Number 276
July 28, 2005
April 11, 2001

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Recreational fishing – beyond the hype

    In their never-ending quest for more and more fish for their constituents, recreational angling advocates have relied on claims that their sport is continuously growing, that it is the “foundation” of  coastal communities, that every fish allocated to the consumer (and therefore denied to the recreational angler) represents a loss of tens or hundreds of dollars to the economy, and on and on and on. Anyone who is reading this is probably more than familiar with the litany.

    But how true are these claims? What is the “state of the state” of recreational angling in the United States? Is participation in recreational angling on an upswing that is threatening the future popularity of NASCAR and pro football and the seafood lover’s access to ocean–fresh fish from our rich coastal waters?

    We decided to find out.

Wallop-Breaux funding .…

    First off, a particular federal funding mechanism must be understood to truly appreciate the governmental  attitude concerning how many people in the U.S. fish for recreation – or for “subsistence” in the recreational fishing advocates’ latest attempt to show that sports fishing hasn’t become the province only of the well to do -  in salt water.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior spells this out in a page on their website titled Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration (the Dingell-Johnson Act and the Wallop-Breaux Amendment – see

    From the FWS page:

    “The Sport Fish Restoration program is funded by revenues collected from the manufacturers of fishing rods, reels, creels, lures, flies and artificial baits, who pay an excise tax on these items to the U.S. Treasury. An amendment in 1984 (Wallop-Breaux Amendment) added new provisions to the Act by extending the excise tax to previously untaxed items of sport fishing equipment. Appropriate State agencies are the only entities eligible to receive grant funds. Each State's share is based 60 percent on its licensed anglers (fishermen) and 40 percent on its land and water area.

    The major element of the W-B Amendment established a new Trust Fund, named the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund. Funds are also received from import duties on sport fishing equipment, pleasure boats and yachts. Another source of revenue is a tax from motorboat fuel sales. These motorboat fuel taxes are collected by the U.S. Treasury and then transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service for distribution among the States and territories.

    The passage of TEA-21 authorized a National Outreach and Communications Program to increase participation in angling  and boating while reminding boaters and anglers about the importance of clean aquatic habitats. It also increased the minimum level of spending for boating access to 15% and raised the maximum allowable expenditure of Sport Fish Restoration apportionments for aquatic education and outreach to 15%. TEA-21 created a Boating Infrastructure Program for the construction, maintenance, or renovation of facilities for non-trailerable recreational boats (boats greater than 26 feet in length.) TEA-21 raises the amount of Federal gas tax credited to the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund and establishes a “permanent” appropriation for the Boating Safety Account.”

and the government spin it generates

    Needless to say, assuming that the fisheries management establishment comports itself as every other bureaucracy does when dealing with budgetary questions, we tend to look at recreational angling participation figures derived or paid for by governmental fisheries agencies with a slight bit of skepticism. The NOAA/NMFS Recreational Fisheries Strategic Plan (available at  is a good case in point. From the plan:

    “Every year, 13 million Americans enjoy recreational fishing in our oceans and along our coasts…Saltwater recreational fishing is more popular than ever. Over the past decade, the number of angler trips rose nearly 10 percent, to 82 million trips in 2003. Not surprisingly, the number of fish caught by anglers since 1993 has increased proportionately. Although saltwater anglers have caught more fish in recent years, they also have released their catch more often.”

    Note that while the plan acknowledges that saltwater angling is “more popular than ever,” and addresses the number of trips, the number of fish caught and the number of fish released, it doesn’t discuss the number of people who actually participated in saltwater angling.

    Then, in a NOAA/NMFS press release dated October 21, 2004 (, we read:

    “While participation in marine recreational fishing fell eight percent (in 2003) from the previous year, the 10-year trend is still positive with the number of anglers up seven percent and the number of trips up nine percent.”

    Reading all of this, one can’t help but feel that all’s right in the world of recreational fishing in the United States and that soon the television viewing public will be as familiar with the winner of the Ocean City White Marlin Open as it is today with Lance Armstrong of Tour de France fame.

But what happens when we look beyond the spin?

    However, and fortunately for those of us who are capable of recognizing a potential bureaucratic conflict when it smacks us across the face, we found an alternative source of information on recreational angling participation and, by inference, popularity.

    The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), founded in 1906, has made available a study, the Sports Participation Topline Report (available for downloading at that highlights participation trends in over a hundred indoor and outdoor sports – running the gamut from rock climbing to darts – in the U.S. since 1987. The chart below was from that report.

