Why Regulate Recreational Fisheries?

Charles Witek

Photo: Charles Witek in a different era of fishing technology

When I was young, marine recreational fisheries, at least in the northeast, were virtually unregulated. There was a 16-inch (fork length) minimum size for striped bass that was in place throughout the region, but other than that, anglers could take as many fish as they wanted, regardless of size, at any time of the year.

Anglers could even sell their fish if they wanted to, without any license and without worrying about sizes or quotas. The only exception to that was, once again, striped bass, which could not be legally sold in Connecticut, although commercial bass fisheries thrived in neighboring states.

In February 1962, my parents took me to Florida for the first time, and both my father and I were surprised to see how many of that state’s saltwater fish were governed by minimum sizes.

Of course, in the early 1960s, the most common fishing boat on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound was probably a 14-foot Old Town rowboat, that was made out of wood and powered by a 5 or maybe a 7 ½ horsepower outboard. There were a few fiberglass runabouts showing up at the docks, and a fair number of somewhat larger wooden boats powered by small inboard engines, but generally speaking, anglers’ boats at that time were small, wooden, and slow. Electronics, other than the occasional “ship-to-shore” radio, were virtually unknown.

Fishing tackle was equally crude. While monofilament lines were beginning to take over the market, the monofilaments available in the early 1960s tended to be springy, thick for their strength, and prone to “backlash,” or tangle when cast, causing many anglers to stick with braided nylon “squidding line,” braided Dacron, or even the rot-prone linen lines of an earlier generation. Salt-water rods tended to be thick and unresponsive, often cheaply made from solid fiberglass. Spinning reels were becoming more and more common, but most anglers still fished with older, revolving spool models.

Fishermen usually didn’t venture far from their moorings. Where we lived, near the western end of Long Island Sound, it was about seven miles from the Connecticut coast to the Long Island shore, and most anglers saw that as too long a voyage to take on a regular basis. Few anglers regularly traveled more than a mile or two from the mouth of their harbor.

Yet, they caught fish. Winter flounder were abundant, and could be caught throughout the year. Tautog (we called them blackfish) haunted every offshore rockpile, and were particularly abundant during the spring and fall. During those years, anglers found scup, eels, snapper (juvenile) bluefish, smelt, and tomcod in abundance. Striped bass were there too, but the smaller, saltwater panfish were so abundant that most fishermen targeted them, and usually left the bass fishing up to the small group of anglers who specialized in stripers, and haunted the rocky shores of Long Island Sound in the deepest depths of the night.

There is no reliable data on fishing effort or landings back then, so it’s impossible to accurately compare landings from sixty years ago to what anglers are catching now, but having grown up in those times, I can confidently say that with respect to the most common species, catch per unit effort was significantly higher then than what it is now.

The first somewhat reliable data on recreational fishing was released for the 1981 fishing year. That data showed that, in 1981, recreational fishermen on the Atlantic coast of the United States made over 87 million fishing trips, caught about 457 million fish—a little over five fish per trip—and took about 319 million of those fish home. While those numbers might seem high, 1981 actually marked a low point in recreational fishing effort; such effort jumped to over 101 million trips in 1982, and hasn’t fallen significantly below 100 million trips since.

The number of fish caught per trip, on the other hand, has gone the other way.

By 1990, angler trips had increased to over 104 million on the Atlantic Coast, but the number of fish caught fell to 358 million—just a little over 3 ½ fish per trip—while the number of fish retained by the region’s recreational fishermen dropped to 199 million.

It’s probably important to note that by 1981, and certainly by 1990, fishing boat technology had made very large strides forward. Fiberglass ruled the marketplace. Fast center-console outboards rigged with LORAN (a position-finding tool used in the same way as today’s GPS), depthfinders, and other electronics allowed even less affluent anglers to run long distances in search of declining populations of fish. By 1990, I was operating a 25-foot center console that could reach the fishing grounds of Hudson Canyon, 70 miles offshore, in less than 2 ½ hours.

