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Coronavirus and catch-and-release fishing: Exploring with experts the possibility of a connection

Whether coronavirus could be passed along by catch-and-release fishing was a question worth exploring with experts.

Guide Matt Verlac releasing a big brown trout last summer on the Au Sable River in northern Michigan, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing. Credit: Dale Bowman
Guide Matt Verlac releasing a big brown trout last summer on the Au Sable River in northern Michigan, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing.
Dale Bowman

David Rych caught me off guard when he asked if the coronavirus could be spread by catch-and-release fishing. I said I doubted it, but the question was good enough that I should find out.

I’ve known Rusty Silber for decades, going back to the days when we overlapped covering prep sports. A couple times a year, he has me on “The Sports Corner’’ on WRLR-FM to talk outdoors. For the last four weeks, he, Rych and Ron Curtis Grace have been doing a “COVID-19 Coronavirus Crisis Show’’ on the radio station. Last week, Silber had me on to talk about the outdoors and access issues. That’s when Rych’s question came.

Apparently it was a good question, because smart and informed people responded right away. Of course, there is a chance that all of us are a little stir crazy after weeks of working from home and any chance for something different will spur us to new levels.

“This is a good question, but like several other factors, [much] of this information is unknown at this time,’’ answered Illinois Natural History Survey’s Dr. Matt Allender, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for the University of Illinois. “The [Center for Disease Control] has released information about the infectivity of coronavirus in water (cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/water.html) and they deem the risk to be low, even in contaminated areas. However, the information is truly unknown and the risk is not known.’’

Somehow I had missed the section on water in the CDC guidelines. But I did not see any reference to fish or to catch-and-release fishing (catching a fish, then immediately returning it to the water) in the water section.

“As for fish directly, this answer is also unknown, but based on the available science, the risk appears to be low,’’ Allender emailed. “Every animal has differences in their ability to harbor and transmit viruses, but mammals are more likely to transmit the virus than fish from information we know at this point.

“I would be cautious, but not concerned about the risk for C&R. There is risk in everything and as new science emerges, information changes. The virus was unknown to many of us six months ago and thus many of these questions were never even asked. It has been incredible that the scientific community has mobilized to produce a lot of data in a short period of time. I anticipate some of these questions being answered in future months to weeks.’’

Allender packed a lot of truth into those last two sentences.

Matt Mullady releasing a smallmouth bass on a fly fishing outing on the Kankakee River, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing. Credit: Dale Bowman
Matt Mullady releasing a smallmouth bass on a fly fishing outing on the Kankakee River, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing.
Dale Bowman

Kelsey Ryan, manager of conservation communications for the Shedd Aquarium, reached out to staff working remotely for their take.

She came back with this response: “Since we’re not experts on this particular virus, it’s hard for us to say whether or not a fish could transmit it from person to fish to person. Slime coats on the outside of the fish are antibacterial and antiviral defenses for fishes and would likely pose a threat to a virus if transferred to the fish from a person, but we can’t say for certain. There are cases where fish transfer bacterial or parasitic diseases, but notviral ones.’’

INHS’s Jeremy Tiemann, an associate aquatic ecologist, had a response pretty close to what my gut answer was.

“I do not know enough immunology to know 100 percent, but would guess the chances would be minimal, if not zero,’’ Tiemann emailed. “Obviously it would have to go from human to fish, stay on and survive on the fish, and then the fish be caught again in a relatively short period of time. Matt knows ‘a little’ more about viruses than I do, so I will defer to him beyond my obvious answer. I think fishermen would have a higher chance of contracting COVID from fishing by being too close to other [infected] fishermen, sharing bait/snacks, etc.’’

There’s the important takeaway: The basics of the CDC guidelines — social distancing, not congregating, washing hands, staying home if sick, not touching your face — apply in the outdoors as much as they do in everyday life.

Boaters release a largemouth bass on opening day on Braidwood Lake in 2012, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing. Credit: Dale Bowman
Boaters release a largemouth bass on opening day on Braidwood Lake in 2012, it is not thought likely that the coronavirus may be spread by catch-and-release fishing.
Dale Bowman