Number 15
December 5, 2000

Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page

The Big Lie (Part II) 
"If it weren’t for commercial fishing there would be more than enough fish for the rest of us." That line, or any one of a thousand variants, is the main battle cry of anti-fishing groups and individuals. Whether they are used in support of decreased commercial quotas, areas closed to particular types of fishing (so-called Marine Protected Areas), or all-out net bans, they all are based on the supposed fact that a few thousand commercial harvesters, using superefficient gear and techniques, consistently catch and kill significantly more fish than the millions of recreational anglers catching fish one or two at a time. It seems reasonable, particularly when coupled with catch-phrases involving "corporate fishing fleets on search and destroy missions" and similar cynical appeals aimed at the emotion rather than the intellect. And, not too surprisingly in these days when hype has triumphed over substance in many media markets and what passes for research tends to extend no farther than cutting and pasting from the latest electronically delivered press release, the anti-fishing arguments are circulated, embellished, and finally accepted by the mass media and by the public.

As we showed in the last edition of FishNet USA, the commercial harvesters don’t have anywhere near the potential impact on the offshore fish stocks that the recreational fishing fleets do. But what about the other fisheries, those that are pursued ("persecuted" in the anti-fishing vocabulary that has been adopted by the supposedly objective National Marine Fisheries Service - but that’s another story) by both commercial harvesters and recreational anglers in our estuarine and near-shore waters?

We went to the commercial and recreational fishing statistics sections of the National Marine Fisheries Service website  (Link to NMFS Fisheries Statistics page ) and retrieved 1999 recreational harvest and commercial landings data for the Atlantic and Gulf for the thirteen species that support the largest commercial and recreational fisheries. The results, which are detailed in the box below, might be somewhat surprising to all those folks who have fully bought into the "blame it on (commercial) overfishing" arguments. In seven of the thirteen fisheries the recreational harvest is greater than the commercial. But probably even more surprising to the uninformed, the total recreational fishing mortality (exclusive of catch and release mortality, which we’ll get to a little later) is over 90% of the commercial mortality. The members of the so-called "conservation" groups and their angling colleagues are actually killing more bluefish, more striped bass, more red drum, more red snapper, more dolphin, more yellowfin tuna and more spotted sea trout than those "netters" that they have been trying for years to turn into the scourge of the seas. And, when the total poundage caught is considered, they are in the same ball park as the netters as well.

1999 Commercial & Recreational Harvest of Selected Species
Species Commercial Recreational
Bluefish 7,404,732 8,612,089
Striped Bass 6,618,598 13,992,380
Black Sea Bass
Croaker 26,840,862 7,630,482
Summer Flounder 10,496,384 8,384,766
Red Drum 427,461 10,478,113
Red Snapper 4,127,984 4,652,376
Dolphin 1,173,367 13,413,073
Cod 21,444,855 2,599,633
Yellowfin Tuna 4,855,822 8,463,272
Scup 3,620,777 1,886,110
Spotted Sea Trout 825,866 13,549,461
Weakfish 6,924,588 3,143,427
Total Poundage 90,634,711 82,358,393

Of course there are fisheries where commercial harvesters take far more fish than recreational anglers. Considering the zeal with which recreational anglers pursue any suitable quarry, this seems to be much more a matter of their choice than anything else. The primarily or solely commercial species are either beyond the reach of or for various reasons unappealing to recreational anglers. But for those species that can be caught from shore or from a small boat with recreational tackle that are reasonably edible, there’s unquestionably a large and most probably growing recreational fishery.

Then There’s Catch And Release

What’s the impact of catch and release? We’ve written about the growing trend of catch and release fishing in a previous FishNet ( ). Apparently, the belief of the devotees of this form of fishing is that all of the fish that are released "live to fight another day." This obviously isn’t the case. Being punctured by one or several hooks, struggling against the pull of the line, being hauled into a boat or dragged through the breakers and up on the beach, all take a toll on the fish being caught. Available research shows that from 10% to over 50% of all of those fish caught and released by recreational anglers subsequently perish. But, in spite of this high level of mortality, recreational fishermen will catch tens or hundreds of a particular species of fish during a trip, release them all, and assume that in pursuing their sport in this way they’ve had no impact on the resource.

