What I have discovered is that spooking is a reality, but is not in any way a strange or unexpected type of animal behaviour. All animals flee predators and fish are no exception. To commercially targeted fish, nets are a predator and by far the most dangerous predator that they could possibly encounter.
The flight reactions by fish to netting that I have witnessed have been instantaneous. The moment that the net is being retrieved and the fish that are trapped within begin to panic, is when I have seen fish that are often some distance from the net, fleeing away from the netted site. This is due to the cumulative alarm vocalisations by the trapped fish which can travel through water for many kilometres and which warns fish within hearing range that this dangerous predator is on the hunt.
But I had also noticed that fish aren’t to be caught in the region of the netted site for up to a week afterwards and alarm vocalisations on their own don’t explain why this should be so. Discovery that the slime coating on the scales of fish is an alarm substance that causes anti-predator responses by fish detecting this substance (schreckstoff) was the key to unlocking this mystery. Schreckstoff can remain active for days and is released into the water when a fish is injured or when rubbing against a net. Huge volumes of schreckstoff are released into the water on every occasion that fish are netted and this is the cause of what is known as area avoidance.
There are two other types of alarm signalling in fishes that ensure that fish receive a warning about the presence of nets. These are the release of a urinary pulse of ammonia emitted by alarmed fish and the visual sighting of other fish that have already detected one or all of the three already mentioned alarm signals and are fleeing the predator.
Alarm signalling by fish in and nearby all nets causes flight reactions and avoidance of the netted area. This is normal fish behaviour. From an angling perspective, there is generally little value in fishing an area that has recently been netted, though exceptions do occur when there is large quantities of food available in that area. Such exceptions are most likely to occur when the volume of netted fish is small.
These are the reasons why net free regions have been demonstrated to have more and bigger fish. The fish are merely seeking safe refuges from nets and where the alarm signals are never present in the quantities that only netted fish can produce.
Article by Guest Blogger Lindsay Dines – Queensland Recreational Fishing Network