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
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:
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.
Thanks for looking into this Saulius! I'd seen a few things re baitfish and it has been on my list to look more into for a while. But this will raise its priority -- and make my task easier by providing a lot of the underlying sources. I'll discuss this with some of the farm animal groups to see if they have ideas. In the meantime, let me know if you find more info.
If there is some kind of info that you need, let me know. I'd be eager to help and I may know where to find it (because I spent some time reading about the subject).
This EA Forum post might be a really good example of how EAs interested in blogging and research can support Open Philanthropy Project. If you have any other ideas for topics like this, Lewis, sharing them could help other EAs help you in other ways.
I agree. I'll aim to put together a list of research Q's I'm interested in and share within the next month. Generally posts of this form - providing data and information on a neglected issue - are the most valuable, though I try to read most EA posts re animal welfare ideas.
Amazing idea! I'll be thinking and talking more about this, including with the animal-issue lobbying organizations I've worked with here in the US and California.
great, please tell how it goes!
In France, there is an effective campaign against live bait fishing organized by PAZ. Paris and Grenoble cities have already voted against this cruel practice thanks to PAZ.
I would upvote this twice if I could! I follow EAA stuff pretty closely and I haven't heard this discussed before. However, it seems like a highly important, neglected, and tractable cause area. The most exciting part in my mind is that progress has already started in some countries and states, meaning that it could be very tractable.
I'd love to see a more detailed analysis of the counterfactuals. For example, what percentage of bait fish will be replaced by artificial baits vs animals? If you used worms or other animals as bait, would you have to use more bait, or would it be a 1-1 replacement?
I'd also love to see some analysis about how existing laws came to exist. Who lobbied for these policies? Were they easy to pass, or were they controversial?
This is a great example of the utility of the EA forum - well researched and actionable. I'll do what I can to make sure this is on the radar of others in EAA.
Thanks. I encountered the 6 billion figure by accident when doing research about fish farmed for food for ACE. I wonder if there are other areas like this where a huge number of animals are hurt that animal activists are unaware of.
I don’t have good answers to your questions, but I'm going to do a bit of a brain dump here and answer them to the best of my knowledge, in case someone would find it valuable.
Artificial baits seem to already be more popular. E.g. see http://www.anglersurvey.com/files/2012/10/AS3-1.png (“live bait” here means live baitfish, worms leeches, frogs, etc.). Although one text I read said that internet is biased towards artificials baits because they are used by people who take fishing more seriously (and therefore talk about it on internet more). So the survey might have a selection bias as well. I have a hunch that people who use baitfish would be more likely to switch to other types of life bait, rather than artificial bait. Also, if farming of live bait was banned, some would catch live batfish for themselves. That is probably better than farming though.
Before I read Peter Singer, I used to fish with my father. From experience, I can tell that if they switched to worms, many more worms and maggots would be used than baitfish. E.g. see the amounts in https://www.wormsdirectuk.co.uk/acatalog/dendrobaena.html. We would keep maggots in the fridge, sometimes would hook several of them and would buy more than needed just to be safe. I might write a separate article about worms and maggots as bait some time later. I do think that they suffer less (both, because they live shorter lives before being used, and they are less sentient). But it could be that they are very stressed in those containers. So yes, it’s possible that counterfactual is even worse.
By the way, maybe some questions like this can be answered by just going to a nearby fishing or bait store and asking some questions. E.g. how many fish and how many worms do people usually buy? I wish I could’ve done that while writing this, but I don’t live in the U.S.
Some of the links that I put in the article partly answer this question, especially for Scotland. It seems that these laws are always controversial, fishermen don’t want restrictions and people who care about ecology want them. E.g. see this 90 page risk report about ecological risks of importing one species of baitfish from Arkansas to Minnesota- https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/aboutdnr/reports/legislative/2018-minnow-import-report.pdf The length tells me that it is an important issue for some people. In North America, a lot of rules were implemented after an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in Great Lakes and some other waters in 2005-06. Some details about regulation changes can be seen at this website https://www.outdoornews.com/search/baitfish+rule It seems that regulations are always done at state level and institutions like “Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board” are responsible for them.
Ugg.. something smells fishy here.. : ) The numbers seem completely outlandish.. 1 - 10 billion for recreational fishing in the US? There are, what.. 300 - 500 million total population in the US, I believe? Even assuming 10% are into fishing, would they consume 1 billion bait fish?
I'm extremely skeptical of this and strongly inclined to make a bet against this info being accurate. Currently considering what exactly I'd be willing to put money down against. My intuition is that these figures might be off by a factor of ten or more.
Ok, extremely random and extremely old necro, but:
I guess the purpose of this comment is:
This has baitfish at a $1B industry. Given some guesses/intuitions of how revenue breaks down to cost of good sold (maybe $100-200M cost of producing the fish in terms of feed, amortized facilities), and some knowledge of the physical size of the fish, ag/aquaculture industry, 1-10B baitfish is an unfortunately believable estimate.
This article reports ~100M baitfish reported for Ontario, which has a population of 15M, or less than 5% that of the US.
So we see ~250k-500k fish per hectare in the book "The Progressive Fish-culturist":
This study has measured regulation cost into the 8 figures ($12M). It also mentions hectares per farm.
I expect that if we back out the hectares using this paper (assuming it's there), then multiply the hectares with the density we found in info 3a, we get big numbers (there's thousands of hectares at least, maybe tens of thousands).
(I actually stopped here and didn't track down the numbers.)
More points of evidence from the above:
Possible. It could be that the industry inflates the numbers because they want to seem bigger than they are. Note that baitfish is not even the most popular type of bait.
One thing to consider though is how many baitfish people take per fishing trip. After a brief search, I haven't found exact numbers but this website is advising:
So I imagine that fishermen who do buy baitfish, buy a lot of it. I also read that they often don't use them all and throw the rest into a lake, even though that causes ecological issues and everyone is asking fishermen not to do it.
In general, I understand your intuition and I will probably think about this more later.
in https://www.iceshanty.com/ice_fishing/index.php?topic=246812.0 an angler asks in a forum how many minnows should she buy for her fishing trip. The most common answer is 2-3 dozens.
I was wondering if it's a difference between number hatched and number that make it to the one-year mark at which they're sold?
I am similarly suspicious. Someone should look into this more.
I'm not sure how to look into this more. Note that the 1.17 billion figure is from the U.S. Goverment report so that should be dependable, at least for the lower bound. I think some more information could be gained by going to a baitshop, looking around and asking some questions (how many fish average person buys, is the industry on the decline, etc.). I myself can not do that because I'm not in the U.S.
One could potentially survey a representative fisherperson population?
I've just noticed that my text looks weird on mobile phone. I wrote it in google docs and pasted to EA forum. Is there any quick way to fix it? In case anyone has trouble reading it, you can also read it here.
This is the approach I use:
Thanks for posting this! I always love seeing people posting potential new areas of action and this certainly looks like it could be promising.