Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen

Summary

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.

Scale:

  • 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]

Ne­glect­ed­ness:

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

Tractabil­ity:

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.

Coun­ter­fac­tu­als:

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:

Year

83

84

85

86

87

88

89

90

91

92

93

94

95

96

97

98

99

00

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

13

Million lb

22

24

25

26

26

26

24

22

21

21

21

22

22

21

20

16

16

14

14

14

14

14

Million $

44

47

51

52

72

71

62

54

56

61

63

69

73

70

74

57

57

46

46

46

46

46

38

38

38

38

29

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)). bait-up.com 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.

Notes

[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.

References

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.