Hooked on Habitat: Recreational Fishers’ Perceptions of Habitat Restoration

There are many reasons that a person decides to fish recreationally. Some people use it as a reason to escape into the fresh air while others invest extensive time and money into developing technique and accumulating tackle. As a group, recreational fishermen also utilize incredibly diverse habitats – from small, backwoods streams to offshore marine reefs. To better understand the diversity of recreational fishermen, Copeland et al. (2017) designed a study to identify the underlying reasons that drove some anglers to participate in habitat and restoration activities.

This research used an online survey to quantify motivation and participation from fishermen in Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. For the purposes of this study, “recreational fisher” was described as an individual who caught fish as a leisure activity and excluded those who fished for cultural, subsistence, or commercial purposes. These types of surveys are valuable to help fishing clubs, NGOs, and government agencies understand how to engage volunteers more effectively. By understanding the priorities, goals, and limitations of their volunteer base, organizations can tailor the programs to facilitate participation.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Job.

Traditionally, approaches for managing recreational fish stocks have included stocking hatchery-raised fish and implementation of fishery restrictions (examples: season limits, daily catch limits, gear restrictions, etc.). However, more recent efforts have focused on restoring and enhancing fish habitat when it’s degraded and protecting habitats in relatively good condition. While support is increasing from the recreational fishing community in promoting habitat-related activities, the actual number of participants is unknown. This survey was designed to learn more about who is fishing recreationally, what their experience and motivations are, and how these fishers might be engaged in fish habitat issues. In total, 5,646 individuals completed the anonymous survey.

The majority of respondents had been fishing for more than ten years (93%) and had a habit of going fishing more than once a month (90%). Interestingly, 57% of survey respondents were not members of a fishing club even though the survey was distributed by fishing organizations. The majority of fishers rated their fish habitat knowledge as “fair or reasonable” or “very good.” Only 11% of survey participants rated their fish habitat knowledge as “poor.” The results showed three activities that survey respondents considered the most effective for restoring fish stocks, all of which were environmental approaches. These included improved water quality, protection from development, and habitat restoration (Figure 1; from Copeland et al., 2017).

While only 27% of survey respondents indicated that they had participated in habitat management activities, the primary driver for these fishers was the desire to give something back to the sport that they enjoyed. We asked the lead author, Craig Copeland, which results were the most surprising from the survey:

Copeland: “I have spent years working on restoration and talking to rec[reational] fishers about the need for the work. I have always put forward the case that the activity – whether it be fish-way construction, barrier removal, riparian re-vegetation or wetland restoration will produce more fish thinking that this would be the way to all fishers hearts. Who doesn’t want to have more fish in their fishing spot!

But I was wrong – fishers love fishing and they want to put something back – want to feel like they are helping the sport they love. In the past that activity has to a large extent revolved almost wholly around restocking but as we have learned restocking has limitations and a better longer term solution is getting the habitat right – and that’s what fishers are now doing.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin Job.

While recreational fishing clubs and organizations were the leading groups responsible for volunteers who were already involved, a lot of fishers stated that they did not know who to reach out to if they wanted to become a volunteer.

Copeland: “[A]part from a lack of time as a reason for not getting involved in habitat management there was a surprisingly big percentage of people who didn’t know who to contact to get things done, what to do, or felt that enough money was available. This is possibly not so strange in Australia but in the US where organizations have been active for over 50 years this lack of knowledge presents a great opportunity for government agencies and recreational fishing organizations to help put fishers in touch with the organizations that are getting their hands dirty and increasing the volunteer effort in restoring our fisheries.”

Engaging recreational fishers in fishery management activities can benefit both the managers and the fishing community by creating a sense of community and facilitating communication. Opening a dialogue between management agencies and the fishers themselves can lead to consensus on decisions and potentially reduce conflict on issues related to conservation and regulations. This survey provides insight to the motivations of recreational fishers that can assist managers and organizations in designing volunteer opportunities that better meet their needs and increase participation.

Copeland: “Successful river/fish habitat restoration takes a long time. To get people to commit to fixing the problem they not only need to understand the problem and all the planning monitoring, funding and communication issues (as well as the crazy things that happen!). They need to say how they should be fixed – and “What can do to help.” This is what makes the difference between planting a tree one Saturday and fixing a river.”

Photo courtesy of Kevin Job.


Figure 1 borrowed from Copeland et al., (2017).

Photos courtesy of Kevin Job.


Copeland, C., Baker, E., Koehn, J.D., Morris, S.G., and Cowx, I.G. 2017. Motivations of recreational fishers involved in fish habitat management. Fisheries Management and Ecology 24: 82-92. DOI: 10.1111/fme.12204

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