It’s not hard to argue that the increase in recreational fishermen and recreational fishing effort, plus improved recreational fishing technology, combined with commercial landings, led to a decline in fish abundance, and in recreational landings.

In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which governs all fishing in federal waters, was substantially amended by the passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act which, for the first time, required that federal fishery managers prevent overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks within a time certain. The Sustainable Fisheries Act marked a turning point in federal fisheries management, and led to the recovery of many formerly overfished stocks.

Commercial harvest was easily constrained by implementing hard quotas and the implementation of limited entry programs, which regulated the number of commercial fisherman that might participate in a given fishery. However, similar measures were hard to impose on the recreational fishery, which has far more participants, is typically not required to report its catch, and continues to grow unchecked.

By the year 2000, Atlantic coast anglers took about 132 million individual fishing trips. That figure increased to slightly over 159 million trips in 2010, when effort peaked, before falling back to nearly 136 million in 2020 and 137 million in 2021.

At the same time, angling technology has continued to evolve. The simple depthfinders of the 1980s, which etched out a picture of the ocean bottom beneath an angler’s boat on a roll of heat-sensitive paper, have been replaced by multi-frequency machines that, in their most advanced forms, can scan not only below a boat but 360 degrees around it as well. Some units are so precise that they allow an angler to present a bait or lure to an individual fish, and watch the fish’s reaction in real time.

Instead of the relatively slow boats of the previous era, today’s anglers can buy fast center console sportfishermen powered by three or four large outboard engines, boats capable of cruising in excess of 40 knots that make it practical to fish spots over 100 miles away, yet return to port on the same day.

While anglers once had to take the time to learn how to anchor a boat over a deep-water wreck or piece of hard-bottom structure, so that the boat wouldn’t swing off the piece and onto unproductive soft bottom, today they may purchase electric trolling motors that combine with a Global Positioning System receiver to maintain their boats over a productive location without ever needing to drop an anchor over the side.

Such leaps in technology have made it easier for even average anglers to find and catch fish. When fishery managers propose regulations intended to constrain recreational landings, and maintain them at levels that are sustainable in the long term, they are often attacked by members of the recreational fishing industry and various “anglers’ rights” organizations, who claim that such regulations aren’t necessary, that recreational fishing is inherently different from commercial fishing, and that recreational regulations should be less prescriptive than those governing the commercial sector.

Recreational fishermen often argue that fishery managers should be expending most of their effort regulating the commercial sector, because it kills far more fish than anglers do. Such argument is intuitively attractive, because it’s difficult to believe that someone fishing with a rod, a reel, and a couple of hooks might compete with the vast nets of commercial fishermen. Yet, in the case of many species, the facts demonstrate that it’s not true.

While commercial fishermen dominate the fisheries for certain species, such as menhaden and walleye pollock, where their catch is measured in the billions of pounds, when it comes to species that are avidly sought by recreational fishermen, anglers are often responsible for most of the landings.

For example, in the case of striped bass, which have remained overfished since 2009, many anglers believe that elimination of the commercial fishery would put the stock on the road to recovery. Yet commercial fishermen are responsible for only 10 percent of all fishing mortality; anglers kill the other 90 percent of the bass.

Similarly, anglers are responsible for about 84 percent of East Coast bluefish landings, as well as most of the release mortality, 75 percent of weakfish landings, and 96 percent of the landings of Atlantic cobia. A number of other fish exhibit similar patterns.

A comparison of commercial and recreational landings in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions shows that, even for species of bottom fish that are often thought of as commercial species, recreational fishermen account for a majority of the landings, harvesting 62 percent of the black sea bass and 59 percent of the scup, percentages that, in both cases, are far in excess of the recreational sector’s allocation.

It is thus clear that, in the case of many popular recreational species, recreational fishermen are responsible for the greatest share of the landings. So when anglers ask, “Why do we have such restrictive regulations?” the answer is clear.

Such regulations are necessary because anglers catch, and keep, a lot of fish, and because without effective regulations, tomorrow’s recreational fishermen would find themselves with little to catch when they ventured out onto the sea.

About Charles Witek

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *