After spending over 50 years on and around the water, I have realized that without strong fisheries laws and effective conservation measures, the future of salt water fishing, and America's living marine resources, is dim. Yet conservation is given short shrift by national angling organizations and the angling press. I hope that this blog will incite, inform and inspire salt water fishermen to reclaim their traditional role as the leading advocates for the conservation of America's fisheries.
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
Was Nussman right? Do
commercial fishermen really account for such a large proportion of all fish
The answer is clearly yes
and, just as clearly, no.
It all depends on what
species of fish are considered.
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
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
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.
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. ----- This essay first appeared in "From the Waterfront," the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at http://conservefish.org/blog/