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.
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.”
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.
The industry seems to be on the decline
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
 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).
 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.”
 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.