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Recreational fishing threatens marine stocks

August 27, 2004 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Amateur anglers are beating the commercial catches in certain species.

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Managers of US marine fisheries may have overlooked a cunning predator that takes almost a quarter of the catch of threatened species: Uncle Joe, the fishing nut.

Recreational fishing at sea has risen 20% in the last two decades, and the species people like to catch tend to be big, tasty, and overexploited. Felicia Coleman of Florida State University, Tallahassee, and her colleagues have now determined the true impact of weekend anglers.

Fisheries managers had previously used the National Marine Fisheries Service online database to work out that recreational anglers catch 2% of all fish hauled out of the sea. Although this is the most complete set of data publicly available, the data are geographically patchy and include some extraneous information about freshwater species, says Coleman. "Their online information is a work in progress," she says. "It's not a clean data set."

So Coleman and her team combined the online data with all available regional sources of information, and came up with different results, published this week in Science1. They found that, overall, 4% of fish are caught recreationally and 96% are caught commercially.

But if you focus on species that are, or have been, overfished, then the recreational catch climbs to 23%.

For species such as the red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), which, when buttered, properly seasoned and fried, becomes the Cajun dish 'blackened redfish', recreational anglers catch as much as 93% of the total.

The implications of these figures are clear to Coleman: tighter restrictions must be put in place.

There's always a catch

At present, a species like cod has a catch quota that applies to the entire fishery. So, when a certain number of cod are caught, all fishing stops.

"But on the recreational side," says Coleman, "each individual fisherman is given a quota. When they find that the species is being overfished, they simply knock down the bag limit of the individual." So with millions of new recreational anglers taking to the sea, the total catch may still increase. Some states do not even require salt-water fishing licences, she adds.

The answer may be to limit the number of anglers by awarding licences by lottery, as they do with some species on land. "Recreational fishing is not bad," assures Coleman. "It is a wonderful pastime, but not everybody is going to be able to do it all the time."

Nothing new

Coleman's results do not impress Michael Sissenwine, director of scientific programmes at the National Marine Fisheries Service, who points out that all the service's data came from publicly available databases. "She has summarized data that is well known and freely available," he says.

Sissenwine adds that because fisheries management is done area by area and species by species, Coleman's information may be too general to be useful. And he takes issue with the assumption that recreational fishery is ignored in policy making.

Mark Noble, who has caught fish like red drum as a charter fisherman in Georgia for 26 years, does not think lotteries are the answer. He says that if state and government authorities took better care of more species, sporting anglers would have a wider range of options, and could catch whatever fish happened to be plentiful. What we really need is a fish stock full of thriving species, he adds.


  1. Coleman F., Figueira W.. , Ueland S.. & Crowder L.. Science, published online. doi: 10.1126/science.1100397(2004).


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