Joseph Love says his job as tidal bass manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is great. The only part the fisheries biologist says he hates is dead fish counts.
In June, Mr. Love was called to Smallwood State Park in Charles County, Md., to investigate reports of a fish kill following a weekend in which four bass tournaments were held simultaneously on the same stretch of the Potomac River. What he found surprised him.
DNR personnel counted 601 dead largemouth bass and some 200 other fish of assorted species belly up in a six-mile stretch of the Mattawoman Creek, where tournament organizers had released fish after weigh-ins. The Washington Times reported "the stench of dead, decaying fish permeated the air."
"We haven't seen these numbers on record," said Mr. Love. "We've never seen such a high level of delayed tournament mortality."
That's the name given to a well-researched syndrome in which fish caught and released by tournament competitors die within days of release. While the death rate for fish caught and immediately released by sport anglers is between 1 and 2 percent, biologists say the acceptable death rate in tournaments -- in which fish are caught, held for hours in live wells and handled before release -- is 26 to 28 percent.
It used to be higher. When inland tournament fishing started in the 1960s, mortality rates were often 60 percent or greater. Realizing it faced a public relations problem, the tournament industry began penalizing competitors for dead fish and adopting standard livewell procedures to increase the survival rate.
Almost all of the fish caught during the first three days of the Forrest Wood Cup, being held in Pittsburgh's three rivers, have been weighed and released live. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which is assisting at the Cup, reports no excessive fish kills associated with the tournament. No unusual numbers of dead fish have been observed this week by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during random riverbank reviews and one trip on the tournament's release boat.
Beth Beard, of the American Fisheries Society, said there's been much research into tournament mortality during the last 20 years. The AFS has published papers on oxygen levels and the spread of disease through livewells, the handling of tournament bass, and fish dispersal -- about 50 percent of surviving tournament-released fish make it back to their home waters, which in big tournaments are likely to be many miles away.
Texas Tech University biologist Gene Wilde, who has spent about 10 years studying fish deaths after tournaments, said they are believed to die from a combination of conditions.
"Stress comes from a variety of factors," he said, "beginning with the angling event itself. Fish exert a lot of energy during the fight. Their muscles produce lactic acid, much like our muscles do when we're running and our legs cramp up. Fish deal with that by respiring more oxygen from the water."
But the stress of catch-and-release common to sport angling isn't usually enough to kill them.
"In an experiment a couple of years ago, we hand-hooked fish in various parts of the mouth and played them," said Mr. Wilde. "Survival was around 98 or 99 percent."
Research suggests that prolonged use of livewells and excessive handling contribute to the delayed deaths of tournament-caught bass. Death rates are highest in warmer water, which holds less saturated oxygen. They're lower in the Northeast where waters are generally cooler.
Water temperature during the 2009 Forrest Wood Cup has hovered around 77 degrees, well within the bass comfort zone.
Mr. Wilde said handling of fish can remove some of the protective mucous covering their scales, making them susceptible to disease after release. Big bass are territorial and endure extreme stress and elevated heart rates when forced to brush against other big bass. And there's additional stress when simultaneous tournaments are scheduled.
An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 fishing tournaments are held each year in the United States. Of those, more than 1,200 are held in Pennsylvania.
The issue among anglers, said Mr. Wilde, isn't that tournament-caught fish are killed but thattournaments and local anglers want them released alive.
"It's public relations," said Mr. Wilde. "If every fish caught in every tournament in the United States was killed, it would not have an appreciable impact on fish populations."
In a 2003 study of the impact of tournament mortality on F.J. Sayer Lake in Bald Eagle State Park in northcentral Pennsylvania, the state Fish and Boat Commission estimated about 12 percent of bass 12 inches or greater died annually following tournament releases. Non-tournament sport angling resulted in about 33 percent of overall losses.
Bob Lorantas, warm-water unit leader for the commission, said the combined impact of tournament and sport angling on bass populations is routinely offset by the prolific bass. There's little stocking of bass in the state; fishing regulations are designed to help the fish compensate.
In Maryland, where the excessive tournament fish kill occurred, there's little DNR oversight of tournament angling.In Pennsylvania, organizers are required to get permits, and file reports detailing the number of fish released live and dead.
Mr. Wilde said there's been some talk of "paper tournaments" that would operate on the honor system. Other fish-saving ideas include water weigh-ins that require less handling of fish. But there's been little development of new technologies -- video proof of catch, on-boat weigh-ins, etc. -- that would change the tournament procedure from catch, stress and release to catch and release.
One of the four tournaments implicated in the Maryland fish kill was the FLW Stren Series, whose winner advances to next year's Forrest Wood Cup in Georgia. FLW Outdoors, which runs the Cup series, penalizes competitors who turn in dead fish. Livewells and backstage holding tanks are spiked with an agent that heals wounds and calms fish. A specially designed pontoon boat releases fish following weigh-ins, and in Pittsburgh four trucks with holding tanks from the commission assist in the release.
"Without any fish, we're out of business," said Charlie Evans, president and CEO of FLW Outdoors. "We understand that we attract public attention and we're setting an example for everybody else. Our goal is to eventually be able to release every fish alive, and [make sure] it stays alive."
This fall, new rules will debut in the National Guard FLW College Fishing Series, including a ban on weighing dead fish, new handling bags designed to further reduce contact and three-fish limits.
John Hayes can be reached at 412-263-1991 and firstname.lastname@example.org .