Issue #2
May 26., 1997
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
  the future of commercial fishing in the United States
A discussion of basic questions: Who owns the fish? What are fish worth? Are the oceans being overfished?

Issues dealing with marine resource management and the use of our coastal and ocean waters have been receiving an increasing and long-overdue public scrutiny. Most of these issues are exceedingly complex, dealing with overlapping local, state, national and international jurisdictions, with often opposed social and economic pressures, and, most significantly, with complicated - and for the most part poorly understood - biological systems that are often influenced by factors far removed from any “local” control.

In spite of this complexity, advocates on one side or another of particular issues tend to present them in overly simplistic terms. While this is an effective method of generating support for a position, it can lead to shortsighted, narrowly focused policies that address obvious effects while ignoring the underlying causes. In this and later editions of NJ FishNet we will be discussing some of these issues and presenting them in a broader context than is usually the case.

Are the oceans being fished out?

Discussing the higher value, bottom-dwelling fish species, a publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports “Once the two major species, Alaska pollock and Atlantic cod, are excluded, landings of the remaining 403 resource items show a clear pattern of increase up to the early 1970s, followed by stability since then.”1 Another FAO document states “...44 percent of stocks that have been assessed are being exploited at their maximum or close to it; 25 percent are depleted.” but then goes on “Aggregate data on the fishing vessels of the world show that the global fleet has started to decrease in size.”2 Clearly, some fisheries have been fished too heavily, but overfishing hasn’t been pervasive. Fish stocks aren’t in a universal state of decline and most of the major fishing nations - including the U.S. - have embarked on ambitious and effective programs to reduce fishing effort and to eliminate wasteful fishing practices.

Who owns the fish?

“Our nation’s living marine resources belong to all its citizens”3

While the answer seems fairly obvious, questions of ownership of or access to living marine resources are one of the most contentious issues in fisheries management today.

The most simple - and most accurate - answer, as put by the USDOC’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the statement above, is that we all do. Common property resources including “wild” fish and shellfish are owned by the public and managed for us by appropriate government agencies or appointees. A restaurant patron in Chicago has as much ownership interest in a fish in the ocean off New Jersey as does a recreational angler who docks his expensive sport fishing yacht at a marina in Atlantic City.

Most of the “owners” of the fish and shellfish in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone - waters from 3 to 200 miles off our coast - aren’t interested in catching their share of these fish themselves. For reasons of time, expense, access or personal preference they won’t pick up a fishing pole, clam rake or crab pot and harvest their own seafood special or catch-of-the-day. (According to estimates by the National Marine Fisheries Service, only about 6% of U.S. citizens fish for sport in marine waters!) They depend on the commercial fishing industry to do it for them, and to do it for them at a price they can afford to pay.

But increasingly, members of the recreational fishing community and the yacht and tackle manufacturers it supports are pushing public policy in the direction of “gamefish” status for selected, generally highly desirable, species of fish. This designation means the only people who can use those fish are the recreational anglers who catch them or those they give them to.

The end result of this policy is exemplified by striped bass in New Jersey. Striped bass were made a de facto gamefish by the New Jersey legislature years ago for what were undoubtedly well-intentioned, conservation-related reasons. However, in recent years the striped bass stocks on the East coast have undergone such an explosive increase that they are now at near-record levels of abundance. The ocean is full of striped bass, fish that have been recognized as unparalleled on the table since colonial times, and yet not one of New Jersey’s over seven million consumers can legally enjoy a meal of ocean-fresh striped bass - generally accepted as a product far superior to the farm-raised bass/perch hybrids New Jersey’s consumers have been left with - unless he or she caught it with hook and line, was given it by a sportsfisherman or woman, or leaves the state to do it.

Every two or three years legislation is introduced in Washington to declare striped bass “gamefish” on the entire Atlantic coast. If passed, this would take these delicious fish off the menus of every restaurant and off the plates of every non-fishing consumer forever.

What are fish worth?

Members of the recreational fishing community are using the concept of “relative economic worth” to justify having some species designated “gamefish” and prohibiting the non-fishing public from having access to them. Their argument is that while pursuing their hobby they pay so much more on a per-fish basis to catch a fish than a commercial harvester is paid for the same fish at the dock, they are contributing much more to the economy with each fish they catch. Therefore, they argue, they should be allowed to monopolize entire species of fish or particularly productive patches of coastal water, at the expense of the commercial harvesters and, ultimately, the consumer.

A logical extension of this argument would have us all growing our own meat and vegetables and building our own houses and cars. It would certainly cost everybody a lot more, but would it represent any economic benefit?

Recreational fishing is a large and important industry, one that is critical to the well-being of many of our coastal communities. But it provides recreational opportunities - an integral part of which is a cooler of fresh fillets - not competitively priced seafood. The economic “equivalent” of a pound of fish caught on an offshore fishing trip would be a pound of fish eaten at a white tablecloth restaurant. In view of New Jersey’s particularly restrictive laws, Philadelphia’s widely acclaimed Striped Bass would seem a particularly appropriate example. Served with some adequate domestic wine, on a per-pound basis the fish served at the restaurant would definitely “contribute” more to the economy than the fish caught on the fishing trip, but that doesn’t justify closing down the offshore recreational fisheries.


1Chronicles of Marine Fisheries Landings [1950 -1994]: trend analysis and fisheries potential, Grainger & Garcia, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 359, 1996. 
2Fisheries and food security issue paper, World Food Summit, 13-17 November 19. 
[Link to FAO siteLink to the FAO Fisheries Web site] 
3NOAA Fisheries Strategic Plan, USDOC/NOAA, May, 1997.
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