Number 10
September 28, 1997
Who deserves the fish - myth and reality
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
Chef with empty trayOn January 7 of this year New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone once again introduced legislation “To prohibit the commercial harvesting of Atlantic striped bass in the coastal waters and the exclusive economic zone.” The Bill (HR 393) would make it “unlawful to engage in, or to attempt to engage in” such harvesting. Assuming that he is representing far more seafood consumers than sportsfishermen and women, we are sure that Congressman Pallone and the Bill’s several cosponsors have been convinced that this legislation will in some way help to conserve the Atlantic striped bass stocks and/or provide an economic boost to coastal communities in their districts. But will it? Let’s examine some of the arguments put forth by those who advocate so-called Gamefish status and a ban on commercial harvesting and sale of striped bass (or any other species).
Status of Atlantic coast striped bass stocks 

In testimony presented at a hearing convened by the House Committee on Resources’ Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans on September 11, 1997, Rolland Schmitten, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, stated that there were more striped bass available in East Coast waters than there have been at any time since monitoring of the species began.

Myth: The only way to conserve a fishery is to restrict commercial harvesting. Reality: From a conservation perspective it doesn’t matter whether a fish is killed by a recreational or a commercial fisherman. Dead is dead. What matters is controlling the number and size of the fish that are killed. The commercial harvest, as well as the charter/party boat harvest, can be effectively and precisely controlled. The number of participants can be regulated and what they catch can be accurately monitored. The size selectivity of their fishing gear is the basis for many commercial fishing regulations and is an accepted method of controlling the size of the fish harvested. With no controls whatsoever on the number of people allowed to catch fish recreationally, the mortality by sportsfishermen and women can’t be as easily monitored or controlled. Individual catch limits are obviously meaningless when the number of people catching the fish isn’t limited. The “catch and release” style of fishing that is touted as one of the primary conservation measures by the recreational fishing industry can result in the death of up to one-third or more of all of the fish being released and the highest release mortality levels are usually associated with smaller, pre-spawning fish. Controlling fishing mortality is one of the more effective tools available in fishery management. It’s hard to see any conservation benefit in banning the easily and effectively regulated commercial harvest while allowing the difficult if not impossible to regulate recreational fishery to continue with no limits on how many people can fish.

Myth: Commercial fishermen take more than their share of fishery resources that belong to everyone. Reality: Much of the “Make them gamefish” rhetoric focuses on misidentifying commercial fishermen as consumers, ignoring the fact that they are really just the first link in a chain that, whether ending in seafood markets or restaurants, is the only way that 240 million U.S. citizens can benefit from the harvest of our coastal waters. Commercial fishermen allow those consumers who don’t wish or can’t afford to catch their own fish to have access to public resources that the government is supposed to be managing for everyone. While those few sportsfishermen and women who are trying to turn our coastal waters into their own private playgrounds would like you to think otherwise, it is they who want exclusive rights to entire, and usually highly regarded on the table, species like striped bass and it is they who are actively campaigning to keep the non-fishing public from enjoying them.

Myth: Striped bass caught by recreational fishermen contribute more to the economy than those that are commercially harvested. Reality: This continues to be one of the rallying points of the anti-commercial fishing, anti-seafood consumer groups campaigning to appropriate entire species for their own exclusive use. They are trying to sell the idea that the recreational fishing industry is dependent on sportsfishermen being able to pursue their quarry without competition from or interference by crass commercial fishermen who are, after all, only catching fish to provide to consumers at a reasonable price. A fresh tuna entree served at a four star restaurant contributes significantly more per pound to the economy than the same fish would if caught on a offshore trip from a half a million dollar sportsfishing yacht.

Of fish and tomatoes 

Striped Bass/?????The average amateur gardener probably grows tomatoes in his backyard for something in the neighborhood of $5.00 per pound. But if the backyard was in Princeton or another upscale suburb, if the use of the property and the cost of the Mercedes used to drive to the garden supply store were factored in, if the gardener was particularly inept at tomato growing and if the accounting were creative enough, tomato production costs could skyrocket to hundreds of dollars per pound. Would this justify legislation banning the efficient commercial production of tomatoes because every pound grown in backyards contributed so much more to the economy than those grown by real farmers and sold in markets at prices any consumer could afford? Would it justify legislation mandating that anyone wishing to enjoy a tomato would have to produce it inefficiently in his or her backyard? 

Probably not, but a small handful of sportsfishermen (the fishing equivalent of the backyard gardener), and some of the businesses that are dependent on their infinitely more expensive hobby, are trying to convince us that the economic value of their product, fish caught for fun, is greater than that of commercially caught fish simply because they cost so much more to catch. If there is any logic there, it probably escapes the millions of consumers who benefit from the efforts of the commercial fishing industry to keep costs down so they may enjoy competitively priced, domestically produced seafood. 


Myth: Aquacultured striped bass can more than compensate the consumers who would be forced to give up their right to naturally harvested fish. Reality: Real striped bass, a fish that was put out of the reach of virtually every non-fishing New Jersey consumer by the State Legislature several years ago, are not being cultured in commercial quantities anywhere. White bass/striped bass hybrids are being raised in limited numbers in several locations. Advertising claims for these hybrids to the contrary, A.J. McClane, noted sportsfishing author and expert on seafood cookery, states in his The Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery [Link to Encyclopedia of Fish Cookery]“landlocked populations of striped bass ... (are) inferior to a prime fish taken from saltwater.” While the farming of a number of species of fish and shellfish has fully matured, for many others, including non-hybridized striped bass, it hasn’t yet lived up to its promise (And when it does it’s doubtful that it will be able to provide the variety and the quality of fresh seafood that commercial fishermen have been supplying to consumers for generations).

In his section on striped bass McClane quotes from New England’s Prospects written by William Wood in 1634 “The Basse is one of the best fishes in the Countrey, and though men are soone wearied with other fishe, yet are they never with Basse.” After three and a half centuries striped bass are still counted among the most delectable East coast species. Should the unparalleled experience of dining on ocean-fresh striped bass be reserved for those few thousands of sportsfishermen and women who can afford to catch one themselves, or should they be available in restaurants and seafood markets for everyone to enjoy? It isn’t a question of fisheries conservation. It’s a question of who has a right to enjoy a natural resource that belongs to us all.

Who is catching striped bass?

In 1995, the striped bass harvest by commercial fishermen was 3,072,334 lbs. In 1996 it increased 34% to 4,130,156 lbs. In 1995, the striped bass harvest by recreational fishermen was 8,364,949 lbs. In 1996 it increased 30% to 10,884,772 lbs. (Personal communication from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Fisheries Statistics and Economics Division)

Is this an argument against sportsfishing? It definitely isn’t. Sportsfishing is a large and important industry in many of our coastal communities. It is, however, a refutation to the anti-commercial fishing, anti-seafood consuming arguments, hidden behind the banner of “conservation,” that some sportsfishing groups are using in attempts to reserve entire species of fish for their own personal use that should belong to everyone.

New Jersey FishNet is supported by the Cape May Seafood Producer’s Association, The Family and Friends of Commercial Fishermen, the Fishermen’s Dock Cooperative, Lund’s Fishery, the National Fisheries Institute and Viking Village Dock