It would be reasonable to assume, particularly if you weren’t one of its devotees, that the whole point of recreational angling was to catch and to keep fish, and that catch and release fishing would only be practiced by a few really hard core hobbyists. Were that the case, the catch and release mortality, whether at the 10% or the 50% level, would be negligible. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

If we look at the charts on the next page, we see that in the recreational striped bass, summer flounder (fluke), red snapper and channel bass (redfish) fisheries, four of the species most popular with East and Gulf coast recreational anglers (and, we might add, with seafood lovers as well), we see that as many as eight times the number of fish that are caught and kept in a year are caught and released. Is this a display of fisheries conservation, as catch and release proponents would like us to think? Not hardly.

Typifying the "catch and release is ok ‘cause it doesn’t kill fish" mindset, John Geiser, a New Jersey fishing columnist wrote on April 30, 1997 "Capt. Phil Sciortino Jr. fished the Shrewsbury River with a party Tuesday morning and they caught over 30 striped bass of which three were keepers. He was out the other day and two anglers caught over 50 bass and no keepers.... These were not stripers in their second year. They were 6- and 7-year-old fish that measured from 24 to just under the legal 28-inch minimum, and weighed up to 12 pounds."

Last year, thanks to stringent possession limits, just under a million and a half striped bass were caught and kept by anglers and almost 13 million were caught and released. If we assume a 10% mortality of released striped bass - a low estimate, considering the conditions they are caught under - then as many die after being released as are kept by the anglers. In spite of releasing their entire catch, the two fishermen Mr. Geiser reported on above who caught "over 50 bass and no keepers" were still killing fish, and almost certainly killing more fish than they would have had they caught and kept their limit and then gone home. And thousands of anglers are catching and releasing millions of striped bass and other fish, are inadvertently and unknowingly killing large numbers of those fish, and are mistakenly assuming that they are actually conservationists.

In the Mid-Atlantic and Southern New England we are in the process of seeing a vivid example of the impact of recreational angling, and how recreational fisheries are managed, on an important fishery. Historically the summer flounder (also called fluke) fishery harvest has been about equally divided between the recreational and commercial fisheries. Last year, however, due to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by several environmental organizations, the recreational harvest was supposed to be held to 7 million pounds, this to be done by a combination of closed seasons and minimum size limits. However, preliminary estimates are that the recreational harvest of summer flounder will surpass the court ordered limit by about 9 million pounds.

As the chart below shows, the number of summer flounder "caught and released" by recreational anglers is about four times the number harvested. If we assume an average weight of two pounds for the summer flounder that are caught and kept, then about 8 million summer flounder will have been caught and kept by recreational anglers and, accordingly, 32 million caught and released this year. Considering that this is a warm weather/warm water fishery and that almost all summer flounder are caught using bait - which it’s agreed causes more damage to the quarry than artificial lures - it’s hard to imagine that the mortality of the released fish is at the low end of the catch and release range. But even assuming that it is, at 15% mortality another 5+ million fish will have been killed by recreational anglers. So a supposedly court-mandated management regime allowing a recreational harvest of 3 1/2 million fish (at the 2 pound average size) could result, rather, in a mortality of perhaps 13 million, almost four times the court-mandated catch.

Note that the commercial summer flounder harvest is closely monitored and stringently controlled and has been within 10% of the total allowable catch for the past five years. Note also that if there was any indication that the quota was going to be exceeded by anything approaching 100% in any commercial fishery, immediate and severe measures would be implemented to prevent it.

While the summer flounder situation is particularly dramatic, as the charts below show, it’s not significantly different in other fisheries.


Why Doesn’t Recreational Management Work?

