Sunday, April 13, 2014


Last Thursday, I spent some time discussing one aspect of the 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.  I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on the event, but it probably is worth investigating one concept that popped up a couple of times, the concept of managing fish for “maximum economic yield.”

It’s an interesting phrase for a number of reasons.  Not the least of which is that no one really knows what it means.

It’s like the blind men describing an elephant, based only on the parts they could touch.  Everyone’s description is colored by their own particular perspective.

The speakers who used it were tied to the sportfishing industry, and what I think they were trying to say was that managing fish for the benefit of recreational fishermen rather than the commercial industry would provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation.

For a lot of species, that’s unquestionably true.  The Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences did an economic study of the striped bass fishery a few years ago (  VIMS had originally intended to use economic analysis to find the optimum recreational/commercial allocation of the resource, but quickly determined that

“It was the intent of the study to…determine an optimum mix of the allocation (i.e. a certain non-zero percent allocation to each user group).  Early analysis of the economic impacts and societal benefits, however, revealed the optimum allocation should be 100 percent to the recreational sector.  That is, maximum social benefits and potential sales, income, and employment were associated with a 100% allocation of the 1998 total allowable catch to the recreational sector.  As a consequence, there was no need to further examine an optimal allocation.”
A study commissioned by Stripers Forever, conducted by Southwick Associates (, has pretty much come to the same conclusion, but is vulnerable to challenge simply because it was sponsored by an agenda-driven organization.  Still, that doesn’t mean that the report’s conclusions were wrong.

A lot of other species would also demonstrate the benefits of giving recreational fishermen a bigger slice of the pie.  

But note that the same study that found that grouper had their greatest economic value if fished recreationally shows that, in the case of one species—red grouper—the commercial fishery had the greater economic impact.  Economic value and economic impact are calculated differently; economic value, rather than economic impact, is generally thought to be the better measure.   Still, anglers probably have reason to question whether they they would come out on top even if economic value analyses were done for some species, such as cod, haddock or swordfish—or even bluefin tuna

So this sort of “maximum economic value” is likely a two-edged sword.

Then there’s the old-fashioned New England kind of “maximum economic value,” the way that phrase was perceived back before the Sustainable Fisheries Act was passed.  That was when “optimum” yield was defined as “the maximum sustainable yield from the fishery, as modified by any relevant economic, social, or ecological factor” and MSY was always “modified” upward, resulting in severe overfishing, maximized short-term income and the long-term collapse of the stocks.  It’s the way the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has managed northern shrimp and the southern stock of winter flounder, ignoring scientific advice in order to squeeze the last drop of economic blood from a sere and crumbling stone. 

So, no, this sort of “maximum economic yield” doesn’t seem like a very good idea, either.

Yet recreational fishing supports a lot of business, and it’s good if businesses thrive.

So what provides “maximum economic yield in the real world?

Let’s start with the stipulation that in order to “maximize” economic yield, the benefit must continue over an extended time.  Large, but unsustainable, short-term gains don’t qualify.  If you have any doubts, consider the crumbling ghost towns of the American west, towns that boomed until the mines played out, and then just disappeared.  Or, to push the envelope a bit, just consider Detroit…

If we go back thirty years, to 1983, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that three species—summer flounder, winter flounder and bluefish—accounted for 77% of recreational fishing trips here in New York (I’m using New York as an example, just because I’m familiar with its fisheries; I suspect that any other state would have a similar story to tell).  Striped bass, which were suffering through the depths of a stock collapse, accounted for just 1%.

Twenty years ago, in 1993, the dynamic was beginning to change.  The same three species dominated New York anglers’ agenda, but accounted for just 67% of all trips made—down 10% from a decade before.  Almost all of the difference could be attributed to the recovering striped bass stocks, which began to attract more angler attention, and the decline in winter flounder abundance.

By 2003, the trends that had just begun to manifest themselves ten years earlier had changed the face of the fishery.  Just two species—summer flounder and the newly abundant striped bass—accounted for 57% of all fishing trips made in New York.  Bluefish was still among the three most popular species, accounting for about 11% of the trips; the top three species still accounted for a little over two-thirds of all trips made.  But winter flounder were fading fast; as the stock collapsed, so did angler interest.  Winter flounder only accounted for about 6.7% of all New York trips, down from about 26.6% of all trips made two decades earlier.

