Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Conservation Conversation- Behind the scenes at B.A.S.S. tournaments

    As graduate students, we are afforded opportunities to work and collaborate with a range of people in fisheries and conservation sciences. In one of those instances, we had the pleasure of having dinner with Bass Anglers Sportsman Society’s (B.A.S.S.) own Noreen Clough (the recently retired B.A.S.S. conservation director and a former US Fish and Wildlife Service regional director). Over dinner we discussed the pros and cons of tournament fishing. Coming from B.A.S.S., Noreen told us why black bass conservation mattered so much to bass fishing organizations.

Figure 1 - Sportfishing for largemouth bass

    B.A.S.S. annually sponsors dozens of bass fishing tournaments nationwide. These include large opens like the 2013 Southern Open, a three-day event hosted at Lake Tohopekaliga, Florida. These Opens draw hundreds of amateur and professional anglers. For the first two days, each professional angler strives to catch their five-fish bag limit (the final day of fishing pits only the top-12 per class against each other). In the first two days of fishing up to 1,500 largemouth bass can be caught per day! To non-tournament anglers, these intensive collection events can be alarming. “Aren’t you killing or harming all those fish?” is a question that might be asked. To help answer this question and cast more scientific eyes towards these tournaments, Noreen invited us down to watch fish-handling practices at the 2013 Southern Open.

    Tournaments can serve as a large revenue sources for lakes, towns, and fishing camps across the world. Their interactions with the public also help promote outdoor activities for younger people that seem increasingly trapped indoors. Public interactions involve people from a variety of industries and interests including the media, fishing-related companies, conservation scientists, and bass anglers. Noreen explained to us how B.A.S.S. supports several plans of black bass conservation and helps craft policy that supports sustainable fishing. However, these plans aren’t nearly as well-publicized as the bass fishing tournaments shown on TV. Equally unpublicized are the lengths that B.A.S.S. goes to return fish back to their lake unharmed.

    To help ensure that tournament-induced stress on each bass is minimal, B.A.S.S. adheres to rigorous practices on tournament day. First and foremost, all bass are checked by a certified “Bumper” before weigh-in. Any dead or unhealthy fish are removed from the angler’s total and a penalty is levied against their total weight. Uniquely designed weigh-in bags (consisting of an outer lining which holds lake water and an inner lining of permeable mesh) help keep the fish’s mucus layer intact which maintains a healthier immune system. In order to minimize the time spent in these bags, designated weigh-in times are staggered and limited numbers of bags are handed out.

Figure 2- Tournament anglers wait for the "red bags" at this table.  The bags hold water and have a removable mesh-lining to carry largemouth bass from the boats to the series of holding tanks and, ultimately, the weigh-in station.  There are a limited number of red bags handed out at any one time ensuring a limited amount of bass are waiting to be weighed.

As anglers get fish closer to the initial “bump” table, they remove the outer-lining and submerge the fish (held in the mesh lined bags) in oxygen-rich, aerated tanks.

Figure 3- Anglers wait in the holding tanks before weigh-in.  There is no more than four bags (with up to five fish) in each tank.  The tanks are aerated (orange hoses on rim of tanks) and filled with water directly from the lake.

Anglers then walk the ‘mesh-bagged’ fish towards the weigh-in table along this series of tanks helping ensure that fish stay highly oxygenated throughout the weigh-in process.

Figure 4- Bass are "bumped" at this table.  Bass are checked for minimum length requirements and for a relative health condition.  Anglers can be penalized for fish not kept in good condition.
Once weighed, the fish are carried to a holding well on a custom made live-release boat.

Figure 5- Fish are brought from the weigh-in table to be dipped in an aerated tank one last time before the walk to the live-release boat.

Figure 6- Volunteers (in yellow hats) take fish from last holding tank and carry the bass in mesh bags  to the live-release boat ~40 feet away.
Figure 7- Volunteers deliver the bass (in mesh bags) to be placed into one of three 900 gallon holding tanks on these customized live-release pontoon boats.

