Earlier this month, on May 2nd, the Colombian Supreme Court issued a ruling that will prohibit catch and release fishing. The decision, which cited animal cruelty as one of the leading arguments, received a 8-1 vote supporting the ban, and is expected to go into effect in one year. Chad Agy is a lifelong fly fisherman based out of Salt Lake City, UT, with a particular interest in combining travel with fly fishing. After experiencing the incredible fishing in the jungles of Colombia, he is seeking to shed light on this concerning decision that could have dramatic impacts on the environment and culture of the incredible country of Colombia.
By Chad Agy
We are more than fly fishermen. To some degree, anyone who spends more than a couple years on the water transforms in to something else. A defender. A conservationist. A guardian. We are some of the greatest advocates for the fish we chase, the ecosystems where they live, and even the communities of people near the fisheries. Humans tend to exploit natural resources wherever they go. But with a catch and release ethos, waters frequented by fly fishermen often improve as a result of our attention, our money, and even our mere presence.
For these reasons and many others, the recent ruling by the Colombian Supreme Court to ban catch and release sport fishing is especially confounding. Under the guise of preventing “animal cruelty,” on May 3 the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that catch and release fishing amounts to torture. As things stand, the country will ban the practice in a year’s time, with a grace period to “allow people to adjust.” The claim is that catch and release fishing “violates the principals of environmental protection and animal welfare” and “demonstrate(s) the risk of damage to the environment.”
What is obvious is that both Colombia’s fish and Colombians themselves will suffer due to this ruling. Colombia enjoys some of the best jungle and saltwater fly fishing in the world. Thousands of Colombians depend on the industry and its tourism for their livelihoods.
During a recent trip to Colombia’s Orinoco Basin, I had the first hand opportunity to witness the benefits of sportfishing tourism. Silvio, our indigenous guide, told me that he was using his pay for the week to purchase a motorbike, which he could use to sell fish to other communities and to take his wife to doctor appointments. He told me that the payara populations in particular are healthier than ever, as his people shift to more sustainable practices of harvest. With interested tourists, the fish are now worth more to his people alive than dead.
One evening as we drove up the river in Silvio’s small skiff, we came upon some poachers who had a gill net strung up across half the river. As we approached, the poachers timidly disappeared in to the surrounding jungle. When we passed the spot the next morning, we noticed that they had vacated the area. How long would they have stayed if there was no presence from sport fishermen? How many fish would they have killed?
Without a doubt, some fish die as a result of catch and release fishing, no matter how much care is taken or how many barbs are pinched. But the ruling of the Colombian Supreme Court is misguided. Fisheries and ecosystems will suffer without conservation-minded anglers around. Rural communities will revert to unsustainable harvest. Perhaps other nefarious activities that mar Colombia’s past will return, as the flow of legitimate, legal income disappears. Successful Colombian businesses built on catch and release fishing tourism will collapse. Hopefully reason will prevail once those in power have a chance to learn more about the impending debacle of their making.
Photos and words by Chad Agy.