For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we chatted with Keep Fish Wet and dove into the topic of fish handling. Keep Fish Wet promotes the use of science-based best practices to catch, handle, and release fish. Follow along to learn more about the organization and ways to lessen your impact of catching and releasing fish.
Flylords: Tell us a little about how Keep Fish Wet came to be?
Keep Fish Wet: We started as just an Instagram account and hashtag (#keepemwet) trying to create more awareness about fish handling, especially because of immense frustration with seeing photos on social media of fish that were handled in ways that would likely cause them to die, but hashtagged ‘catch-and-release’. As our presence and grassroots movement grew, we created more resources for anglers about why science-based best practices for capturing and handing fish are important for the future of recreational fisheries. To help build capacity and continue to grow, we formed Keep Fish Wet as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2019. Grounding all our best practices in science has always been the foundation of what we do and convey to the angling community. Likewise, we strongly believe that information about best practices should be free and readily available, which is why we are not a membership-based organization and our Advoate program is free to join.
Flylords: Tell us about the larger Keep Fish Wet movement.
Keep Fish Wet: Some of our most treasured recreational fisheries are threatened and in decline — think steelhead, tarpon, stripers, and wild salmon. We believe that, as anglers, we need to do all we can to increase the resiliency of our fisheries, especially for native or vulnerable populations and in the face of impacts such as climate change.
Our mission is to help anglers create better outcomes for each fish they release. By providing educational resources about science-based best practices, we advocate for anglers to make small adjustments in the ways they catch, handle, and release fish so that more survive and are healthier after release. By using science-based best practices you have an opportunity to practice conservation every time you catch a fish.
Flylords: I guess it goes without saying, but your overriding principle is to keep fish wet–are there any other principles?
Keep Fish Wet: While Keep Fish Wet is the name of the nonprofit, we advocate for using science-based best practices for fish that you catch-and-release. It’s not only about keeping fish wet, although our name is indeed a very important best practice that anglers should take to heart (since fish don’t breathe out of water). We have three principles that are supported by a series of tips that help anglers put conservation into action with each fish they release. The three main principles encompass what anglers can do immediately after release that make the greatest difference in the survival and health of fish. They are also the aspects of angling most within an angler’s control. They are:
Minimize Air Exposure
Eliminate Contact with Dry Surfaces
Reduce Handling Time
Flylords: Why is keeping fish wet so important?
Keep Fish Wet: Fish need oxygen just like us, but they get it as dissolved oxygen from the water. Taking a fish out of the water is essentially forcing it to ‘hold its breath’. When this is done right after a fish has been exercising on the end of your fishing line it can be especially detrimental. Holding a fish out of the water prevents recovery and can lead to death if done for too long. Even short durations of air exposure (as little as 10-20 seconds for some species) can harm fish.
Flylords: Are there certain fish species where it is more important to keep fish wet?
Keep Fish Wet: Yes, some species are more sensitive to air exposure than others. Similarly, air exposure makes some species more vulnerable to predation after release, whether it a shark eating a bonefish, or osprey eating a trout. For species or populations that are threatened, like steelhead, it’s especially important to use best practices because each fish is much more valuable to the overall health of the population.
Flylords: With social media and smartphones, it seems like everyone wants to get that perfect shot, but many don’t understand the harm they may do to the fish from prolonged air exposure. Do you have any tips for anglers who want to memorialize a catch?
Keep Fish Wet: Of course, having an underwater housing for your camera or phone is the ultimate way to get awesome photos and keep fish wet. But even without one, you can still take fish friendly photos. If you can keep the total amount of air exposure to less than 10 seconds you can get a great photo and release a healthy fish. The easiest thing to do is to keep the fish in the water until you are ready to take the photo, then have the person holding the camera tell you when to lift the fish for the photo (and always take several quick ones). When you lift the fish, hold your breath because when you need to breathe the fish probably does too. The fish should be dripping in the photo, and held over the water in the event it is dropped (better back into the water than onto rocks, the deck of a boat, etc). You can also use creative camera angles and not even take the fish out of the water for that photo.
Flylords: Without science, fishery management measures or practices have no teeth. Tell us about the science behind proficient fish handling.
Keep Fish Wet: The practice of catch-and-release predates the science on it. While it’s not difficult to understand that releasing some fish means more fish available to catch the next day, in the last several decades fisheries scientists have begun to examine the impact of how those fish are caught and handled, and what that means for their welfare once they swim away. In general, the more than 400 studies to date show that the fate of fish after release is primarily determined by angler behavior and that when anglers make small changes in the way they catch and handle fish (i.e., use best practices), more fish survive and are healthier. While there are also a lot of anecdotal best practices floating around, it’s only the ones that have scientifically tested that we can definitively say make a difference, hence our firm stand about Keep Fish Wet being rooted in science. “My fish swam away so it must be fine” is not a valid assessment of health.
Flylords: Keep Fish Wet is just launching a project on striped bass along the east coast. Can you tell us more about it?
Keep Fish Wet: Striped bass are one of the most sought-after recreational species along the eastern seaboard and their population is in decline. In collaboration with Soul Fly Outfitters and Confluence Collective, we are just launching a project called Stripers in Our Hands about science-based best practices for catch-and-release specific to stripers. We will have content all summer long – look for it on social media.
Flylords: How can our readers get involved or learn more about Keep Fish Wet?
Keep Fish Wet: The easiest way to get involved is to become an Advocate. It’s free and all you need to do is pledge to use best practices for the fish you release.
If you are able to, making a donation is always appreciated. Every drop counts as we work to help anglers create better outcomes for each fish they release.