The best way to get at this question is to first discuss how recreational fishing is managed. The primary management tools are creel and size limits and closed seasons. Creel limits regulate the number of a particular species of fish an angler may have in his or her possession. Size limits regulate the size of fish of a particular species an angler may possess. Generally, minimum size limits are used, but sometimes minimum and maximum size or "slot" limits are put in place. During closed seasons, the angler can’t possess a particular species. It’s critically important to note here that these are all controls on possession. An angler can catch any number of fish of a particular species out of season. An angler can catch any number of fish smaller (or larger, if a slot limit is in place) than the size limit for that particular species. And an angler can catch any number of fish of a particular species, regardless of the creel limit. It should go without saying, though it unfortunately doesn’t, that catching fish, no matter how careful the angler is and no matter how optimal other conditions are, involves killing fish. So there are effective - or at least as effective as the good will of millions of recreational anglers and the policing efforts of a handful of enforcement agents can make them - controls on the possession of particular species of fish, but none whatsoever on the catching or killing of those same species.

Some recreational anglers are undoubtedly "expert" enough to target particular species of fish. But when a hunk of bait or a lure is dangled in front of a hungry fish, if that fish is big enough to eat it, it’s going to give it a go, and it’s going to do so regardless of whether it’s in season or not, whether it’s large (or small) enough to be legal, and regardless of how many other fish of that species the angler already has in possession. And anglers tend to keep on fishing, particularly because as a group they are mistakenly convinced that they can "catch and release" fish forever with no negative consequences for the fish. Recreational fishing regulations manage the number of fish an angler can possess, they have absolutely no effect in regulating the number of fish an angler can catch or the number of fish an angler can kill.

Exacerbating what seems to be an already dismal situation is the fact that there is no limit on the number of recreational anglers who are allowed to fish. One of the major tools used in managing commercial fisheries is limited entry. This means that the number of participants in a particular fishery is determined based on the productive capacity of that fishery and subsequently it isn’t exceeded. New entrants are not permitted into the fishery unless others leave or the stock improves. While limited entry was, and in many instances still is, a particularly contentious issue, in one form or another it is in effect in all of the commercial fisheries under federal regulation. But it’s not used in any recreational fisheries (although the number of permitted "for hire" recreational vessels is limited in a few). Some states have instituted recreational fishing licenses at nominal cost, but when their cost is considered relative to the total expense of salt water angling, they can hardly serve as an effective disincentive. So one question seems unavoidable. When it comes to recreational fishing management, what is being restricted?

Fisheries managers - and recreational anglers - argue that creel and season limits are effective in managing recreational fisheries because they provide disincentives to the fishermen and women whose interest is bringing home a bucket or ice chest filled with fish. They are partially right. But the present summer flounder situation seems a good indication of exactly how "partially" right they are. There are stringent size, creel and season limits in this fishery, and as far as we know there isn’t any significant catch and release of this species. Yet the recreational fishing mortality is far beyond the court mandated level.

No one in the commercial fishing industry would argue that catching fish for pleasure or for personal consumption isn’t a valid use of our fisheries resources. In fact, we look forward to the day when we can join with the recreational fishing industry in supporting sound, science-based fisheries and marine ecosystem management that benefits every U.S. citizen, including commercial and recreational fishermen and seafood consumers. However, recreational angling is a large and increasing source of fishing mortality, particularly considering the growing popularity of catch and release, that at this time is virtually unrecognized by the public and woefully uncontrolled by the managers.* And the loudest voices clamoring for increasing restrictions on commercial harvesters are the so-called "conservationists" who are in reality recreational anglers or their spokesmen looking for a larger slice of the fishing pie. The commercial fishing industry has been carrying the burden of conservation for years while the recreational angling "conservationists" have been hiding behind their catch and release, we’re only catching ‘em one at a time smokescreen. It’s about time that we start seriously looking at the impacts of recreational angling on our fish stocks and designing management techniques that address recreational fishing mortality as well as commercial.

*Confounding the problem of uncontrolled recreational fishing pressure is the growing reliance of the professional managers on federal Wallop-Breaux funding provided by taxes on recreational fishing and yachting supplies and equipment. Any decrease in the amount of recreational fishing and yachting expenditures would be reflected in a decrease in the Wallop-Breaux accounts that the management agencies depend on (FishNet issue discussing Wallop-Breaux funding )

Supported by the Fishermen’s Dock Co-op, Lund’s Fisheries, Atlantic Capes Fisheries, Viking Village Dock, Export, Inc., Agger Trading Corp. the Belford Seafood Co-op and Hi-Liner Fishing Gear.

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