Twelve Million Lines in the Water

Michael Conathan debunks the perception that recreational fishing doesn’t harm fish stocks and offers ways to reduce your impact while enjoying the sport.

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Beneath recreational fishing’s bucolic veneer of a solitary angler alone with his thoughts—and perhaps a striper or two—on a desolate beach, the reality is that sportfishing is big business. Still, the perception remains that the effect of this hobby on the environment is far below that of commercial fishing despite the overall quantity of fishermen on the water.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, nearly 12 million Americans went sportfishing annually from 2005 through 2009, making about 80 million saltwater sportfishing trips per year. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of the five coastal New England states getting out on the water seven-and-a-half times apiece.

The economic benefit of these activities is tremendous. Rec fishermen spent $18 billion on equipment and for-hire vessels in 2006 alone according to NOAA’s most recent figures. These contributions rippled through coastal economies, ultimately contributing $49 billion and creating nearly 400,000 jobs. Further, these figures don’t account for costs like hotel rooms, meals, travel costs, and other services of which anglers avail themselves in their quest to land the big one.

Yet many rec fishermen still believe there’s no way his or her single hook on a line can possibly do as much damage as the sweep of a yawning bottom trawl. Well, when we put 12 million hooks on 12 million lines the equation starts to come a bit more into balance.

Certainly many species of fish are hit harder by commercial fishermen. There aren’t many 25-foot Wellcrafts trolling for pollock in the Gulf of Alaska or longlining swordfish in the Gulf of Maine. And the overall numbers clearly skew in favor of the commercial industry. NOAA estimates anglers caught about 173 million pounds of fish in 2009. Commercial fishermen? Slightly more: 7.9 billion pounds.

But impacts on individual species are sometimes far greater as a result of sportfishing. Again according to NOAA’s landings data, recreational fishermen, for example, landed an estimated 13.3 million pounds of red drum in 2009 while their commercial counterparts caught just 200,000 pounds. That same year in the south Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, sportfishermen hauled in over 60 percent of the total catch of red snapper, a species classified as overfished and subject to overfishing by NOAA. As a result of these rec and commercial pressures the snapper fishery has undergone multiple closures in recent years.

Fishery managers, and even Congress, have acted on our need to get a better handle on recreational fishing’s true effect on our fish stocks. Included in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act were provisions to strengthen federal oversight of this activity.

In particular, beginning in 2010 the act required fishermen to register either through a federal registry or a comparable state program, and this mandate included a registration fee beginning in 2011. As a result, 49 states now have mandatory license programs for those who want to fish in federal waters. Hawaii is the lone hold-out, but Hawaiian fishermen aren’t off the hook. They simply must pay their registration fee directly to the federal government.

As this program took effect, fishermen accustomed to the generations-old tradition of simply walking down to the shore and throwing in a line carped at what they considered excessive bureaucracy restricting their freedom to fish. Battles raged in state legislatures about whether to impose a state registration fee or stand on principle and force anglers to instead pay the federal government.

Still, as the numbers of recreational fishermen continue to rise their effect on fish populations goes up as well. And it’s tough to make the case that fishing should be unregulated when hunters have been buying licenses for decades.

Anglers also have been subjected to additional efforts to enhance the sustainability of their actions. The catch-and-release movement is in full swing for many fisheries, particularly large game fish like marlins.

Now, many fishing groups, like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Sportfishing Conservancy, are taking that message further, attempting to educate fishermen not just to release the fish they catch but how to ensure that fish has the greatest chance of survival. Recognizing that if fish populations continue to decline, so will fishermen’s opportunity to engage in their favorite sport, these organizations attempt to educate the public about best practices.

FishSmart is a program developing such recommendations, and the University of Florida sponsors the website Both detail how to minimize your impact on the resource. Consider tips like the following as you plan your fishing trip this holiday weekend:

  • • Use a wet towel or gloves when handling fish. Never use your bare hands, which can remove the layer of slime integral to the fish’s immune system.
  • • Support a fish horizontally when lifting it. Never hoist it by the jaw.
  • • Keep the fish in the water as much as possible, and never keep it out of the water longer than you can hold your breath.
  • • Use a venting tool to decompress a deepwater fish before returning it to the water to release accumulated gasses from its swim bladder that can otherwise prevent it from returning to its natural depth.

Tom Raftican, president of the Sportfishing Conservancy, suggests fishermen should go a step further and focus on the bigger picture of the adventure on the water. “Go fishing,” he says, “not just catching.” The point of a fishing trip shouldn’t be to catch your limit of fish as quickly as possible. Rather, it’s a chance to reconnect with nature, observe the ocean’s bounty, and experience the power of the sea.

The best day I ever had on the water was with a few tuna fishermen out of Ogunquit, Maine. We steamed 30 miles or so southeast of the harbor, moving from one furious pocket of activity to another. At each stop, birds circled overhead, plunging into small swells boiling with herring chasing their planktonic buffet. Schools of bluefin tuna rocketed through the center of the herring schools, adding to the frenzy, their dorsal fins and sickle-shaped tails piercing the surface as they feasted. And periodically into the center of this maelstrom a circle of bubbles rose from beneath followed by the methodical, slow-motion eruption of a humpback whale’s gaping jaw as it breached into the fray.

Right there, practically within arm’s reach, was an entire ecosystem—a true spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. We came back to the dock that day without a single fish in the hold but with a trove of memories more valuable than any filet.

Enjoy your holiday weekend. Go fishing. And do your part to make sure our kids have the opportunity to do the same.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress. Follow CAP’s ocean program on Twitter @OceanProgress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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