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Sportfishers on the Hook for Dwindling U.S. Fish Stocks
New findings are likely to fuel debate over proposals to bar recreational anglers from some coastal waters
Call it the mystery of the disappearing fish.
Despite decades of tighter restrictions on commercial fishing, the populations of many U.S. fish stocks have continued to decline. The puzzle intrigued marine ecologist Felicia Coleman of Florida State University in Tallahassee nearly a decade ago, when she served on a government panel that helps set regional catch limits. Coleman noticed that recreational fishers were hunting many of the at-risk species the council was trying to protect. While commercial fishers were on the regulatory hook, were sport anglers the ones that got away?
The notion that hobby anglers pose a major threat to marine fish is controversial. Many U.S. sportfishing groups, for instance, have opposed restrictions on their pastime by claiming just 2% of the overall fish landings--despite estimates that 50 million Americans participate in the sport. These low-catch claims have been politically persuasive, 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. "It's hard to convince people that one guy on a boat could be causing a problem," he says.
That may be about to change, however, thanks to Coleman. In an extensive analysis of fisheries data published online this week by Science (www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1100397
), her research team concludes that sportfishers are having a much bigger impact on marine populations than had been thought--and that they represent the major human threat for some species. Sportfishers are responsible for the vast majority of the landings of some at-risk species, according to the study, and have landed about 5% of the average annual catch over the last 2 decades.
Such numbers highlight the need for new restrictions on sportfishing, say marine conservationists, including barring anglers from new "no-take" reserves in coastal waters. Sportfishing groups, however, say the statistics don't necessarily support that solution. "You don't need to stop people from enjoying the outdoors" to protect fish, says Michael Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) in Alexandria, Virginia.
Drumming up controversy. Sport anglers may be a major threat to some overfished species, such as this red drum.
CREDIT: BUDDY MAYS/CORBIS
To obtain the new numbers, Coleman's group cast a wide net, collecting 22 years' worth of landings data from state and federal agencies. Overall, they found that recreational landings accounted for 4% of the 4 million metric tons of marine finfish brought back from U.S. waters in 2002 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). But sport anglers had a much bigger impact on some species and in some regions. When the researchers focused on several dozen overfished species such as red snapper and red drum, they found that one-quarter were being landed by recreational fishers. Sport anglers take one-third of the catch of at-risk species in the South Atlantic and two-thirds of those in the Gulf of Mexico.
The study also questions another bit of conventional wisdom--that sport fishers do less harm to marine ecosystems than commercial fleets. Not so, report the researchers, because they often hunt top predators, causing ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. "It doesn't matter whose hook is in the water," Coleman says.
"This is by far the best assembly of landings data" to date, says Ray Hilborn, a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle. He says it shows that "the recreational fishing industry is a much bigger problem than it would like to think it is." Rosenberg predicts that the findings will have political ramifications by bolstering opposition to "freedom to fish" bills that have been introduced in Congress (S. 2244 and H. 2890) and in a dozen coastal states. The bills seek to counter growing efforts to establish no-fishing zones by forcing government officials to show that alternative approaches won't help threatened species.
Recreational fishers, meanwhile, note that the landings data underpinning the study can be notoriously unreliable. And even if the numbers are accurate, they argue that no-take zones should be a last resort. "We have a good track record of conservation," says ASA's Nussman, noting that traditional restrictions--such as catch limits and seasonal closures--have helped restore some threatened populations, such as striped bass along the Atlantic coast. "We'll do what we need to do to fix the problem."
Marine researchers, however, aren't convinced that traditional approaches will be enough to protect dwindling stocks. Even bag limits, Coleman notes, only restrict the number of fish that can be caught by an individual fisher, not the total number caught by all sport anglers. "Right now, it's open access for recreational fishers," she says. "We need to fix that."
Commercial fishers, meanwhile, are happy to be out of the spotlight. Studies like Coleman's support what commercial captains have been saying for years, says Robert Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Tallahassee, Florida: "We're not the only ones causing the problem." Still, Jones is skeptical that the new data will produce policy change. "The recreational fishing industry has very strong political connections," he says.
The strength of those connections will be tested early next year. That's when several state legislatures are expected to consider freedom-to-fish proposals. The next Congress also plans to resume work on a major overhaul of federal fisheries regulation.