Wrong solution

Dear editor:
I was disappointed to learn the Fall Bass Classic held by LaBelle’s has been cancelled for this coming year. Any event that combines family, friends, and fishing is truly Canadian—and will be missed.
I understand there were a number of factors that contributed to the decision, however, I would like to comment on one. Namely, the notion that fall tournaments for smallmouth bass should be restricted or eliminated.
This idea arose from blatant misinterpretation of scientific findings generated by research conducted by my lab. Working with the Rainy Lake Fisheries Charity Trust, we embarked on a study to investigate the extent of barotrauma in smallmouth bass captured in a fall tournament on Rainy Lake.
La Belle’s Fall Classic was an obvious place to start and they welcomed us with open arms.
In the first year of study, we observed a segment of the population that was weighed-in exhibited signs of barotrauma. Indeed, some of the fish with severe barotrauma did die. However, identifying a potential problem is only part of science–finding a solution is our ultimate goal.
We returned the following year with the intention of evaluating whether “fizzing” (the use of a needle to puncture the swim bladder of fish with barotraumas) could reduce mortality. Interestingly, on the first day of the tournament, hardly any fish exhibited signs of barotrauma. On the second day of the tournament, incidences of barotraumas were more common, but still not nearly as common as either day in the previous year.
Moreover, none of the fish that we released with telemetry transmitters died, including fish that were released with barotrauma and that were both “fizzed” or not “fizzed.” So, our mortality rates in year two were zero percent.
The notion that fall bass tournaments are comparatively harmful relative to tournaments held at other times of year is unfounded. First off, our data clearly shows the incidences of barotrauma vary from year to year—even when fish are captured at the same time within a season.
We are not aware of a single published study that has evaluated seasonal trends in barotrauma. Hence, there is no scientific basis to conclude that fall tournaments for smallmouth bass should be restricted.
In fact, with respect to the seasonality of tournaments, the only thing we do know is that higher water temperatures tend to be more harmful to fish than lower temperatures.
Being that temperatures during the fall tournament were “cool,”, water temperature conditions are quite benign. In fact, during the heat of the summer in the southern U.S., there are instances where tournaments have been rescheduled to coincide with cooler temperatures (such as the fall).
Perhaps there are other factors that could make fall tournaments potentially challenging for fish (e.g., displacement prior to winter), but that’s purely speculative and requires additional research.
Today one of the biggest issues facing those doing research on recreational fish is to determine how to minimize the effects of barotrauma. Around the world from Australia to Oregon, scientists (and anglers) are attempting a variety of techniques for recompressing fish so they can return to depth and experience high survival.
There is no doubt there’s need for more research on this topic. However, using the media to influence public perception of a problem without understanding the full story is irresponsible. So, I truly hope the real reason for the Fall Bass Classic tournament being cancelled this year is because of other non-biological reasons.
The science conducted by our lab, as well as the science available from the literature, does not support the notion that barotrauma is particularly common at fall smallmouth bass tournaments relative to those conducted at other times of the year. As noted above, our goal was not to only focus on the “problem,” but to find a solution if there was a problem.
Cancelling the fall tournament is not the solution to smallmouth bass barotrauma. Instead, more research and creative input from anglers is needed to find ways of recompressing fish with barotrauma.
(Signed)
Dr. Steven J. Cooke
Carleton University,
Ottawa, Ont.