Sustainable Fishing - Spearfishing vs. Line & Hook Fishing

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Why discuss sustainable fishing?

As divers, we tend to concern ourselves with the health and vitality of the seas. We enjoy the wonders the underwater world has to offer and want to see it flourish. We may also enjoy eating seafood, and knowing how much commercial fishing has impacted our oceans, getting educated on the most sustainable fishing practices can help us navigate our personal impact on the sea with what’s on our plates and how it got there. We may already know (and if you don’t, welcome to the knowledge), that both spearfishing and line-and-hook fishing are the two most sustainable fishing practices. So let’s explore the pros and cons of these two top fishing methods.

What is sustainable fishing, technically?

To talk about the intricacies of sustainable fishing, knowing what that means can be very helpful. Sustainable fishing is fishing in a way that respects the ocean’s habitats while leaving enough fish for the ocean to stay in balance while creating as little pollution as possible. That being said, fishing methods that leave an abundance of “ghost nets” behind and destroy the sea’s natural habitats while overfishing (meaning the fish can’t reproduce quickly enough to keep balance in the ecosystem), are not sustainable practices. While regulations are in place to help prevent these results, there are many fishing vessels in many parts of the world that ignore them. Because of the little-to-no litter left behind and the very selective process of spearfishing and line-and-hook fishing, these two methods stand out amongst the rest. Here’s why:

Current Top Two Sustainable Fishing Methods:

Spearfishing

Spearfishing happens when you get in the water with the fish, whether freediving, scuba diving, or even snorkeling, depending on your depths, and you use a pole spear, sling, or speargun to capture the fish. This is the most selective method of fishing amongst all the fishing methods since you see your intended prey, already noting the size and species (whether it’s in regulation or not), and make a decision from there about whether you want to harvest it. Almost all spearfishermen and women consume the fish they catch, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. Spearing is also considered the most ethical fishing method, considering fish can either pass away immediately once speared (depending on point of contact) or spearos tend to keep a knife on hand to speed the process of relieving pain and fear from the animal. An additional pro to this method is that spearfishing results in little-to-no “ghost gear.” Sure, it’s occasional that the speargun or pole spear slips from one’s hands and sinks into the depths, but this is quite rare, especially in comparison to the gear left behind by other methods, even line-and-hook. Speaking of…

Line & Hook

The good old fashioned, sitting on the dock or boat with your grandpa at sunset while he teaches you how to bait your hook and cast a line kind of fishing. Of course, it can be as simple as that. Unless you need to cut a line and let it sink into the water, this is about as eco-friendly as it gets. This, too, is also a very selective process, though not quite as much as spearfishing is. When you reel in a catch, it could be your intended mahi mahi, or maybe it’s a small shark. Assuming the shark hasn’t bitten off the line and taken off, you can remove your gear from the animal and send the fish back out to sea. This is where we actually get into a gray area about both ghost gear and ethics. 

We’ve all seen a video (or perhaps in person) of a shark or some other fish with a hook still jutting from its lip and a nylon fishing line trailing behind. That animal may even have some of its fins tangled in the line. That being said, ghost gear can be a bit more abundant where hooks and lines are concerned. Additionally, the ethical elements surrounding putting an animal through that fear and pain just to re-release it are questionable—there are many, many articles and debates on whether or not fish feel pain like we do; that is something we won’t get into in this piece, but we know fear is present and we will continue with the assumption that pain is as well. 

Something about line-and-hook fishing that can be a plus is that it can feed more people. You can only haul so many fish out of the ocean while spearfishing, and it may certainly be enough to feed your family. But line-and-hook fishing allows for more fish to be caught with less energy so that more people can be fed at the end of the day. Line-and-hook fishing is also more accessible to many. More people have the physical ability to cast a line in the water and wait for a bite than they do to jump into the ocean, dive to its depths, equalize on the way down, and haul fish back to the surface by hand.  

That being said, if you do no forms of fishing at all, and would like to be a more conscious consumer, you can see something like “pole-and-line caught” on a tuna can and know it’s been a little more sustainably harvested than that of a trawler.

What is fishing line made of?

Fishing line is mostly made from nylon which can be singular in its setting or braided into a stronger cord. Nylon is generally made from petroleum and developed into a silk-like thermoplastic. Therefore, fishing line, being, at its core, constructed from plastic, takes around 600 years to naturally decompose.

Other Types of Fishing Used in Commercial/Industrial Fishing

Industrial fishing has gotten a lot of flack for its damage to the environment (and rightly so). Bottom trawling is an unfortunately effective way to destroy life and habitats along the seafloor. Traps (aka Pots), while often considered somewhat sustainable, can get lost and trap fish for years to decades. Farmed fish, again often considered a sustainable practice when done responsibly, can pollute the ocean, cause unfortunate genetic mutations amongst local wild fish, and, on an ethical level, provide a truly terrible living situation for the animals (covered in sea lice and swimming perpetually in their own waste). Other fishing styles include trolling, long line, and more. While these could be considered sustainable if done with utmost responsibility and precision, they still sit at the bottom of the list in comparison to line-and-hook and spearfishing.

Where does that leave us? With a decision to make about how we fish and choose to acquire fish for consumption. 

If you’re here, on Divers Direct, reading about sustainable fishing practices, the odds are you’re a diver of some sort and have the ability to jump in and meet these creatures on their own turf, as we often do. If you’re a person who eats seafood, it can be highly rewarding to jump in the sea, catch your very own fish, and have fresh grouper for dinner. You left no trace that you were in the sea at all and only harvested exactly how much you needed to feed yourself and your family—the very definition of sustainable fishing. 

If you’re shopping in a store and see “pole-and-line caught” on your purchase or many years have passed since grandpa taught you how to bait your hook and now you’re helping him with the process, know that the line-and-hook method of fishing is still one of the most sustainable. Aside from rolling up your sleeves, standing in a shallow creek, and scoping the fish out of the water with your bare hands, this is about as good as it gets when fishing from above the surface of the water.

*Mini-disclaimer that there is so much more to be explored and researched about sustainable fishing and that this is a general overview of various pros and/or cons to specific fishing methods.

FAQs

Is sustainable fishing possible? 

Sustainable fishing is absolutely possible. Anytime we ensure we are only taking the fish we need, making sure that the fish never goes to waste, and ensuring that our gear doesn’t end up floating aimlessly through the sea or tagging along with a fish, we are participating in sustainable fishing. 

What are sustainable fishing practices? 

Sustainable fishing practices makes sure that the ecological balance in the sea is not being disturbed, and that the fish harvest-to-reproduction ratio is properly balanced to support a flourishing population. That being said, any fishing practice that takes only what you need from the sea while respecting underwater habitats is a sustainable fishing practice. 

How does sustainable fishing help the environment? 

Sustainable fishing helps the environment by keeping a sense of balance amongst sea populations. If this balance gets thrown off, we can see disturbances among the flora and fauna of sea life and consequently the potential of extinction for the fish and severe famine and poverty for us. After that, it is suggested that life on planet earth would be challenging to sustain entirely. The ocean would be overrun with algae, affecting the oxygen levels in the sea (and thus, in the air) and life as we know it would cease to exist. 

Is spearfishing sustainable? 

Due to the fact that spearfishing takes very few fish from the sea, has an incredibly selective process, and leaves behind little-to-no ghost gear, spearfishing is arguably the most sustainable form of fishing out there. 

How can I support sustainable fishing practices? 

You can support sustainable fishing by knowing how a fish was caught before you buy it. You can also study and practice and get out there to go fishing yourself for it. The cool thing about fishermen, whether above the surface or below, is that they are usually always willing to teach you how to fish.