On The Socioeconomics of Recreational Fishing

What we really mean when we say “we spend more money than you”

commercial bass

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

I read with some interest fellow blogger Steve Waters’ piece (Wait, How Many Gumballs Do Recreational Anglers Get?)  regarding the press conference at the recent Miami International Boat Show on the findings of the Commission for Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management and its Vision For Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.


That report includes some good things, as well as some controversial ones. I can’t really say I totally agree with all of its recommendations, but I suppose it’s a good first effort to get the recreational fishing community on the same page. Of course there are some divergent opinions on key issues, and I’m not sure we will ever all be on the same page. But still, there is real utility in bringing to light what always have been some key angler concerns and developing recommendations to address them. Such concerns and recommendations will undoubtedly be discussed and debated as Congress moves forward with the arduous process of reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that dictates how we manage our marine resources.

The Waters piece as well as the commission report seem to first and foremost focus on the socioeconomics of recreational fishing, so I thought I’d address that here first – because I suspect that there are some misconceptions about what that focus actually means.

It’s pretty well known at this point that, once you take into account all the indirect expenditures people make to go fishing, recreational fishing brings in more money and subsequently more jobs overall than commercial fishing. The “gumball” reference in Waters’ piece seems to imply that because recreational fisheries are more economically important than commercial ones, they should receive a greater allocation. And at least in some fisheries, there are indeed anglers who feel like they should have the right to those fisheries altogether. In other words, the report seems to suggest that NOAA Fisheries and the councils should have a policy of reallocating fish to the sector that appears to have the greatest economic impact.

This certainly isn’t anything new. Such arguments have been made for an awful long time, and believe me, managers are aware. But the reality is that managers generally don’t make allocation decisions based on which sector brings in the most money. And in a lot of cases, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. While allocation based on economic impact might win anglers more summer flounder, red snapper and sea bass, it also might put most of the New England groundfish off limits and kill the recreational swordfish fishery. And as for school bluefin, well … letting them all grow up to be giants that can be sold for extraordinary amounts of money in Japan probably makes a lot more sense than letting me kill them when the meat can’t be sold and the fish never got a chance to spawn. (Note: the report’s accompanying white paper does acknowledge that the socioeconomic factor goes both ways.) Of course, some culturally and economically important commercial fisheries would disappear also. I know that’s not what either managers and probably not the bulk of American citizens want.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Getting back on point, one could certainly draw the conclusion, and I imagine some people already have, that just because us rich anglers spend more money we should be able to take fish away from the “struggling hard-working commercial fishermen” so that we can play with them – in other words, a flat-out fish-grab. That sort of thing is not attractive to managers, politicians or any decision makers. So I think it’s important here to point out that this is not really what I think the report is getting at.

I think the real purpose of pointing out the economic imbalance as it relates to management isn’t simply so that we may grab more fish; it’s to basically to make the point that because of all the jobs, money and people it touches, recreational fishing should be a higher priority at NOAA Fisheries than it currently is. That is indeed a relevant point – not necessarily for allocation but for the end goal of managing for abundance rather than maximum harvest, “for the greatest benefit to the nation.”

While a lot of commercial fisheries can likely survive on depleted fisheries, recreational fisheries cannot. Commercial fishermen, at least the good ones, always can find fish to scoop up via net. But anglers, using the least efficient gear and having the least range, get screwed. And really, anglers fish for the experience. In other words, the availability of fish and the reasonable expectation of catching a big one seem much more important than full coolers. The point is that to have successful recreational fisheries you have to have abundance. Given all the money the recreational community spends and the jobs it supports, well then certainly NOAA Fisheries should take note of the fact that rebuilt, abundant fisheries support all of this – not to mention that sort of abundance does a pretty good job of supporting commercial fisheries as well, instead of just allowing them to “survive” on depleted stocks.

One of the main thrusts of the visioning document is the need to avoid managing recreational fisheries like commercial ones, which emphasize maximizing harvest, and focus instead on the aforementioned abundance and opportunity. “We can’t manage recreational fisheries as we do commercial fisheries,” panel member Larry McKinney told the Miami Herald. “Recreational anglers are more focused on abundance and size structure than how to bring them to market. Our committee is not asking for special treatment for the recreational fishing community. It’s how we allocate marine fisheries to the greatest benefit of the nation.”

The visioning report also points out all the licensing money, gear tax (e.g. the 10 percent Wallop-Breaux Tax we pay on all marine related gear/fuel), and outright donations to conservation organizations that anglers make. Certainly, we can make the case that the more fish you have in the water, the more opportunity you create, the more anglers you have and the more money goes into conserving and sustaining that resource.

