Since the first Wiggle Worm developed by Nick Creme in 1949, Soft Plastic Baits (SPBs) have been successfully catching fish, especially black bass. Over the last 10 years or so there has been an explosion in the use of these baits in North America, and environmentalists and some fisheries biologists have become alarmed with the number of SPBs lost or discarded in waterways.
There is presently not much scientific evidence to indicate that SPBs pose a major welfare concern for fish. Our literature search only turned up two research papers on the subject. And yet, anglers who use SPBs, and especially the very popular stick worm kind, realize that when a worm is lost either while casting or in the process of landing a fish, that artificial, often salt impregnated worm does one of two things. It either settles on the bottom of the lake, river, reservoir, or it gets eaten by some kind of animal, be it a fish, turtle or bird.
Above is a series of photos taken in 2014 by the website owner of a small rock bass caught on a small crankbait. The fish had removed a 5" stickbait from a hook a week earlier . The SPB is noticeably thicker and longer than when first put on the hook. The O ring is still in place. The fish was safely released after the stickbait was gently removed .
Most people agree that "biodegradable" is a relative term, and most SPBs, if not all, are not biodegradable under any reasonable circumstance. Even the ones that identify themselves as "biodegradable" offer no information as to how long and under what circumstances (temperature, light conditions, wave action, gut transit time) the product degrades to the point that it does not pose a problem for the environment or aquatic animals (there is much controversy in the angling community regarding the true nature of biodegradable soft plastics, with some popular "biodegradable" SPBs only reportedly dissolving in water temperatures above 60°C (140F)).
One would think that most manufacturers would like to produce bona fide biodegradable SPBs that do not contain plastisol or other forms of plastic, not only to protect the environment and aquatic animals, but also because truly biodegradable SPBs with the same action, durability, handling and storage properties of current SPBs would soon corner the market in these times of heightened awareness for the environment and animal welfare.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the bottoms of many waterways are littered with bloated, gellatinous blobs that use to be stick worms and other SPBs. University of Wisconsin students in 2009 calculated that 25 million pounds of baits end up in lakes, rivers, and streams annually, while Maine Inland Fisheries put the amount at 20 million pounds. As a bass angler, try to remember how many of these SPBs you lost during your last fishing outing. Now multiply that by the number of days you fished last year (average 13 days a year in Canada, 16 in the US), and multiply that again by the number of anglers who use SPBs (an estimated 10 million bass anglers in North America). That's about 150 to 160 million days of bass fishing a year! If each angler only lost 1 SPB per outing, that's a lot of plastic sitting on the bottom of waterways, or in animals' digestive systems, year after year.
The State of Maine recently discussed enacting a ban on SPBs in its territory. The response from organized fishing associations was quick and predictable, and a number of voluntary programs were enacted, including the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and KeepAmericaFishing's "Pitch It" campaign to properly dispose of or recycle used SPBs. Research on the effect of SPBs on the environment and aquatic animals continues, and time will tell how future findings will affect the use of SPBs.
What's an ethical angler to do? The most obvious choice is to stop using SPBs. There are many environmentally friendlier options available, from artificial baits with barbless hooks to live invertebrate baits on appropriately sized barbless hooks. Uncle Josh, well known for its pork baits, sells a line of non-plastic baits, including a Pork Baby Crawler and a Pork Minnow (unclejosh.com/). Unfortunately it was recently announced (January 2016) that Uncle Josh will no longer produce pork products once their current supply runs out.
You can find recipes to make your own biodegradable versions of SPBs with corn starch and glycerine: http://www.theonlinefisherman.com/reel-news1/soft-plastic-lures-the-future, but these often do not hold up as well as SPBs.
Other refinements include SPBs that have a more resistant end (Mann's HardNose baits), a more resistant middle (Savage Gear Armour Tube Worms), or systems that install a tight fitting O Ring in the middle of the stick bait (O Wacky tool) (youtube.com).
If you have any experience with these or other alternatives/refinements, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Danner, G. R., Chacko, J., & Brautigam, F. (2009). Voluntary ingestion of soft plastic fishing lures affects brook trout growth in the laboratory. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 29(2), 352-360.
Raison, T., Nagrodski, A., Suski, C. D., & Cooke, S. J. (2014). Exploring the Potential Effects of Lost or Discarded Soft Plastic Fishing Lures on Fish and the Environment. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, 225(2), 1-11.