Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen


Bait­fish are small fish that are sold to recre­ational fish­er­men, who usu­ally im­pale them on a hook and use them as live bait for big­ger fish. In this ar­ti­cle, I dis­cuss why I think that lob­by­ing for stric­ter bait­fish reg­u­la­tions in the U.S. can be an effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion.


  • 1 to 10 billion farmed bait­fish are sold in the U.S. an­nu­ally. For com­par­i­son, U.S. meat con­sump­tion is re­spon­si­ble for the slaugh­ter­ing of 1.3 to 2.5 billion farmed fish and ~7.7 billion land ver­te­brates an­nu­ally.

  • Farmed bait­fish suffer not only dur­ing farm­ing, but also when trans­ported and kept by whole­salers, re­tailers, and fish­er­men, where con­di­tions may be worse. They also suffer dur­ing an­gling.

  • Most farmed bait­fish are sold when they are about 1 year old.[1]


I was able to find very lit­tle ev­i­dence of an­i­mal ac­tivism di­rected to­wards stric­ter bait­fish laws. The is­sue seems to be very ne­glected.


Live bait­fish use is pro­hibited in some parts of Europe, Canada and the U.S. due to con­cerns about in­va­sive species, spread of dis­eases, and an­i­mal rights. This is an in­di­ca­tion that lob­by­ing for stric­ter reg­u­la­tions could be tractable.


If the use of live bait­fish was pro­hibited, some an­glers would likely use ar­tifi­cial baits in­stead, but some would choose to use worms, leeches, or other an­i­mals as live bait.

Num­ber of bait­fish raised in the U.S.

Differ­ent sources seem to provide some­what con­flict­ing num­bers about the num­ber of bait­fish that are sold and pro­duced an­nu­ally. They range from 1 billion to over 10 billion:

  • Ac­cord­ing to the USDA’s Cen­sus of Aqua­cul­ture, over 1.17 billion bait­fish were sold in the U.S. in 2013.

  • One Arkansas farm boasts of hatch­ing (or “be ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing”) 1 billion golden shriners an­nu­ally. This seems to con­tra­dict the Cen­sus of Aqua­cul­ture, which claims that 523 mil­lion golden shin­ers were pro­duced in the whole U.S. in 2013.

  • Stone et al. (1997) claim that Arkansas alone is pro­duc­ing over six billion bait­fish an­nu­ally.

  • Good­win et al. (2004) claim that “More than 80% of all bait­fish are farm raised, but there is a very sig­nifi­cant trade in wild-caught fish (Stone et al. 1997). The bait­fish in­dus­try ships more than 10 billion fish per year.” Since it’s cit­ing the ar­ti­cle in the point above, I’m guess­ing that the 10 billion figure is just an ex­trap­o­la­tion of the 6 billion figure for the whole U.S.

I haven’t found any ar­ti­cles cit­ing The Cen­sus of Aqua­cul­ture figure which makes me doubt its ac­cu­racy. The six billion figure for Arkansas from Stone et al. 1997 is widely cited. How­ever, it could be out­dated, es­pe­cially since the in­dus­try seems to be on the de­cline.

Con­flict­ing figures are partly ex­plained by Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000):

“Cur­rent and ac­cu­rate es­ti­mates of pro­duc­tion and value of bait­fish in the U.S. and the NCR are not available. The lack of ac­cu­rate pro­duc­tion es­ti­mates is the re­sult of in­con­sis­ten­cies in re­port­ing, differ­ent meth­ods of re­port­ing (i.e., gal­lons, dozens, pounds), use of differ­ent com­mon names for the same species across the re­gion, and difficulty in sep­a­rat­ing cul­tured bait­fish from wild har­vested bait­fish.”

Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000) also claim that there are dis­crep­an­cies be­tween the 1998 Cen­sus of Aqua­cul­ture and other sur­veys be­cause the cen­sus did not define aqua­cul­ture prod­ucts. Later cen­suses defined aqua­cul­ture prod­ucts more clearly but their defi­ni­tion might have differed from defi­ni­tions in other sur­veys.

Another ex­pla­na­tion for seem­ingly con­flict­ing figures is that the num­ber of bait­fish that are sold can differ from the num­ber of bait­fish that are hatched/​pro­duced due to:

  • Mor­tal­ity in farms. Mischke (2012), p. 223 sug­gests that bait­fish may have a mor­tal­ity rate of ~25% (“from fry to ju­ve­nile”).

  • Not sel­l­ing all the fish. Stone (2003) claims that “mar­ket­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion net­works are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of a bait­fish farm, and in most years many more pounds of fish are raised than can be sold.”[2]

When it comes to the num­ber of in­di­vi­d­u­als, the bait­fish in­dus­try is com­pa­rable to the food­fish in­dus­try. U.S. food con­sump­tion is re­spon­si­ble for farm­ing of 3.9–7.8 fish per year per cap­ita, ex­clud­ing shel­lfish. 1–10 billion bait­fish pro­duced an­nu­ally trans­lates to 3-31 bait­fish pro­duced per year per cap­ita. How­ever, food fish tend to be much big­ger and rais­ing them usu­ally takes slightly more time.

