Catch and release fishing is often viewed as a conservation-minded approach to angling and is based on the assumption that there are relatively negligible effects on fish survival and fitness. However, fisheries research has clearly demonstrated that stress and physical injury to fish during catch and release can increase mortality and contribute to a variety of sublethal effects.
One common, and easily avoidable, stressor for fish during catch and release is air exposure. Now, we’ve all taken fish out of the water for one reason or another, Native Fish Society staff members included... and duh, it's quite obvious that fish don't breathe air! But our current understanding of the consequences of air exposure has greatly improved thanks to many scientific studies that have demonstrated how air exposure harms fish.
These studies have shown that, in addition to direct mortality, air exposure can hinder a fish's ability to recover from an angling event and have negative effects that may not be apparent even if the fish seems fine when it swims away. Air exposure can even affect the next generation of fish by impacting fish reproduction and offspring development. However, even given everything we DO know... there is still plenty we likely don't understand about how air exposure may harm fish. The easiest solution? Keep 'em wet.
Conservation-minded angling means doing as little harm as possible during one's angling activities. The act of being caught is stressful enough for a fish, and we can make less of an impact and better protect and sustain the resources of catch and release fisheries through actions like keeping fish in the water.
Regulations that require fish be kept in the water provide the incentive for anglers to execute best-practices. These type of common-sense regulations are a way to motivate and educate people about reducing harm during catch and release. Save the hero shots for your grandkids... join the voice of keep 'em wet.