Who REALLY Catches The Fish?

Commercial and Recreational fishing, photo by John McMurray

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.

About Charles Witek

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

8 comments on “Who REALLY Catches The Fish?

  1. There is another issue that must be considered regarding recreational impacts on overall catch and mortality. Consider the following catch statistics (MRIP) for black seabass catch during 2016 in the South Atlantic. During 2016 anglers harvested an estimated 145,394 black seabass. However, in order to harvest that many seabass an estimated 3,253,052 black seabass were released alive. Just because they were released alive doesn’t mean that all survived. A mortality rate must be applied to those released for various reasons but mainly due to regulations (size, season, bag limits). For black seabass (bottomfish caught with bait) a 10% mortality rate is a very reasonable rate of loss. When this rate is applied to the estimated number released, it indicates that 325,305 seabass may have been wasted to catch and keep 145,394 fish. Wait a minute, this means that 2 fish were wasted for every 1 fish taken home. Wrap your head around that. How did management strategies ever get to this point?

  2. Been around. You are trying to equate an undersized Black Sea Bass with a larger one? Certainly bycatch is a big issue in all sectors. Perhaps BSB is not the best example.
    I liked the article but have some comments.

    First, some species clearly are and should be devoted primarily to one sector or other. For example penaeid shrimp and blue are harvested about 99% to commercial fishermen in STATE waters of NC, and other states. In STATES other than NC, inshore species, which remain unregulated by MSA, such as speckled trout, red drum, striped bass and snook are more valuable to the sportfish sector than commercial sector. For the record, NC is unlike any other state. NC supplies greater than 90% of the wild caught red drum and speckled trout in the US; NC has not yet seen the economic advantage of these fish, fish that cannot come close to supplying fish to just NC citizens. NC Commercial Fishermen contend they are feeding their NC citizens with trout and drum:

    If all commercially caught speckled trout were kept in NC (which they are not), it would be about 100,000 lbs of filets. Since there are about 10 million people in NC, that would mean each NC citizen’s share of its public trust resource (trout) harvested by commercial fishermen would be 0.01 of a pound annually. You call that feeding the masses? The speckled trout recreational fishery is worth around 40 million of economic value to the state. You could change the species to red drum and it would be very similar, but 50 million. The commercial value of these species is a pittance, perhaps a million. Why do commercial fishermen fight to harvest these fish, why does the State of NC continue to supply these fish to other states?

    If NC commercial fishermen want to be “fair” then let’s divide the stocks down the middle. The largest stocks of value for commercial fishermen by far are shrimp and blue crab, somewhere about 20 and 6 million bucks a year in at the dock harvest, respectively. All others pale in comparison.

    In summary, the recreational fishing economic impact in NC is four times that of commercial fishing. If NC managed their stocks better, and made sound economic decisions in their allocations, instead of a 1.6 billion economic activity for recreational fishing, it would greatly increase. According to a recent study, it would double.

    While the MSA can have some strict regulations, and there is controversy as its impact on recreational fishing, no one can argue with the results. In general, Council managed stocks are in good shape and MSA has recovered dozens of species.

    I wish that NC had some of the limits and accountability measures that MSA requires of Council managed stocks. If they did perhaps more than 4 of the NC State managed species would be listed as viable (as opposed to overfished, depleted, recovering, concern or unknown (2).

    One subject that has not been mentioned is that MSA supplies “cover” for fisheries managers to conserve stocks. Managers are under a lot of pressure from sectors, politicians, and fishermen to allow greater harvest.

  3. Great propaganda article about how recreational fisherman are the bad guys. All of the recreational data is a guess. NOAA and the gulf council just guess what recreational anglers caught because they have no idea. If they want a real count they would mandate fish catch reports for all trips but they don’t want to do that because if they can estimate it, they can enforce anything they want with fake numbers.

    • Chris Wilke, you make an excellent. They pretend to operate using scientific information to justify the goals they seek but use models that have no relationship to factual data.
      In Guatemala where we fish primarily for sailfish and marlin we practice very strict conservation measures on all billfish and rooster fish. Though the government there has strict laws in place, the real driving force for conservation is the sport fishing trip operators themselves. These fish named are greatly respected and our clients truly appreciate our conservation efforts. Everyone here uses circle hooks which greatly decreases deep hooking and fish mortality. It is extremely rare for us to have a billfish die and I average 16 sailfish releases a day year round and in January and February 30-80 releases per day. With our conservation efforts or fishing tends to improve year after year in spite of some significant losses from longliner pangas who kill quite a few in bycatch or sell them on the black market. The country is so poor that I sense that the authorities seem to look the other way for these local panga fishermen. The good news is that we have outstanding support and compliance from the recreational fishing operations in Guatemala. From what I see, having operated previously for 12 years in the Gulf of Mexico, the government numbers used to back their actions have zero basis in reality and their rules have destroyed ages long family businesses and recreational fishing in general. You only have to look at how they have handled the snapper season in the gulf of Mexico.

  4. Yes recreational fishing is giant if you take every licensed angler in the gulf states and they each caught 1 limit of red snapper in a season it would be overfished. Don’t think it won’t happen. If the laws get relaxed too much we will be in sad shape for a variety of species in short order. I am a Charter for hire and over 31 years have seen the good, bad and the ugly of management of our resources. Back 20yrs ago if we got fish excluding devices on shrimp trawl it would save the red snapper fishery, a joke in today’s world. The biologists and schools that get money from the government to fund their studies will always have a cure for the problem but never will solve the problem because they will get no more funding. As the wheel turns round we will be there again, let’s not let it get in dire straights just because these fish are so easy to catch at the moment. Gps and technology has played a big part in depletion of stocks as well, anyone with good electronics now can go to a spot offshore and actually find it with very little skills.
    I just want the next and last 10yrs of my fishing career to be enjoyable. Let’s save some for the grandkids and great grandkids.
    My thoughts
    Capt. Joe Nash
    Orange Beach, Al.

  5. This is just another Bs article trying to get more money and fish for the commercial sector. It is not about the fish.

    • Capt Tom Adams, you are exactly correct. This guy makes these false comments at a time when you can catch a limit of 10 pound snapper off a pier in Destin, FL for example. He obviously has an agenda and appears oblivious to the real fishery populations in the Gulf of Mexico. Thank you for speaking out and calling a spade a spade.

  6. Why only consider federal waters? Clearly manipulating the data. Also why not show pounds of catch when referencing species where recreational angling is prevelent? Selective reporting. Lastly, Atlantic cod are going extinct and pollock will shortly follow. The same can’t be said about dolphin, wahoo and amberjack….at least not until commercial fisherman focus their attention on them.

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