    B.A.S.S. live-release boats are designed to reduce fish stress and mortality on tournament days. These boats contain 2,700 gallons of treated water in three separate tanks, each aerated with oxygen. This helps fish recuperate from tournament-handling. The live-release boats reduce over-crowding by transporting a maximum of 600 in any one trip and only 200 in any one tank. The fish are given 20-60 minutes in the holding wells to recuperate and are then driven to deeper waters (this depends on the lake, but we released fish in ~8 feet of water) and released. To reduce damage to the fish, trap doors along the bottom of the holding tanks are opened that release fish directly back into the lake with no human handling.

Video 1- Live-release of tournament caught largemouth bass from a custom-built pontoon boat with aerated holding tanks for quick release back into Lake Tohopekaliga.

After emptying, the boat drivers observe the release area for any struggling fish while the tanks are refilled with lake water so the boat can quickly release another batch of tournament fish.

    The B.A.S.S. live release program seems to be working. They estimate pre-release tournament mortality to average <1% and any fish lost are donated to local food banks. We considered this especially impressive considering the high numbers of fish caught in large tournaments. Recent research from University of Florida has shown that bass released after non-tournament angling often return to the locations from which they were caught suggesting a relatively small time (1-3 days) until a bass returns to normal behavior. Though short-term mortality appears low, the long-term post-release mortality of tournament fish remains uncertain. Almost certainly it will be higher than this 1% average. But we note that organizations like B.A.S.S. give great efforts to reduce stress and mortality and our initial observations suggest they do a good job doing so. We extend our gratitude to all the B.A.S.S. staff that patiently answered all our questions and put up with us nosing around for a day of hard work!

    The following entry was coauthored by Kyle Wilson (the University of Calgary) and Nicholas Cole (University of Nebraska)


  1. There are lots of fun in fishing when i was on trip with my family i enjoyed very much and i have some unforgettable moments
    of fishing for me that was a great day on water !!

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  2. Funny deal. Pure welding oxygen used to insure safe oxygenation “oxygen-rich tank water” at the weigh-in for the public show for an hour. NO OXYGEN all day provided by fishermen in 7-8 hour all day bass boat ride.
    What a paradox of tournament bass care, when and where the fish get the oxygen.
    Oxygenation of Livewells to Improve Survival of Tournament-Caught Bass by Fishery Biologist Randy Myers and Jason Driscoll TPWP, Inland Fisheries Division, San Antonio, TX Publication 6/2011
    The best fish care provide by tournament officials during the weigh-in show and release boat ride and far less than the best bass care all day provided by the fisherman is the real deal. And they (the fish experts) say there’s a problem with summer bass tournament mortality… wonder why?

  3. I Googled Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director and found this publication, written decades back. Glad to share this with you.
    Some of this has come full circle and used today in some bass tournaments as described in this blog which has been implemental in reduced tournament bass mortality significantly. The tournament fish care procedure discussed in this blog was presented many, many years ago back in the 1990’s by Gene Gilliland before “oxygen-injected livewells” were accepted as “vital” and became popular in a few bass tournaments.
    Gilliland an innovator in the bass tournament industry (tournament fish care business) , also included anglers and tournament bass boats in this fish care process not dodging the responsibility of the angler to provide the same oxygen water quality parameters found at the weigh-in and the short transport on the live release boat. After all, anglers are responsible for fish care most of the day. The quality of vital tournament bass care (insuring minimal safe oxygenation continuously for the all the catch) provided at the weigh in through final release is extremely different than the routine care provided all day in bass boat livewell by contestants – this water quality paradox continues to date, the double standard is alive and well and accepted as normal and no one squawks. At the end of the day when the angler arrives at the weigh-in with a winning limit of bass in the livewell, you will never see any tournament official test the DO Saturation in any boat live well in the summer like the DO testing in the release boat tanks or holding tanks, never! Are livewell really function when they contain a heavy limit of bass in the summer?
    Go to this webpage and scroll down a little over half way down the page and see Gilliland’s thoughts about an “Ultimate Fish Care System” that applies to tournament directors and tournament anglers in an effort to provide the best tournament bass care possible.
    Fishing Tournament Mortality

  4. It's a great bass fishing tournament. Kayak is an important factor to succeed your bass fishing competition.