Blue Fish News – April 17, 2024

What’s New at Blue Fish Canada: Like many, I’ve been steering clear of the forward facing sonar debate raging across Canada and the U.S. Not because of the issues at stake, but to avoid getting drawn into some fairly heated discussions that seemed to be more about fishing access than sustainable fishing. And then I read about the Wisconsin department of Natural Resources survey on whether or not to ban the technology. So, today’s issue of the Blue fish News includes both an editorial on how this debate needs to move forward, and views about FFS from professional angler David Chong on The Blue Fish Radio show. And of course, there’s all the rest of the fishing, fish and habitat news from across Canada.

Professional angler David Chong

This Week’s Feature – Forward Facing Sonar Debate Escalates

By L. Gunther

I’m the last person who would want the evolution of technology designed to improve our ability to see to slow down for obvious reasons. People living without sight like me follow these sorts of innovations closely, and are usually the first to step up to purchase and test what are often very sketchy innovations being promoted as the next best thing to “seeing in the dark”. This time however, the debate concerns a new form of highly efficient underwater sonar technology being marketed to recreational anglers that represents a giant leap forward in how anglers can see fishes, the underwater structure fishes prefer, and even the lures we are using in real time. The problem is, not everyone believes it’s either fair or in the best interest of conservation. It’s called FFS or forward-facing sonar.

Electronic fish finders aren’t new. It’s technology that goes back easily forty years. But, in the past ten years significant advances have been made; testing the appetite of anglers to pay top dollar and discovering that price seems to pose no obstacle. Instead of looking down below the boat, we saw the introduction of side imaging, and then 360-degree imaging. This new forward-facing sonar or FFS goes further, providing anglers with a virtual spotlight of sorts that they can move about underwater to find fish as far as 50 meters away at all depths. Not only fishes, but promising underwater structure that is likely to be favored by fish, as well as their pray. It’s also powerful enough to reveal the angler’s lure in the water, and how the fish reacts to the lure, including the moment when the fish bites the lure in real time. But perhaps the most important advancement FFS represents is the ability for anglers to move about at slow speeds and find fishes that are in open water. Anglers now have an efficient means to locate fishes in open water that quite possibly have never been pursued or caught before.

From a fishing tournament perspective, FFS has provided competitors with a significant advantage over competitors who have yet to acquire FFS technology. Some also say it eliminates the advantage of those anglers who have invested considerable time and effort on the water to decipher the movements and feeding habits of fish. In short, it’s turned fishing into more of a “video game”, which is the other problem.

Watching competitive anglers fish using FFS is apparently quite boring. These anglers are constantly looking at the displays mounted on the bow as they move their boats around using their electric trolling motors. The only time they take a cast is when they spot a fish, and if it doesn’t bite, they don’t wait around, but instead continue their search for a fish that will. Five good bites are often all it takes to win a tournament.

The other problem people have with FFS is the increase in efficiency anglers have in terms of time and effort needed to catch their limit of fish. Fishing is no guarantee you will catch fish, never mind bring fish home. But with FFS technology, lakes that have been widely regarded as difficult places to catch fish are suddenly producing and doing so consistently. So what does this mean for fishing pressure and sustainable fishing?

At first many surmised that only top guides and competitive anglers would make the investment to purchase FFS, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Ice fishing is just one example of many where the popularity of FFS has exploded. Instead of having to drill dozens of holes through the ice in search of fish, an ice angler can simply drill one hole, lower their transducer, swing the device in a slow circle, and determine if there are fish nearby. After that it’s simply a matter of drilling a second hole where the fish were spotted, and lowering their baits.

Even if fish are being returned alive, there’s always the issue of barotrauma to consider. This occurs when fish are caught at depth below their capacity to return to that depth if brought to the surface. It’s true that all forms of sonar on the market allow anglers to search out and locate fishes at all depths, whereas before people had to troll lures at different depths and cover water with the hopes of crossing paths with such fishes. The ability to now efficiently find fishes in open water using FFS means more fishes may be subjected to barotrauma.

Fishes use swim bladders to establish neutral buoyancy at their preferred depth, but very few species of fish can make quick changes to the amount of air in their bladders, meaning fish that are brought up from extreme depth will experience difficulty swimming back down because their swim bladder may have expanded abnormally, keeping them near the surface where they are either spotted by birds-of-pray, or they eventually die from related health complications. There are ways to release excess air from the bladder using a hypodermic needle, and devices that can be used to lower fish to their preferred depth and then released. It may be that FFS will lead to new rules concerning the mandatory use of such equipment.