Edit (Sept 15th, 2018): since the in­dus­try is on the de­cline, the num­ber is prob­a­bly closer to 1 billion than 10 billion. It also could have de­clined to be be­low 1 billion since the last es­ti­mates were made.

The in­dus­try seems to be on the decline

Look­ing at data from Fish­eries of the United States re­ports and the 2013 Cen­sus of Aqua­cul­ture, the bait­fish farm­ing in­dus­try seems to be on the de­cline:





























Million lb























Million $




























This ob­ser­va­tion is based on the same gov­ern­ment data that was crit­i­cised by Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000), so it’s un­clear how much it can be trusted. It’s also un­clear whether all the cen­suses col­lected data in a con­sis­tent way. For ex­am­ple, 2005 in­cluded 335 mil­lion feeder gold­fish into bait­fish calcu­la­tions but the 2013 cen­sus did not. Ac­cord­ing to Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000), “some gold­fish en­ter the bait­fish mar­ket, but a large part of the pro­duc­tion is used for feed­ing aquar­ium and pond fish and do not con­sti­tute bait­fish pro­duc­tion.“

Rea­sons for the pre­sumed de­cline are un­clear. One pos­si­ble rea­son is the in­creas­ing bur­den reg­u­la­tions (see Sen­ten and En­gle (2017) and Hilts (2018)). claims that bait­fish “are used less and less by an­glers for three sim­ple rea­sons. First, it is be­com­ing more difficult to find bait shops who carry min­nows. Se­cond, there is ad­di­tional time re­quired to keep them al­ive be­fore and dur­ing your fish­ing trip and third most live bait stor­age con­tain­ers are hard to use effi­ciently while fish­ing.”

If the bait­fish in­dus­try re­ally is on the de­cline, it de­creases the im­por­tance of the cause. How­ever, it may also in­crease tractabil­ity. The in­volve­ment of an­i­mal rights groups may be the fi­nal push that causes the in­dus­try to col­lapse or pre­vents it from re­cov­er­ing. It may also pre­vent im­ple­ment­ing plans to in­crease the scale of salt­wa­ter bait­fish aqua­cul­ture (cur­rently most of the farmed bait­fish are used for fresh­wa­ter fish­ing).

Mone­tary value

  • Lit­vak and Man­drak (1993) con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mated the re­tail value of bait­fish sold in Canada and the United States (both farm-raised and wild-caught) to be $1 billion an­nu­ally.

  • Ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment data, the to­tal value of farmed bait­fish sold in the U.S. was 63 mil­lion in 1993 and 29 mil­lion in 2013. As I un­der­stand, U.S. gov­ern­ment figures are lower than Lit­vak and Man­drak (1993) partly be­cause they are calcu­lat­ing the value of fish sold by farms rather than re­tail value, and they ex­clude Canada where wild-caught bait­fish is sold.

  • Bait­fish are cheap per in­di­vi­d­ual, es­pe­cially at whole­sale price. $1 can pur­chase 9 to 63 fish, de­pend­ing on the species.

Other countries

I have found very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about bait­fish farm­ing for recre­ational fish­ing out­side of the U.S. Ca­role and Kwa­mena (2008) claim:

“Fish and crus­taceans are raised and sold as bait all over the world. How­ever, bait­fish pro­duc­tion in most coun­tries is ei­ther small scale, in­ci­den­tal, or sim­ply serves to sell fish that are too small to meet food­fish mar­ket re­quire­ments. How­ever, the U.S. bait­fish in­dus­try pro­vides an ex­am­ple of bait­fish pro­duc­tion that has been de­vel­oped into a large and im­por­tant in­dus­try”

Ven­tura et al. (2017) show that bait­fish are also farmed for recre­ational fish­ing in Brazil.

Ex­ist­ing regulations

Us­ing fish as live bait is already pro­hibited in some U.S. and Cana­dian states. Many other states have im­port and move­ment re­stric­tions. An overview can be seen in Kerr (2012). More de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about laws in each state can be found in this table.

In Scot­land, it is pro­hibited to use any live ver­te­brate as bait. Some of the dis­cus­sion lead­ing to the pro­hi­bi­tion can be found here and here. Switzer­land seems to have a similar reg­u­la­tion. In Poland, Den­mark, and the rest of the UK, it is only al­lowed to use bait­fish that is caught in the same wa­ters it is used. As I un­der­stand, this prac­ti­cally elimi­nates the pos­si­bil­ity of a bait­fish farm­ing in­dus­try.

