Sport Fishing Puts Bite on U.S. Fish Stocks, Study Says

James Owen
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2004

A lone angler, in a little boat, dangles a baited hook in hopes of a bite that might make him some supper.

It's the traditional image of the recreational sea fisher, and hardly one to raise fears for the future of fish stocks along the U.S. coast. But multiply that angler by ten million and you might think again—especially that now sport fishers have powerful, far-ranging boats equipped with global-positioning systems and sonar devices for pinpointing elusive shoals.

This, at least, is the picture painted by a report published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Researchers behind the study say fishing for fun now makes up almost a quarter of the total take of overfished populations. These include seafood favorites such as red snapper, red drum, and bocaccio—species already under pressure from commercial fishing.

For these "large charismatic fishes that people care about most," the researchers say recreational catches often outstrip those of commercial vessels. Almost 60 percent of red snapper, 56 percent of gag in the Gulf of Mexico, and 93 percent of bocaccio on the Pacific Coast are taken by sport fishers.

The figures were compiled using data provided by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, state marine fisheries commissions, and state natural resource agencies.

Sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit based in Philadelphia, the study is the first comprehensive analysis of the ecological impact of recreational saltwater fishing in the U.S., the researchers say. Catches for the past 22 years were analyzed.

"The conventional wisdom is that recreational fishing is a small proportion of the total take, so it is largely overlooked," says lead author Felicia Coleman, a marine ecologist at Florida State University, Tallahassee. "But if you remove the fish caught and used for fish sticks and fishmeal [pollock and menhaden] the recreational take rises to 10 percent nationally. And if you focus in on the populations identified by the federal government as species of concern, it rises to 23 percent."

There are now ten million saltwater recreational anglers in the U.S., with the sport growing as much as 20 percent in the last ten years, says co-researcher Will Figueira, a biologist at the University of Technology, in Sydney, Australia.

Millions of Fishers

"Recreational anglers are operating below the radar screen of management," Figueira adds. "While the individual may take relatively few fish, we show that a few fish per person times millions of fishermen can have an enormous impact."

Besides accounting for a sizable chunk of total catches, anglers tend to target bigger fish. The study says the removal of these top-level predators can cause dramatic changes in ocean food webs, which in turn unbalances the ecosystem.

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