What Do Anglers Want?

Recreational anglers. Photo by John McMurray.

Photo by John McMurray

Every now and then, my wife and I will be talking to someone who doesn’t fish. Upon learning that we do, and that we own a boat, a typical reaction is something like “That’s really nice. You don’t have to go to the store to buy fish.”

And one of us will respond with “No. And they only cost us about $200 per pound…”

While that $200 figure might be a little high, anyone who thinks that it’s typically cheaper to catch your own fish rather than buy them at the store is in for a big surprise. Between the price of the boat itself, plus dockage, fuel, maintenance, repairs, fishing equipment and perhaps bait and chum, recreational angling is not a low-cost endeavor.

For example, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) figures tell us that, in 2016, striped bass anglers in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region made more than 5.8 million trips, and took home about 1.6 million striped bass. Thus, the average striped bass angler needs to go fishing, and incur the related expenses, three or four times to bring home a single fish. That’s not a very efficient way to feed the family.

Shore-based anglers might spend a lot less money when they go fishing, but they also catch a lot fewer fish. While such anglers account for about 32% of all striped bass trips taken, they harvest less than 4% of the overall recreational landings.

If we look at other popular species, the results are about the same. In the southeast, red drum anglers make about 3.5 million trips, and bring home about 1.3 million drum; Mid-Atlantic summer flounder fishermen do somewhat better, but still need more than 3.7 million fishing trips to land 2 million fish.

Thus, while most anglers probably do enjoy bringing fresh fish home from time to time, those fisherman will, in the end, pay more for such fish than they would have paid for fillets in a neighborhood store. Along most of America’s coasts, few anglers fish just to save money on seafood.

There are also a number of catch-and-release anglers who rarely bring fish home at all. Some like to catch fish, but don’t like to eat them. Some have conservation-related concerns. And others fish for species such as bonefish, tarpon and false albacore, which provide plenty of sport, but aren’t considered “food fish.”

Given such considerations, the question arises: Why do anglers fish, if not for food?

A recent NMFS study, described in a paper titled “Determinants of Saltwater Anglers’ Satisfaction with Fisheries Management: Regional Perspectives in the United States,” tries to answer that question.

To find such answers, researchers sent surveys to anglers located along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific (including Alaska, but not Hawaii) coasts of the United States, and analyzed more than 9,000 responses.

Anglers were asked how important it was for them to 1) catch fish, 2) catch as many fish as possible for food, 3) catch and release as many fish as possible, 4) catch a trophy fish, 5) target a particular species, 6) catch a full bag limit of their chosen species, 7) fish close to parking lots, rest rooms and similar amenities, and 8) see regulations clearly posted when they go fishing.

Current fisheries management debates, such as New Jersey’s ongoing efforts to derail NMFS’ planned reduction in the summer flounder harvest, or various recreational fishing organizations’ demands to increase Gulf of Mexico red snapper harvest, reinforce the impression that anglers are primarily concerned with taking fish home to eat. However, the study strongly suggests that is not the case.

It found that “Motivations to catch fish for consumption…did not significantly affect satisfaction with the management process in any of the regional models.” Instead, anglers were primarily interested in simply being able to catch fish; whether such fish could then be taken home was far less important. Anglers also wanted to be able to target particular species and, perhaps surprisingly, wanted to see fishing regulations clearly posted when they venture out.

When it came to the management policies themselves, anglers strongly supported habitat-related measures, and had a favorable view of regulations that restricted harvest and encouraged catch-and-release. Allocation-based management was not as important to the respondents, something that might be unexpected given the heated rhetoric devoted to issues such as prohibiting the commercial harvest of certain species, or so-called “sector separation,” that allots separate portions of the recreational catch limit to private and for-hire vessels.

And, despite how badly the fishery management system is criticized in the angling press, the study shows that anglers are, on the whole, at least moderately satisfied with the process. Federal management of Mid-Atlantic summer flounder and Gulf of Mexico red snapper is often criticized by some angling organizations, yet the study found that “there were no significant differences with mean management process satisfaction scores in the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and New England, compared with scores in the rest of the country,” although the level of satisfaction was higher in Alaska and the South Atlantic, and lower in the Pacific states.

Fishery managers need to pay real attention to the disconnect between the dissatisfaction voiced by some purported spokesmen from the angling community and the broad approval of the management process expressed by the anglers participating in the survey.

Managers need to ask whether the constantly repeated complaints actually reflect the views of the typical recreational fisherman. As the study notes, “Oftentimes, managers create policies in response to anglers’ criticisms of current management. These anglers most likely represent a vocal minority of avid saltwater anglers whose views differ from the general angler with an average amount of experience.”

For the study confirms what responsible leaders of the angling community have been saying for a long time. Fishing isn’t very enjoyable without fish. Managers’ first priority must be to maintain healthy and abundant fish stocks, so that anglers have a realistic chance of catching their favorite species. Whether those fish must then be released, or are taken home, is far less important.

Thus, the constant demands of the “vocal minority” for bigger bag limits and lower minimum sizes should be set aside, and anglers provided with what they both want and need: A sustainable fishery that will thrive into the foreseeable future.

Our fish need that sort of management, too.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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