditional form of fishing. It uses very little gear, which does mean that amateurs are able to take up the sport and have a go themselves. This means that traditional fishing villages are able to capitalise on this technique and continue to support their growing economies.

    However, its accessibility can lead to potential environmental issues whereby the less experienced individuals could cause more harm than good.

    What are the disadvantages of pole and line fishing?

    The main disadvantage of line fishing is the use of bait for luring the larger schooling fish to the lines.

    In many cases, the bait fish are sardines or pilchards, both of which have been subject to heavy overfishing in recent years.

    As an example, the Pacific sardine population has declined 95% since 2006 and it’s now below the minimum level required to support a commercial fishery.

    Overfished sardine population

    Another cause for concern, especially for animal welfare activists, is the use of live bait in some instances of pole and line fishing. Normally, bare hooks or artificial lures are used on the lines, but sometimes, the hooks are baited with live fish.

    The use of live bait fish in this way, hugely adds to the suffering caused in this fishing method.

    From an environmental sustainability standpoint, pole and line fishing uses weak materials which can often break off in the water, especially during large fish feeding frenzies.

    As such, this can contribute to the large amount of plastic pollution within our oceans, which is a constant threat to our marine wildlife.

    What fishing methods are least sustainable?

    There are a huge variety of fishing methods used in today’s industry. From nets, to traps, to fish farming and shellfish farming.

    There are two main forms of commercial fishing – bottom trawling and midwater trawling (or seining). Both use large nets (that can be hundreds of metres across) to capture fish, but they operate in different ocean levels to target different fish.

    Midwater trawling uses a large net, called a purse-seine net, that’s pulled along by a shipping vessel to surround large populations of schooling fish. Pulled through the water rather than along the ocean floor, these huge nets can enclose hundreds and thousands of individual fish before tightening the purse line and landing on the ship. 

    This type of trawling is used in the tuna industry too. Currently, the tuna industry brings in over 5 million tonnes of tuna each year, with about 63% of this being brought by purse-seine nets.

    midwater-trawling-msc
    Midwater trawling
    bottom trawling
    Bottom trawling. Source: msc.org

    Bottom trawling is where the net drags along the seafloor scooping up whatever it can.

    As you can imagine, dragging a large, heavy net on the seabed can destroy marine habitats and result in large instances of by-catch. This can include marine mammals such as dolphins, endangered shark species and turtles. The bycatch is usually thrown back into the ocean, but it’s sometimes too late. 

    Although the trawling method is ‘industrially efficient’, it is hugely destructive. There’s no doubt that trawling is the least sustainable fishing method.

    Can fishing ever be sustainable?

    Ultimately, yes fishing can be sustainable. 

    However, there are many challenges to achieve this, such as limiting overfishing and stopping destructive fishing techniques.

    Our challenge as a global society is to find the balance between protecting biodiversity within our waters, as well as being able to feed our ever growing world population.

    One way of achieving this balance is by setting up marine protection zones, whereby areas are preserved as no fishing zones and community efforts are placed to promote ocean and reef health.

    One such incentive has taken place on the island of Jersey, Channel Islands, where the bay of Portlet has been named a marine protection zone. This effectively removes fishermen’s fishing rights, protecting the community of fish living within the bay and attracting rich, biodiverse populations to the area.

    Recommended reading: 50 fascinating facts on biodiversity.

    Continuing to develop these ideas within our oceans will enable us to strike a balance between achieving sustainability and suiting the needs of our population.

    Wrap up on line and pole fishing

    With its pros and cons, line and pole fishing is still a controversial topic for many. 

    Some suggest that fishing can never be sustainable, including line fishing. Our declining fish populations are large indicators of overfishing, and show that we’re not allowing the waters time to recover. This is contributing to habitat loss and population loss, with more and more species being placed on the endangered list.

    However, line and pole fishing is one of the most sustainable methods of fishing there is – one line, one hook, one fish. Ultimately this means we should be able to catch only what we need. 

    Continuing to strike a balance between the needs of our world population and sustainability of fisheries continues to become a vital area for improvement.

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