But in the end, I don’t think there are many reasonable anglers who really care who gets a greater share of the resource so long as the stock is healthy and an abundance of fish remain in the water, enabling all anglers the opportunity to access them. Yet, to have the sort of broad-based fishery, where you have a wide geographic distribution of fish that are easily accessible, you HAVE to have abundant and fully REBUILT fisheries. I don’t think any member of the visioning panel would disagree with me here.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Thus, I was a little bit surprised to see the recommendation for “limited flexibility” in rebuilding timelines later in the document. I’ve certainly been pretty vocal in the past that I believe such flexibility gives managers, already under pressure from their constituents, cover to continuously delay rebuilding. Thus, it’s difficult to have “flexibility” and rebuilt fisheries at the same time. Certainly, history has proven that to be the case. In other words, managers don’t have the balls to make the hard decisions unless the law forces them to.

Yet the way things are moving forward, I greatly suspect that there will be some “flexibility” requirement in the next Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, and perhaps the panelists recognize this. The real fight will likely be in creating effective backstops to prevent managers from perpetually allowing overfishing, and I hope the people involved in putting together this report engage when that discussion begins. I suspect they will.

For the record, I’d like to see the rebuilding requirements remain intact, because right now, they seem to be working quite well in the Mid-Atlantic. The fact that we rebuilt summer flounder to historical levels and we’re all enjoying the fruits right now is a pretty good example of that. Yet, in the current political climate, and given all the things that are happening with red snapper down south, it’s naive to think that they will. A recent NRC Report, which I discussed in detail in a prior blog If It Ain’t Broke, certainly didn’t help things. And really, all the panelists seemed to be doing was endorsing the findings of that report.

But the whole “flexibility” thing is an entirely separate blog, and I suspect I’ll need to address it when the stuff really hits the fan with Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization. Stay tuned on that.

Getting back to the gumballs demonstration: This isn’t really a fish grab, although, yes, I suspect a lot of people will see it that way. It was pointing out that the recreational industry makes pretty good use of the allocation it gets, both from a conservation perspective and a socioeconomic one. So is it in the interest of the nation to give just a few more gumballs to the recreational industry? Maybe it is. And why not manage fisheries for abundance/opportunity? IMO, it doesn’t unfairly punish the commercial fleet; if anything, it befits it! I do hope that NOAA fisheries hears and understand this part of the visioning document.


After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation
7 comments on “On The Socioeconomics of Recreational Fishing
  1. avatar WildBill says:

    Good conservation whether its ducks, fish, deer, or wildflowers should have nothing to do with who spent what. Management goals should be based on science not politics. If harvesting is appropriate, or appropriate in a particular region or ecosystem, or not at all should be based on the best scientific information and data available. We will only be able to continue fishing if we have solid management. And I’m sorry to those who may be offended by this. That’s just the way it is. Any other way will mean robbing your children of their right to the wonders of the natural world. Does anyone want that? Great read and very thought provoking.

  2. avatar Greg DiDomenico says:


    Perhaps your could ask your readers to refer to page 21 of the National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Science and Technology report Entitled “Fisheries of the United States (2012), where there is a graph depicting some recreational and commercial comparisons. It shows fisheries that are participated in by all sectors…recreational and commercial.


    It is also worth mentioning that according to the National Marine Fisheries Service “The seafood industry—harvesters, seafood processors and dealers, seafood wholesalers and seafood retailers, including imports and multiplier effects—generated an estimated $129 billion in sales impacts and $37 billion in income impacts, and supported 1.2 million jobs in 2011.”

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
    Greg DiDomenico
    Executive Director
    Garden State Seafood Association


  3. avatar shane yellin says:

    Another great and thought provoking read John. I think you hit the nail right on the head. If we can change the goal of maximum sustainable yield, we have a much better shot at a win win for everyone. I would also point out, one quick way to help eliminate MSY would be to get rid of the use it or lose it interstate quota policy. It makes no sense that if a fishery is so depleted they can’t catch enough fish in one state, that quota shouldn’t go to the next state down the coast.

  4. avatar kirk says:

    Greg DiDomenico,

    Do those numbers include shellfish?


  5. Kirk…the numbers from NMFS include all commercial fisheries.

    Greg DiDomenico

  6. avatar kirk says:


    If you are going to compare apples to apples you need to strip out shellfish. Its the only way to compare economic numbers.

  7. Kirk…I am glad you said that…

    I only referenced the economic impact of commercial fisheries because a few of the latest articles about this topic failed to do so.

    In addition…What you need to consider is that on the topic of allocation percentages it is important to look at it species by species and in particular in fisheries that the commercial and recreational sector both participate in.

    If you go to the document that I reference in my first comments you will get a good idea of what I am talking about.

    Furthermore from a southeastern perspective the recreational sector has:

    redfish 98% anglers
    trout 98% anglers
    amberjack 70 percent anglers
    red snapper 49 % anglers by feds but 90% in states
    red grouper 40% + – by anglers
    gag grouper 60% + – anglers
    mullet 90% commercial
    tarpon 100% anglers
    snook 100% anglers.

    Greg DiDomenico

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