The Most Ethical Fish to Catch Recreationally (Best Practices)

recreational fishers on the river bank

Commercial and recreational fishers need to consider conservation when seeking the most ethical fish to catch. Using good practices and contacting your local government offices that regulate fishing are the best ways to learn what species to target so you can have fun fishing while minimizing your impact.

Generally, the most ethical fish to catch recreationally is the most local fish you can legally target. In the US and Canada, abundant freshwater species like bass, panfish, catfish, or saltwater fish such as black sea bass, plaice, or herring are sustainable fish to harvest.

What Is The Most Ethical Fish to Catch?

In the United States, there are eight regional fishery management councils to establish federal fishing ethics. NOAA Fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, works with these councils to assess and predict fish stocks, set catch limits, create regulations, and reduce bycatch. 

In Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada oversee seven regional administrative groups that maintain our fisheries. These groups determine the best fishing practices, including which species are the most ethical fish to catch recreationally.

Freshwater Game Species

Seasonal fishing and catch limits are designed so that you can comply with sustainable practices while catching the fish species you want. 

The following fish species have healthy populations across the US and Canada. They are actively managed as game fish, and, in some cases, they are even introduced (or invasive) species in need of population control. Within limits, it can certainly be ethical to catch these popular freshwater fish.


Largemouth and smallmouth bass are actually members of the sunfish family. These fish started in the east and the southeast United States but are now ethically managed in recreational fisheries worldwide. They adapt well to a large variety of environments and temperatures.

Related: World Record Largemouth Bass (Official and Unofficial)


Panfish are often targeted, easily caught with various angling techniques, and come in a variety of attractive species all over North America. Crappie tournaments are quite popular on the east coast and in areas in the West. Bluegill and redear sunfish are caught along the southeast United States. Yellow perch are caught all around the Great Lakes and Canada.


Catfish are incredibly resilient at surviving in many places, including murky waters. Channel catfish are the most abundant across North America and inhabit most streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Flathead catfish prefer big, slow-moving river systems. Blue catfish have become popular and have been introduced into more large lakes. Some survive long enough to weigh more than 100 pounds!

Best Saltwater Species to Catch

New regulations are posted and updated every year. NOAA currently lists the following as sustainable catches when in season.

Black Sea Bass

This commercially important fish is found along the coast of Nova Scotia, down the Atlantic coast of the U.S., and even around into the Gulf of Mexico below Louisiana.

American Plaice

Found on the eastern coast of Canada down to Rhode Island, this flounder has stable fisheries. Its stock is considered to have been rebuilt and not overfished.

Atlantic Herring

These fish, also fish commercially and sold as sardines, are valuable to the North American economy. During the past decade, the U.S. has done about three-quarters of all harvesting of Atlantic Herring, with Canada fishing the rest. Their importance means careful monitoring of their populations.

Other Ethical Species

There are other fish species NOAA listed as having no limits for most parts of the year. These include:

  • Whiting
  • Butterfish
  • Bluefish
  • Yellowtail flounder
  • Mola mola (ocean sunfish)
  • Spiny dogfish
  • Tautog (blackfish)

Fish Species to Avoid

Greenpeace’s seafood Red List is a scientifically compiled list of species to avoid fishing due to their careful management. While not every angler will agree with Greenpeace’s assessment, it’s essential to consider and respect different perspectives. 

According to some studies, the following saltwater fish are often over-harvested commercially. If ethical recreational fishing is important to you, you may wish not to overburden these populations.

  • Atlantic halibut
  • Bluefin tuna
  • Atlantic cod
  • Greenland halibut
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Monkfish
  • Albacore tuna
  • Bigeye tuna
  • Pollock
  • Grouper
  • Redfish
  • Orange roughy
  • Chilean sea bass

What are Important Fishing Ethics to Practice?

Catch and release fish from boat
Release the fish at the same depth they were caught.

It is never too early to learn fish and wildlife conservation. There are some fundamental practices to be a responsible steward of water resources. Employ researched fishing ethics and regulatory methods to maximize conservation of fisheries.

Catch and Release

Safely releasing a fish is a significant conservation strategy. There are several things to do to ensure a fish’s survival. There are also a few principles in choosing the right gear.

  • Do not use stainless steel hooks. Use a hook that can corrode and fall out of fish over time if it gets away with your hook.
  • Use barbless hooks or circle hooks, which are required in many areas. These make it easier to remove hooks and increase survival rates.
  • Employ a “dehooker” or release tool like the Ketchum Release to minimize handling when releasing fish.
  • Choose a landing net made of rubber or other soft, knotless mesh. Such nets cause less damage to a fish’s scales, fins, eyes, and mucus coating.
  • Select tackle strong enough to quickly land your catch. Reduce the chance your catch gets away with any hook or line.

Learning how to handle a fish is just as important as the equipment.

  • Never fight a fish until it is exhausted. 
  • Touch the fish as little as possible, avoiding the eyes and gills. 
  • Support the weight of a fish with care and never suspend it by its lip or mouth. 
  • It is vital to keep a fish out of the water for no more than a minute. 
  • Always release a fish at the same depth they were caught to reduce the chances of the decompression illness called barotrauma.

Related: Why Do Fishermen Let Fish Go? (Angler’s Take on Catch & Release)

Protecting Other Life

It is vital to have an awareness of birds, sea turtles, and other fragile species. Avoid disturbing nesting and feeding areas. Learn how to manage bait so that it doesn’t attract the wrong animal.

You should also learn what to do if you accidentally hook a bird, sea turtle, or marine mammal. When in doubt, call the nearest stranding response network, game warden, or U.S. Coast Guard. For safety tips before a trip, contact the Statewide Marine Animal Response Hotline for guidance.

The Most Ethical Fish to Catch Recreationally is the Most Local

Traditional rod-and-reel fishing is environmentally friendly. Many local regulatory bodies offer free information on the fishing ethics, laws, and limits for your area. These organizations work with universities and volunteer groups to track local populations in recreational waterways and analyze ecological data. These scientific practices result in setting specific fishing seasons, size limits, bag limits for catches, and determining the most sustainable species and ethical limits for all species.

There are a few simple steps to fish responsibly. Start by getting a license, learning the most ethical fish to catch, and obeying local fishing practices. Know the harvest limits and equipment restrictions for where you are fishing. Local, sustainable fishing with catch and release preserves marine and freshwater wildlife for future use.

Our Must-Read List:

Is Fishing More Ethical Than Hunting?

How Is Recreational Fishing Good For The Environment?