Participation in recreational fishing

Type of Fishing









Change last year

Change last 6 years

Change last 17 years






































    The decline in saltwater recreational angling of over 31% that the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association measured in the last seventeen years is pretty dramatic. (And note that, counter to the NMFS press release cited above, the SGMA data show a decline in participation of 17% from 1993 to 2003.)

    When this decline is considered relative to the total U.S. population it becomes even more so. In 1987 approximately one in twelve, or 8.1%, of us fished in salt water. In 2004 that participation had fallen to less than one in twenty, or 4.7% (based on a population of 242 million in 1987 and 285 million in 2004). This is a decline in the popularity of saltwater angling, as measured by the percentage of the total population that participates, of almost 60%.

    And this isn’t a phenomena that is restricted to the United States. Recreational fishing in Queensland, Australia declined from 24.6% to 20.6% from 2001 to 2004. According to Queensland’s Commissioner of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Henry Palaszczuk, “the decrease in fishing participation in Queensland reflects trends in other countries that show fewer people are fishing recreationally” (Survey shows fewer fishers but smarter fishing,

    Saltwater or fresh, here or abroad, it’s apparent that the people aren’t rushing to the coastlines in ever-increasing droves to catch their weekly dose of omega 3s. According to SGMA, the percentage of people in the U.S. who fish for recreation in saltwater has fallen by almost half in the last seventeen years. If that’s the case, how can a federal agency state in A Vision for Marine Recreational Fisheries - NOAA Recreational Fisheries Strategic Plan, FY 2005 to 2010, a widely distributed planning document, that “saltwater recreational fishing is more popular than ever?

    More popular with who? Saltwater recreational fishing is certainly more popular with government fisheries workers, because there are more and more of them every year, and their budgets, thanks to Wallop-Breaux, are increasingly dependent on recreational fishing expenditures. Again, from the NOAA/NMFS Strategic plan:

    “Marine recreational anglers represent one of NOAA’s largest organized constituencies.With their demonstrated conservation ethic, America’s 13 million anglers will be among NOAA’s most important allies.

    And it’s definitely more popular with an aging group of participants with an increasing amount of spare time to devote to fishing and an increasing amount of disposable income to spend on recreational fishing gear. As a matter of fact, the author(s) of the planning report cited above, while attempting some of what it’s difficult to imagine as anything but totally inappropriate political finessing, wrote in a justification for their conclusion that saltwater recreational fishing is more popular than ever, “in the past decade, the number of angler trips rose nearly 10 percent, to 82 million trips in 2003.” Are we off base in thinking that if fewer and fewer people participate in a given activity each year, that regardless of how often each of those people participates, that activity is becoming less rather than more popular?

With fewer recreational anglers ever year, why does the recreational fishing mortality continue to climb?

    Not surprisingly, we had some difficulty equating this greatly reduced, though well camouflaged, participation in saltwater angling with the increases in recreational landings and recreational mortalities in so many fisheries (see Searching for an explanation, we did a query (using the NMFS online recreational fishing database at on the total number of angler trips per year for those years reported on by the SGMA. Using these two data sets, we found that in the time period in question, the average number of saltwater fishing trips taken by recreational anglers each year had more than doubled.

Average saltwater angling trips per year










Average trips/year










    Only two thirds as many anglers are fishing today as fished seventeen years ago, but on the average, each of them is fishing twice as much. And they are using more advanced tackle, faster and larger boats, marine electronics several orders of magnitude more effective and far more affordable than in 1987, and communications technology – cell phones and internet chat rooms – that transmit knowledge of the latest “hot spot” instantaneously.

Who’s zooming who? (with thanks yet again to Aretha Franklin.)

    Could it be that an ever-decreasing number of increasingly organized recreational fishing hobbyists and their activist leaders, with the perhaps unwitting complicity of a fisheries management establishment that is dependent on their expenditures for its budgetary well-being as well as its future existence, are involved in a major effort to hoodwink our policy makers? Looking at the data, it seems inescapable that more and more fish from our coastal and offshore waters are going to fewer and fewer people. These are fish that belong to all of us, and 95% of us either can’t afford to or couldn’t care less about catching them ourselves, depending instead on commercial harvesters to get the fish out of the water and onto our plates.

