Issue #5
July 9, 1997

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

Commercial harvesting and sportsfishing - who’s catching what?

There’s a common misperception that commercial fishermen - often referred to by the anti-commercial community as “netters” with the inference that there is something inherently immoral about harvesting fish with a net - are taking much more than their fair share of the fish. We addressed the issue of the ownership of fisheries resources several FishNet editions ago. It seems inarguable that, along with the estimated 16 million U.S. citizens who fish in our estuarine and ocean waters as a hobby, each of the two hundred and forty million U.S. citizens who don’t fish also have a right to these resources. However, in the face of significant declines in some of our important fisheries, we thought it would be interesting to contrast the recreational and commercial landings in the Mid-Atlantic over the past several years.

We started out with the comprehensive records of the domestic recreational and commercial catches the U.S. Department of Commerce has made available through the National marine Fisheries Service’s statistics site on the World Wide Web [Link to NMFS statistics site link to NMFS statistics site]. These records can be retrieved by time period, geographical region, harvest method, species, etc., imported into a spreadsheet or database program and subjected to various analyses.

For the purposes of this FishNet we downloaded data for the period 1990 to 1996 from the five Mid-Atlantic states (NY, NJ, DE, MD and VA) on the major warm-water species that support both recreational and commercial fisheries. We omitted species caught more-or-less exclusively by either recreational or commercial methods and we ignored species with a combined catch in the Mid-Atlantic of less than a million pounds a year. This gave us twelve species to examine. As highlighted in the quote below by the chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, our list conveniently duplicated most of a listing of species that are alleged by some sportfishing advocates to be “threatened” by commercial harvesting. We graphed the total commercial landings (dotted lines) and recreational landings (solid lines) for each of the species. These graphs are on a separate page [[Link to Chart Comparison pagelink to comparisons]

“No more tuna. no more billfish, no more stripers. No more blues, sea bass, dolphin, sea trout, flounder, albacore, redfish, snook, grouper, sharks, tautog...Right now every one of these species - in fact every species of saltwater gamefish - is threatened by the predatory tactics of the politically-powerful commercial fishing groups.” From a brochure produced by the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a sportsfishing organization based in New Jersey with members in a number of Mid-Atlantic and other states.

In the aggregate

Considering the amount of attention focused on perceived commercial overharvesting in recent years, we also looked at the total commercial harvest (landings) of our dozen selected species in relation to the reported recreational harvest (fish brought to the dock, used for bait or released dead) as made available by NMFS. Again, the commercial harvest is represented by the dotted line, the recreational by the solid. Bear in mind that this isn’t a measure of the total recreational or commercial harvest in the Mid-Atlantic, just of those species that seem to be most controversial (Note - because of what appear to be significant discrepancies in the reported landings of Spot and Croaker in 1996, these species were omitted. These and other discrepancies, however, shouldn’t detract from the overview of harvesting that is presented).

In spite of what are unquestionably some “holes” in both the recreational and the commercial data it’s fairly obvious that the commercial fishermen (and the consumers they are fishing for) aren’t getting the majority of all of the fish in the Mid-Atlantic and leaving the sportsmen with empty coolers.

The actual picture in the Mid-Atlantic

Of those species or species-groups that the Recreational Fishing Alliance zeroed in on in its brochure last year, twelve are common in our waters in the summer. Of the twelve, one - billfish - is reserved solely for the recreational anglers. Of those remaining, the NMFS data indicate that six - striped bass, bluefish, sea bass, dolphin, redfish (channel bass) and tautog - have had the recreational harvest exceed the commercial for each year since 1990, three - sea trout (weakfish), albacore (we show all tuna species together) and sharks - are now being harvested at higher levels recreationally than commercially, and one - flounder (fluke and winter flounder) - shows a reasonable balance between recreational and commercial harvest.

In view of these facts it’s hard to avoid asking the question “when it comes to Mid-Atlantic fishing, who’s really threatening these species?”

So what’s really going on?

Due to a number of factors, gauging the condition of fish stocks often presents unique scientific challenges. Management jurisdictions overlap. Fish refuse to remain within administratively convenient boundaries. Fishing efforts respond to economic or environmental conditions (notice the drop in recreational landings in 10 of the 12 species graphed in 1991 - 1992, a year when it rained on more than half of the summer weekends) as much as to the availability of fish. At this point we’re only beginning to look at the interactions between different species or between species and their habitat, while declining budgets have seriously reduced fisheries managers’ efforts to effectively estimate populations of fish at sea. We’re increasingly reliant on fisheries dependent measures while it’s becoming increasingly obvious that these may be the least reliable.

However, even granting its shortcomings, the information we have is accurate enough to show that, in spite of some “doom-and-gloom” predictions of the impacts of commercial fishing, in the Mid-Atlantic as much or more attention should be focused on the impacts of sportsfishing. [Link to FishNet 13link to FishNet 13 dealing with the fisheries "crisis"] Redfish and codfish are two species that have received a lot of media attention in the last several years. Redfish, also known as red drum, achieved national prominence when, as blackened redfish, they were popularized by renowned Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme. Accompanying this prominence was increased market demand, intensified fishing pressure, declining stocks and a drive - successful in a number of states - to declare the species a “gamefish” and remove it entirely from the plates of the non-fishing public. Codfish is one of several species contributing to the so-called “collapse” of the New England groundfish fishery. While neither is a primary recreational or commercial fish in the Mid-Atlantic, each is caught in significant numbers and is popular as both recreational quarry and table fare. The commercial landing figures - again indicated by the dotted lines - are in keeping with what should be expected for declining stocks and increased conservation, but what of the recreational effort?

This isn’t to imply that what’s happening to codfish and redfish in our local waters is indicative of fishing for them throughout the rest of their respective ranges. However it does seem to bear out the pattern of recreational and commercial fishing in the Mid-Atlantic region. And probably in other regions as well. The important point is that any fishing activity is going to impact fish stocks. We can’t afford to dismiss the impacts of recreational angling any more than we can have a management establishment unable to see beyond the nets of the commercial harvesters.

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