Photo by John McMurray
Anyone who pays attention to salt water fisheries matters knows that a coalition of anglers’ rights groups and fishing tackle and boatbuilding trade associations are trying to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).
The effort is rooted in their assertion that Magnuson-Stevens, with its prohibitions on overfishing, its annual catch limits and its mandate that overfished stocks be promptly rebuilt, isn’t good for recreational anglers, although it’s fine for managing commercial fishermen. A generally unspoken assumption, underlying such claim, is that anglers, as a group, catch fewer fish than commercial fishermen do.
That was hinted at in comments made by Dr. Larry McKinney, who believes that Magnuson-Stevens “was developed for larger commercial fisheries based on biomass extraction and not for access—what recreational fisheries need. [emphasis added]” (Dr. McKinney is the Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute (HRI) at Texas A&M University; HRI is home to the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation, which has received at least $500,000 in support from the Coastal Conservation Association, one of the organizations leading the effort to weaken Magnuson-Stevens).
However, the ultimate effort to convince policymakers that anglers don’t catch many fish was made by Mike Nussman, the president of the American Sportfishing Association.
According to the blog of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Nussman gave a speech impugning Magnuson-Stevens. As he spoke, “In one hand, he held a glass pitcher filled with gumballs, which represented the total amount of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen. In the other hand, he held a pitcher with two gumballs. That represented the total number of saltwater fish caught by recreational anglers.”
Was Nussman right? Do commercial fishermen really account for such a large proportion of all fish landed?
The answer is clearly yes and, just as clearly, no.
It all depends on what species of fish are considered.
U.S. commercial fishery landings and recreational harvest estimates for 2015 support the gumball analogy. Commercial fishermen dominated the landings, harvesting nearly 9.8 billion pounds of fish in that year, while recreational anglers are thought to have landed less than 170 million pounds.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Much of the commercial harvest is made up of only a few species, such as walleye pollock (3.26 billion pounds), menhaden (1.63 billion pounds) and Pacific cod (699 million pounds), which are not generally pursued by anglers (in 2015, recreational fishermen landed about 1.2 million pounds of menhaden, which was probably all used as bait; there are no recorded recreational landings of either Pacific cod or walleye pollock, although a handful of cod were undoubtedly caught).
So yes, commercial fishermen catch a lot of fish, but most are fish that anglers don’t care about very much. If Nussman had only considered species pursued by anglers when he put on his show, he would have had far, far more gumballs in the recreational jar.
Commercial fishermen still harvest most of the groundfish up in New England, accounting for at least 90% of all Atlantic cod, pollock and haddock landings. In the Mid-Atlantic, they caught 79% of the scup and 69% of the summer flounder (although the commercial percentage probably dropped below 60% in 2016); in the South Atlantic, they landed about 78% of the Spanish mackerel, and roughly 59% of the kings.
On the other hand, recreational fishermen dominate their share of fisheries, too.
When only federally-managed fisheries are considered, Atlantic-coast anglers landed 95% of the wahoo, 94% of the cobia and 90% of the dolphin. In the South Atlantic, recreational fishermen accounted for 89% of the mutton snapper harvest and 86% of the yellowtail, along with 64% of the greater amberjack, 60% of the red grouper and 52% of the black grouper. In the Mid-Atlantic, anglers landed 74% of both the black sea bass and the bluefish.
State-managed fisheries on the Atlantic coast show a similar pattern. Recreational fishermen were responsible for 95% of the red drum landings, 89% of the tautog (blackfish), 84% of the black drum, 83% of the spotted seatrout, 81% of the sheepshead, 77% of the striped bass and 60% of the pompano. Commercial fishermen harvest 54% of the weakfish.
It’s more difficult to come up with comparable numbers for the Gulf of Mexico, as not all Gulf states cooperate with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Recreational Information Program. However, in 2016, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council published a blog post titled “2016’s Most Wanted Fish,” which included pie charts depicting recreational/commercial allocations.
It turns out that in the Gulf, anglers are given about 80% of the gray triggerfish 75% of the greater amberjack, 65% of the king mackerel, 60% of the gag grouper and 55% of the Spanish mackerel. Commercial fishermen get about 75% of the red grouper and a bare majority, 51%, of the red snapper. However, the recreational sector overfishes red snapper with such regularity that it has actually been responsible for most of the red snapper landings over the past decade.
Despite the incomplete Gulf data, it’s clear that anglers on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts not only kill a lot of fish in absolute terms, but also are responsible for most of the landings of many popular species. That being the case, it is also clear that the proposed Modernizing Recreational Fishery Management Act of 2017, which would allow anglers to avoid the discipline imposed by annual catch limits and the accountability measures that apply when such annual catch limits are exceeded, could easily jeopardize many important fish stocks.
Commercial fishermen do land the lion’s share of many fish stocks, but there is no credible effort to abolish the annual catch limits that affect them, or to relieve them of accountability if they overfish a particular stock of fish in any given year.
Looking at the matter objectively, it is difficult to justify treating recreational fishermen any differently. When anglers are responsible for landing 70%, 80% and sometimes more than 90% of many fish stocks, they are clearly capable of doing substantial harm to such stocks should they overfish. Thus, it is only prudent to constrain their landings with annual catch limits, and hold them accountable to the public should they exceed such limits.
Last August, Shannon Carroll, deputy director of the Alaska Conservation Council, testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Magnuson-Stevens, held in Soldotna, Alaska. He addressed the argument that recreational fisheries are somehow unique, saying “We may agree that [anglers] have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same—it’s the harvesting of a public resource. I would urge this committee to assure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.”
That makes a lot of sense. Both the recreational and the commercial sector have the capability to overfish many fish stocks, and both have a responsibility to limit its landings to sustainable levels. Both recreational and commercial fishermen should be held accountable if they engage in overfishing.
For a dead fish is a dead fish, and it has the same impact on the stock, whether it is killed by a recreational or a commercial fisherman. If the recreational sector kills the greater percentage of any fish stock, the greater responsibility for the health of that stock should be placed on its shoulders as well.