Last year saw the same trends continue.  54% of all New York trips targeted summer flounder or striped bass, with bluefish holding on to third place.  The winter flounder stock, now fully collapsed, accounted for less than one percent of all trips made, and just 0.02% of all fish caught.

So what does this all tell us about maximizing the “economic yield” of fisheries?

Mostly what I suggested last Sunday, in the post “If You Want a Fishing Industry, It Helps to Have Fish”.  Healthy and fully rebuilt fish stocks will yield the greatest economic return.

Nothing illustrates that better than the contrasting stories of striped bass and winter flounder. 

Thirty years ago, the striped bass population had collapsed, and none but the most dedicated striped bass anglers bothered to fish for them.  As the stock recovered, it drew more and more attention.  Last year, targeted striped bass trips comprised 25% of all New York trips—and each one of those trips generated some sort of economic yield.

On the other hand, thirty years ago winter flounder were abundant, and accounted for 26.6% of all New York angling trips in New York.  As the population began to decline, winter flounder also declined as a viable recreational target.  By 1993, despite the recreational fishing industry’s efforts to keep bag limits unreasonably high in order to create the “perception” that anglers could still take home a load of fish, fewer fishermen were targeting winter flounder; they accounted for just 17.3% of all trips.  Ten years later, the stock collapse was well underway and anglers “perceived” that the fish were disappearing; flounder were targeted in just 6.7% of trips.  Finally, last year, anglers “perceived” that the fish are gone; winter flounder trips constituted less than 1% of the total, and you had to go out two decimal places, to 0.02%, before flounder’s contribution to the overall catch rose above zero.

So it looks as if the road to “maximum economic yield” flows past maximum sustainable yield and into  the realm of maximizing abundance.  Anglers just won’t fish for fish that aren’t there.  The tackle shops and the party boats can fight regulation all that they want, and try to con anglers with efforts to create a “perception,” but the fishing public just isn’t that dumb. Sure, they’ll go out a few times chasing flounder, and leave a few bucks in the shops.  But after they spend a few hours on the water, with nothing in the pail and 11 ½ bloodworms still crawling around in the box, they’ll understand the difference between “perception” and reality, and disappear, taking their economic benefits along with them. 

Which, it appears, is just what they’ve done.

In 1983, New York anglers made about 5.1 million trips, with about 1.4 million of them targeting flounder.

In 2013, they made about 3.7 million trips, with just 0.02 million of them targeting flounder.

It’s hard to miss the fact that if you add the 1.4 million winter flounder trips from 1983—which anglers didn’t take last year—to the 3.7 million trips that they did take in 2003, you end up with 5.1 million, which suggests just how much economic value was lost when we lost winter flounder.

Of course, such an analysis would be far too simple.  It wouldn’t account for the impacts of Superstorm Sandy, which kept a lot of boats out of the water in 2013.  It wouldn’t account for effort shift from winter flounder to more abundant species.  It wouldn’t account for a drop in the number of fishermen over the last thirty years.

But still, flounder fishing is best, and most actively prosecuted, at times when there aren’t many other things around to fish for.  So it's obvious that the loss of winter flounder was a serious economic loss to New York.  Whether losing winter flounder cost New York the economic benefits from 1.4 million trips, 700,000 trips or maybe just 100,000 trips isn't really the point.  It was still a serious economic loss for angler-dependent businesses.

So if we want to manage for “maximum economic yield”, we should manage for healthy, fully-recovered fish stocks.

Once again, “flexibility” won’t get us there.  Overfishing and underregulation map the way a very bad place.  

We need to accept the fact that prosperity follows abundance.  If we manage our fish stocks for long-term abundance, everyone wins.  Stocks will be healthy, fishermen will be happy and they'll spend plenty of cash in support of angling-dependent business.

Striped bass are a prime example.

But if we manage for short-term economic yield, fish stocks will decline in the long term, anglers will desert the fishery, and there will be no cash in the till.

You disagree?  

Then I have two words for you:

Winter flounder.

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