Published: 20 February 2023 Updated: 21 February 2023

Recreational fishing and wellbeing – what’s the evidence?

The potential for recreational fishing to contribute positively the health and wellbeing of participants and the broader community has been widely acknowledged for decades (see Freudenberg and Arlinghaus 2009; McManus et al. 2011; Hunt et al. 2013; Griffiths et al. 2017).

Despite this recognition, few studies have gathered evidence that confirms this, or that shows how significant the benefit is in different circumstances. This is partly because the causal relationships between wellbeing and participation in recreational fishing are complex and can be difficult and expensive to measure (Griffiths et al. 2017). Griffiths et al. (2017) have argued that the challenges in measuring the relationship has been a “major impediment for formal integration of the human dimensions of recreational fishing into fishery assessments, management and policy.” p. 73.

Research into human dimensions of recreational fishing has often focused instead on exploring other important topics such as motivations for participation (e.g. Fedler and Ditton 1994; Beardmore et al. 2011) and how satisfied people are with their fishing experience (e.g. Arlinghaus 2006).

In a review of studies in Australia and the US, Griffiths et al. (2017) found some of the most important motivations for participation in recreational fishing include relaxation, the desire to get away from it all, to be outdoors, for sport, and to be with family. Other motivations identified in past studies include rest and relaxation, outdoor and nature connection, solitude, social connections, sport and competition, and fish consumption (see Henry and Lyle 2003).

Importantly, the benefits of fishing come from much more than catching fish. While an important part of fishing experience, studies have found that a high proportion of fishers report positive feelings about fishing trips even if no fish were caught (Ormsby 2004), highlighting that going fishing provides multiple ‘pathways’ to wellbeing (such as rest, relaxation, social connection, exercise and simply being outdoors, amongst others).

While many of these things have obvious associations with health and wellbeing, knowing that fishing is important for these things doesn’t in itself provide the evidence we need about the extent to which fishing contributes to health and wellbeing.

McManus et al. (2011) evaluated the health and wellbeing benefits of recreational fishing in multiple ways. Firstly, they undertook a systematic review of the literature of the outdoor recreation and recreational fishing. Secondly, they also undertook interviews with stakeholders across the sector to develop upon the literature. And finally, they developed a questionnaire-based survey which was pilot tested with a small sample of fishers in Exmouth, Western Australia.

Diagram of what we already know

They found the evidence for health and wellbeing benefits was strongest across the following key areas: addressing developmental or trauma-related vulnerabilities amongst youth; physical and emotional recovery from breast cancer surgery; mental health; and physical engagement opportunities for people with disabilities. More broadly, they and others have identified the following potential health and wellbeing benefits:

  • Mental health benefits
    • Increased self-esteem and strengthening of social ties (Freudengerg and Arlinghause 2009)
    • Providing challenge that builds confidence and strategy (reported in McManus et al. 2011 based on stakeholder interviews)
    • Reduced stress (reported in McManus et al 2011 based on stakeholder interviews)
  • Physical health from exercise and outdoor activity
    • Reduced heart rate and anxiety (Hughes 2014)
    • Recovery from breast cancer surgery – Findings from the Pinky Fly Fishers program run by RecFish Australia with FRDC (reported in McManus et al. 2011 based on stakeholder interviews)
    • Fitness and stamina (eg. fly fishing requires enormous fitness and stamina (reported in McManus et al 2011 based on stakeholder interviews)
    • Improved vitamin D status, especially for older participants (reported in McManus et al 2011 based on stakeholder interviews)
    • Benefits for those with disabilities – Recreational fishing is an accessible sport for those with disabilities, even for those who are severely disabled or paralysed (reported in McManus et al 2011 based on stakeholder interviews). 


Photo of recreational fisher releasing a fish


  • Social capital and self-efficacy
    • Reduced delinquency among disadvantaged youth (Wightman et al. 2008)
    • Family and social bonding and competition (reported in McManus et al. 2011)
    • Socio-cultural ecosystem services (Liu et al. 2019
    • Sharing of knowledge across generations (reported in McManus et al 2011 based on stakeholder interviews).

There are increasing number of authors advocating for improved quantitative indicators and metrics to support integration of human dimensions into fisheries management (Griffiths et al 2017, citing Hunt et al. 2013; Pascoe et al. 2014; Brooks et al. 2015). Some, such as Griffiths et al. (2017), have proposed the use of specific measures, such as measuring Health-Related Quality of Life. Others have suggested a need for broader review of the full range of social and wellbeing benefits.

One of the aims of the 2019-2020 National Survey of Recreational Fishing is to address this knowledge gap, and build an evidence base that helps us better understand the contribution of recreational fishing to social and wellbeing outcomes. We are identifying (i) the types of benefits provided by fishing, (ii) how these benefits may contribute to improving health and wellbeing, and (iii) what measures let us best measure these ‘pathways to wellbeing’ – particularly when fishing is just one of many things impacting a person’s wellbeing at any given point in time.

But surely there’s more knowledge than that about the benefits of fishing?

Actually, there’s surprisingly little evidence. However, there is a LOT of evidence that activities that have the characteristics of fishing – being outdoors, connecting to nature, and spending time with friends and family – have multiple benefits for health and wellbeing. For example:

  • Willis (2015) found that there is a tourism-nature-wellbeing nexus in which people engaged in outdoor recreational activities experience multiple health and wellbeing benefits, particularly improved psychological wellbeing. While not examining fishing, this article highlights that tourism activities related to nature – of which fishing is one – have significant health and wellbeing benefits
  • Cleary et al. (2017) found that it is likely that nature connection promotes enhancement of wellbeing and restoration of wellbeing, and proposed that this occurs through satisfying needs of feeling related/connected to other humans and species, and of fostering what is referred to as intrinsic value orientation – valuing things for their ‘intrinsic’ value, meaning their value for their own sake. Fishing is an example where people may achieve both these things, through improving their feelings of connection to both other humans and other species, and valuing nature ‘for its own sake’ rather than for its use for commercial purposes.
  • Bell et al. (2014) proposed that obtaining wellbeing benefits from nature connection depends on how readily able people are to connect to nature in the ways they desire. Fishing is one of the ways this occurs: fishers are able to change where they fish and how they fish over their life to match their abilities, interests and preferences.

However, even in the field of nature connection studies, there remain many gaps in knowledge. A review of studies by Houlden et al. (2018) concluded that while there is a lot of evidence that nature connection can be positive for mental health and wellbeing, little is known about how this changes depending on the types of activities being undertaken (e.g. fishing versus having a picnic by a lake), a person’s life stage, and the type of nature people are spending time in.

Recreational fishing is a unique nature-based outdoor recreation activity in that it offers the opportunity of participation that spans a lifetime – childhood, adolescence, adulthood and senior years (McManus et al. 2011). It has very diverse participation socially and culturally, with varied motivations for participation influences satisfaction, on-going participation and wellbeing outcomes.
This means it has potential to provide a wide range of health and wellbeing benefits that may change over the course of a person’s life, especially when compared to other outdoor activities people are able to engage in during different stages of life.

We’re looking forward to reporting on our findings as we produce them from the national survey!

The study is funded by the Australian government and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.