    Let’s take a look at the fisheries management establishment. Some of its members must surely be privy to the same information that was available to the authors of the SGMA report, and in fact the SGMA’s 13 million participant estimate for 2004 is echoed by the NMFS/NOAA planning document, which states “every year, 13 million Americans enjoy recreational fishing in our oceans and along our coasts.” They don’t write that 13 million last year is likely to be 10 or 11 million in only a few years. In spite of the fact that, if the present trend continues, there will be virtually no recreational fishing in another thirty to forty years, nowhere in their report do they even hint at the fact that recreational fishing is actually in the midst of a long and dramatic decline in popularity.

    This decline, and the corresponding impact it can have on the collective budget of the fisheries management establishment, must be the major impetus behind a federally funded effort to increase the level of recreational fishing (see the Fish and Wildlife Service funded Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation website at and the website of its spin-off “Take me fishing” campaign at The fact that tens of millions of dollars are being spent by the federal government to promote recreational fishing is hard to consider as anything but self-serving.

    But this promotion comes at the expense of the consumer who enjoys ocean fresh, locally caught seafood, and the commercial harvesters who provide it. For any reader who wants to seriously consider the bizarre world of fisheries management, explore these two websites with their joint emphasis on increasing recreational fishing participation and recreational fishing access, and contrast that with federal efforts aimed at reducing commercial fishing harvest

    At the same time, both the per capita consumption of fish and seafood in the U.S. and the U.S. population – both at record high levels – continue to increase. So we have a growing population that at the same time that it is consuming more and more fish per capita is increasingly declining to go out and catch its own. According to the SGMA, and to wide ranging anecdotal observations, the vox populi has spoken resoundingly: the U.S. consumer is less and less interested in catching his or her own fish – either to eat or for enjoyment.

    Determining a rational government policy addressing this fact would seem to be fairly obvious. Fisheries allocation decisions should be favoring the non-fishing seafood consumers, who outnumber recreational anglers by more than twenty to one. But is this the case? Not hardly!

Points to ponder:

    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why are federal and state agencies so engrossed in countering this trend, improving angling access and the “quality” of the angling experience?
    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why is so much effort of the National Marine Fisheries Service aimed at decreasing the commercial harvest and the availability of local seafood to an ever-increasing population that is demanding more high quality seafood every year*?
    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why are commercial fishing representatives increasingly being replaced by recreational angling representatives on our regional fisheries management councils?
    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why does the membership of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission continue to be so recreationally oriented?
    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why are recreational fishing advocates unceasingly demanding a larger part of every fishery they or their constituents have an interest in?
    • If participation in recreational angling is declining, why are our elected officials sponsoring legislation to turn entire species of fish or huge areas of ocean over to recreational anglers, forever excluding commercial harvesters and non-fishing consumers?

      Isn’t it time that we took a serious look at the designed-in funding conflicts and political leverage that have so severely distorted our fisheries management priorities for the last two decades, a period during which fewer and fewer anglers have been demanding – and often been getting – more and more fish? Isn’t it time that we recognized this “public be damned” attitude, and begin to seriously address it? The real public, the 95% who don’t fish for fun, deserve a lot more and are getting a lot less.

      * Further complicating this question is the potential conflict raised by the federal Saltonstall-Kennedy program. Designed to support fisheries research and development, the S-K program is described in a 2004 report to Congress:

      “The S-K fund is capitalized through annual transfers by the Secretary of Agriculture to the Secretary of Commerce of amounts equal to 30 percent of the gross receipts collected under the customs laws on imports of fish and fish products.”

      (The Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program:Fisheries Research and Development at

      However, as the chart below (taken from Table 1. S-K funding for FY 2004 in the above report) shows, only 22% of the available S-K funding was used to support the fisheries R&D that was the original legislative intent. The rest was absorbed by the NOAA budget to offset agency operating costs (the other $185 million stayed with the Department of Agriculture).

      Table 1. S-K Funding for FY 2004

      Funding Item


      ($ in millions)

      Total Duties Collected on Fishery Products


      S-K Transfer to NOAA (30% of above)


      NOAA's costs related to operations, research, and facilities


      S-K Allocation


      The budget for the National Marine Fisheries Service is on the order of $500 million per year. It’s parent agency (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA) receives about 12% of that amount from a tax on imported fish and fish products. If fish imports increase, S-K receipts increase. If the domestic harvest of fish and fish products declines, fish imports increase at a more rapid rate than they would otherwise. Res ipsi loquitor?

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