What has been done

It seems that the main mo­ti­va­tion for ex­ist­ing re­stric­tions is pre­vent­ing the trans­fer of fish species and dis­eases be­tween wa­ter bod­ies, rather than an­i­mal cru­elty. Over­all, I was able to find very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about any an­i­mal rights ac­tivists fight­ing for stric­ter bait­fish laws:

  • This ar­ti­cle claims that the ban in Scot­land was a “mas­sive first step” in PETA’s fight for pro­hibit­ing live bait in the rest of Bri­tain. I haven’t been able to find what PETA did though.[3]

  • This page de­scribes an­other cam­paign in the UK.

I haven’t found any in­di­ca­tion of ac­tivism in the U.S. Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000) claims:

“Ap­par­ently in Europe, be­cause of strong an­i­mal rights sen­ti­ments, the use of live fish for an­gling has been elimi­nated or severely re­stricted in some ar­eas. The im­pact of the an­i­mal rights move­ment on the fu­ture of bait­fish aqua­cul­ture in the U.S. is not pre­dictable, but it could pre­sent prob­lems for fish farm­ers in the fu­ture”

Next steps

Based on my in­ves­ti­ga­tion, I think that an in­ter­ven­tion in this area could be effec­tive. I would like to know whether or not other peo­ple agree. I am also un­sure how to pro­ceed if we were to con­clude that it was a promis­ing op­por­tu­nity. Maybe with some lob­by­ing the out­comes of some bait­fish-re­lated policy dis­putes (like this one) could in­fluenced. How­ever, I don’t have re­sources or ex­per­tise to do any­thing about it my­self. I thought I could send this text to some U.S. an­i­mal char­i­ties and ask if they would be in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing the op­por­tu­nity. Sugges­tions about what to do would be wel­come.

If some ac­tion were taken, I think we should be sen­si­tive to the fact that the bait­fish in­dus­try is the source of liveli­hood for many well-mean­ing peo­ple.


[1] The most pop­u­lar bait­fish are golden shin­ers and fat­head min­nows. Gun­der­son (2018) claims that most golden shin­ers are sold when they are 1 year old, some ear­lier, some when they are 1.5 years old (page 7). Based on fat­head min­now aqua­cul­ture de­scrip­tion in Gun­der­son and Tucker (2000), it seems that most fat­head min­nows are sold when they are about 1 year old as well (page 7).

[2] Similarly, this doc­u­men­tary claims that “bait­fish sales can fluc­tu­ate wildly” and that “the weather on four or five week­ends in the spring can de­ter­mine the prof­ita­bil­ity of the bait­fish op­er­a­tion for the en­tire year.”

[3] The ar­ti­cle cites PETA’s em­ployee Yvonne Tay­lor. If needed, maybe she could be con­tacted for more in­for­ma­tion.


Ca­role R. En­gle, Kwa­mena K. 2008. Aqua­cul­ture Mar­ket­ing Hand­book.

Good­win, An­drew E., Peter­son, James E., Mey­ers, Theodore R. and Money, David J. 2004. Trans­mis­sion of Ex­otic Fish Viruses’, Fish­eries, 29: 5, 19 — 23

Gun­der­son, Jeffrey L.. 2018. Min­now Im­por­ta­tion Risk Re­port:Assess­ing the risk of im­port­ing golden shin­ers into Min­nesota from Arkansas

Gun­der­son, Jeffrey L. and Tucker, Paul. 2000. A White Paper on the sta­tus and needs of bait­fish aqua­cul­ture in the North Cen­tral Re­gion.

Hilts, Bill. 2018. Shop’s clo­sure af­ter 42 years leaves a bait­fish void.

Kerr, Steven J. 2012. Bait man­age­ment re­view.

Lit­vak, M. K., and N. E. Man­drak. 1993. Ecol­ogy of fresh­wa­ter bait­fish use in Canada and

the United States. Fish­eries 18(12):6–13.

Stone, Nathan. 2003. Re­cent Devel­op­ments in Bait­fish Pro­duc­tion Tech­niques.

Stone, N., E. Park, L. Dor­man and H. Thom­forde. 1997. Bait­fish cul­ture in Arkansas. World Aqua. 28(4):5-13.

van Sen­ten, J. and En­gle, C. R. (2017), The Costs of Reg­u­la­tions on US Bait­fish and Sport­fish Pro­duc­ers. J World Aquacult Soc, 48: 503-517

Ven­tura, A., Pá­dua, S., Ishikawa, M., Mart­ins, M., Take­moto, R., Jerôn­imo, G. (2018). En­dopar­a­sites of Gym­no­tus sp. (Gym­no­tiformes: Gym­noti­dae) from com­mer­cial bait­fish farm­ing in Pan­tanal basin, Cen­tral Brazil. Bo­le­tim do In­sti­tuto de Pesca Sao Paulo.

Writ­ten by Saulius Šimčikas.

I warmly thank Kieran Grieg for pro­vid­ing sug­ges­tions and com­ments on this post and An­nie Alexan­der-Barnes for copy-edit­ing.