The debate around the use of advanced sonar technology has been long in coming. Whether its undermining local experience, increased barotrauma experienced by fishes, or the increase in capture efficiency, these issues have been simmering for years. So if FFS has put these discussions front-and-centre, what’s preventing regulators from addressing the fish health and sustainable fishing issues associated with the wide-spread adoption of sonar by anglers? Any reasonably well equipped fishing boat going back 25 years is equipped with at least one sonar device, and most of these now include a GPS and mapping component.

The days of imagining that there exist infinite numbers of fish are long over. We can now fairly accurately assess the status of any fish species if so desired. The problem is Canada has a lot of lakes and rivers, and not nearly enough human and financial resources to study exactly how many and what types of fishes live in each water body. It’s true our regulations have evolved over time to include catch-and-release by establishing size parameters for various species, in addition to the number any one angler can have in their possession. What we don’t have is data about how many fish are being removed each season from each water body. Regulators do conduct on-site creel surveys designed to estimate the number and fishing success of recreational anglers over a short period of time on a handful of specific bodies of water, but collecting such data is expensive and resource intensive.

Canada’s recreational fishing regulations rely on the premise that anglers will move on to other bodies of water when the quality of fishing reduces to a point that satisfaction can no longer be anticipated. When our ability to routinely catch fish begins to drop off, we simply move on to other water bodies where the fishing is better. This gives the fish in those over-pressured water bodies a chance to recover while anglers stay away. However, FFS now means fishing efficiency is improved, meaning even more fish from a specific water body can be caught and/or removed before the quality of fishing is judged by anglers as unsatisfactory. The consequence for fishes means it will soon take longer for their numbers to rebound, and what recovery means to anglers may also change given their enhanced ability to locate and catch fishes.

Talk to guys who remember what fishing was like before we had sonar, and they will all tell you it was better than it is now. It could just be that there were fewer anglers chasing more fish that had never been caught before and thus, easier to catch. Fish are getting smarter as they get caught-and-released, whereas before those same old-timers kept everything they caught, which is definitely not the case now.

According to the latest Statistics Canada recreational fishing survey conducted in 2015, on average about 2/3 of all fish caught are released. It’s also the case that guides and lodge owners know that their businesses depend on quality fishing, which means many now discourage their guests from harvesting fish unless the fishes being pursued are in plentiful supply. Most all recreational anglers also know that the quality of fishing depends on everyone doing their part, which is why this debate over FFS is so lively – anglers care.

To close, FFS technology is not only changing the way we fish, but also shining a light on how we fish. The fact is many of us are willing to purchase expensive sonar equipment such as FFS to improve our fish capture efficiency, but are we also using these technologies to be more selective of the fishes we catch, and to avoid incidental fish captures such as those fishes that would experience negative health impacts? And we still need to decide how fishing competitions should be based on rewarding the best anglers, and when the use of “performance enhancing” technologies should be banned.

Stuffing FFS technology back in the bottle is unlikely and isn’t necessary. Learning self-control and adopting more sophisticated and nuanced harvesting practices are becoming the new norm. These new fishing ethics are encouraged through social pressure, and will ultimately be enforced through regulations once enough anglers believe in the benefits of such practices. We have come a long way since our grandparents took us fishing with the goal of filling the stringer, but we must continue to evolve to become even better stewards of nature.

Link below to hear my conversation with professional angler David Chong on the Blue Fish Radio show. David is a top competitive bass angler and a representative of numerous fishing, boating and electronic brands. His insights and reflections on FFS are profound:–59458104

Keep visiting the resource page on the Blue Fish Canada website to download the latest sustainable fishing tips. These are developed with input from local experts, knowledge keepers and fact-checked by top fishery biologists:

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E440 David Chong on Forward Facing Sonar
While some can’t wait for the debate about forward facing sonar to end, others believe we aren’t finished by a long shot. Regulators in the U.S. are actually surveying anglers for their views on whether the technology should be banned. We reached out to professional angler David Chong for his views on the topic. David is one of Canada’s top professional bass anglers and a long-time representative of many fishing, boating and electronic brands. Welcome back David to The Blue Fish Radio Show!

Special Guest Feature: TAKE THE SURVEY – Would you support banning the use of live scopes, and similar 360° imaging electronics?

Recent move made by a state agency signals next-level concerns over forward-facing and 360-degree sonar. How can the Wisconsin DNR Spring Hearings potentially affect anglers nationwide? Because this round, they’re calling out fishing technology.

The first step in the process is getting public input on questions concerning potential legislation. That first step is happening now and the WI DNR is accepting online comments. (You do not need to be a Wisconsin resident to participate.)

Question #22 stands to be the most controversial amongst anglers. It reads as such:

Background for Question #22: Ban live scope: With the ability of these types of units to detect fish, as far as 180’ from the user, anglers have become more efficient at locating and catching fish. This type of pressure could reduce fish populations, which may lead to reduced bag limits for anglers.

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