Overfishing of U.S. oceans has led to the dramatic decline of many fish stocks, but a new study suggests that the usual suspect--the commercial fishing industry--is not the only one to blame. Recreational sport and hobby fishing may be as damaging to marine fish populations as the massive hauls taken by commercial fishers, the study indicates. That could complicate current legislative efforts that seek to keep recreational fishers in the water and off the regulatory hook.
Federal and state regulators have long tried to combat overfishing by setting catch limits, instituting seasonal closures, and banning certain types of fishing gear. Commercial fishers have often borne the brunt of these restrictions. This is largely due to the public perception that recreational fishing is benign, and to claims by recreational anglers that they account for as little as 2% of the total marine fish brought home each year.
Considering that 50 million Americans fish the ocean for fun every year, this low percentage doesn't make sense, says Felicia Coleman, a marine ecologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. To gain a better understanding of recreational fishing's impact, Coleman's group cast a wide net, collecting 22 years' worth of catch data from state and federal agencies. "This gave us a national overview of the issue" rather than the limited regional or species-specific studies that had been done before, says Coleman. The group, whose findings appear online 26 August in Science , discovered that recreational fishers landed about 5% of the annual catch over the last 2 decades. But when they focused on at-risk species such as red drum and red snapper, they found that the overall recreational contribution rose to 23% and accounted for two-thirds of the landings in the Gulf of Mexico. The researchers also report that recreational fishers can do as much harm to marine environments as commercial fleets, because their hunting of top predators can cause ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.
"These results make the fisheries situation in the U.S. a lot clearer," says Andrew Rosenberg, a marine biologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. He predicts that the study may bolster opposition to "freedom to fish" proposals introduced in Congress and a dozen coastal states, which would limit the creation of no-fishing zones designed to protect at-risk species. "If we are serious about conservation," says Rosenberg, "we have to deal with recreational fishers as well."