The Environmental Costs of Fly Fishing Travel

Tom McGuane is credited with saying that a passport is the best piece of gear a fly fisher can have. The meaning, of course, is that travel to a far-flung location can offer opportunities for better fishing with relatively pristine and under-pressured fisheries and fewer people.

And it certainly seems as if many fly fishers have taken that advice. Where fly fishers previously dreamed of, and traveled to, places like Montana for trout or Mexico for bonefish, it seems now as if every guide service is booked with trips to increasingly distant locations for exotic or more abundant species. These include places like Christmas Island and Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean; Mongolia, Russia, and all points of the compass.

I recognize the positives associated with travel: exposure to new cultures; bringing money to people who may benefit from service they provide to the visiting fly fishers; and the opportunity to fish for species in numbers not found here in the States.

I confess to being a bit envious as to the fishing that these trips offer.

But we live on a rapidly warming planet with an increasing pace of environmental degradation including species extinction. And it’s gotten me wondering what are the environmental impacts of all these trips.

I decided to look at one of the more obvious impacts: the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by jet travel.

I chose a trip from Seattle to the Seychelles to represent a distant once-in-a-lifetime trip. The Seychelles are noted for trevally, milkfish, triggerfish, bumphead parrotfish, permit and other reef and flats species. A round trip flight from Seattle to the airport in Mahe Island would be 18,964 miles. It’d be an incredible trip to do.

Next was figuring out the carbon dioxide load per mile of travel.

I found a web site called BlueSkyModel that modeled carbon emissions from an airplane flight on a per-mile basis. Based on averages of airplane models, fuel efficiency, and combustion chemistry, they estimated the average plane releases 53 pounds of carbon dioxide per flight mile. Further, they estimated the average emissions per passenger is 0.24 pounds per mile.

Applying those numbers to the example flight revealed that the single roundtrip trip from Seattle to the Seychelles would release 1,005,092 pounds of carbon dioxide. Each passenger would then represent 4,551 pounds of carbon dioxide.

To put that into context, I chose to look at something most fly fishers do and that’s drive an automobile or truck. For simplicity I based the estimate on emission numbers for automobiles. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates 400 grams (.89 pounds) of carbon dioxide per mile driven.

Comparing the two numbers then means that each person on that flight would represent driving a car for an additional 5,113 miles. For the round trip in total, assuming an average car is driven for 15,000 annually, that would mean the equivalent of 75 additional cars on the road for one year.

Doesn’t sound like much until one remembers I’m only talking about two flights of a single trip.

There were 36.8 million commercial airline flights in 2017.

Using data for revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) – numbers of kilometers flown with revenue-generating passengers, I found in 2017 the RPK was approximately 2.7 trillion.

Applying that number to the average emissions per passenger, it means that worldwide there was over 402 billion pounds of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by commercial airline flights in one year.

As bad as that is, the emissions for cars and trucks are worse. In 2016, there were 3.22 trillion miles driven in the US. Using the average emission for cars, that would mean that 768 billion pounds of carbon dioxide were put into the atmosphere in one year.

These are staggering numbers.

It’s clear that even if I, or another fly fisher, stopped or never took a long-distance fly fishing trip our actions would be insignificant. While I wasn’t able to find any data, it’s apparent to me the impacts of all fly fishing travel would be a relative drop in the bucket to the much larger emissions discussed above.

And driving and commercial airline flights are each only parts of the problem.

Consider the amount of carbon dioxide produced in animal agriculture. One study in 2009 estimated animal agriculture adds 71 billion pounds of carbon dioxide and 37 percent of worldwide methane emissions per year. Now, look around the Earth and see how many cultures are moving towards more meat consumption.

How many other sources of greenhouse gas emissions are there making things even worse?

We may be doomed. But we have to do our best to save ourselves. Individual actions do matter when taken collectively. Eat less meat. Use your own grocery bags. Drive less. Love those in your life.

And take that bucket-list fly-fishing trip while you can.


Author: Tom

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