THE commercial and sport-fishing industries are wrangling over billions of dollars in revenues obtained from the nation's fishing grounds.
For residents of hundreds of fishing villages nationwide, the conflict over a finite resource is the social equivalent of a wailing, Class 4 hurricane. It is especially hard on owners of small, family-operated commercial boats like Bill Carlson of Leland, Mich. (See accompanying story.)
Small fishing operations must diversify or streamline in order to compete with larger, more productive corporate fishing vessels. Also, they must compete against sport-fishing boats that generally promise coastal towns much more lucrative related businesses.
The feud between sport anglers and commercial fishermen has smoldered for several decades. But it has intensified in recent years as the demand for fish has surged, and the supply of many saltwater species has perilously shrunk, say experts tied to both industries.
``There are just too many people with too many nets and hooks going after a declining number of fish,'' says Gil Radonski, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, 1 of 8 federal bodies managing regional fisheries in the United States. The councils are largely to blame for a failure to conserve fish stocks, experts from both the commercial and recreational fishing industries say.
Forty percent of the nation's commercially important fisheries have been decimated beyond the level at which young fish can adequately replenish stocks, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Meanwhile, Americans are demanding more fish and shellfish than ever before. Last year, US consumption amounted to 77.9 pounds of fish and shellfish per person, a 49 percent jump in a decade, according to the US Department of Commerce.
Moreover, 1 in 5 Americans - or 50 million people - fish for sport, and their numbers are annually swelling at twice the rate of population growth, notes the American Sportfishing Association in Alexandria, Va.
The commercial and recreational fishing industries are clashing across the nation. ``We could write a list of conflicts as long as your arm,'' says Norville Prosser, the ASA's vice president. For example:
* In Florida, environmentalists and sport-fishing interests have gathered 550,000 signatures for a November referendum barring the use of gill nets and other nets longer than 500 feet in near-shore waters.
* In Louisiana, a similar coalition plans to submit a bill to the state legislature in March banning gill nets within three miles of shore.
* On the East and West Coasts, sport and commercial fisheries are vying for virtually every recreational fish species. Their fiercest disputes are over severely decimated fish that have been protected - salmon in the West and striped bass in the East.
The wrangle in Florida, in many ways, epitomizes the clash between the commercial and sport industries. Each industry accuses the other of hogging fisheries without concern for other anglers. Sport fishermen say their commercial counterparts have despoiled the environment by ravaging many fish species and killing dolphins, sea turtles, and pelicans in gill nets.
``For every pound of shrimp a trawler nets, it also hauls in 10 pounds of marine life that it wastes,'' says Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida Conservation Association in Tallahassee.
Commercial fishermen say recreational anglers use environmentalism as a cloak for greed. ``Recreational fishermen are trying to deny fishery resources to commercial fishermen under the smokescreen of conservation,'' says Jerry Sansom, the executive director of the Organized Fishermen of Florida in Satellite Beach.
The commercial-fishing industry portrays sport anglers as rich elitists indifferent both to the need of common consumers for affordable fish and the survival of families that fish for a living.
The industries agree that many fish stocks must be given a chance to regenerate. They also agree that the government must manage fisheries more strictly and help winnow out the number of fishing vessels, especially the comparatively inefficient, small commercial boats.
On a national level, sport and commercial fishermen are competing to influence changes in the 1976 Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The sport-fishing industry wants the fisheries allotted according to quotas that anglers could buy and sell amongst themselves. But some commercial fishermen oppose that idea because they claim that it would force them to consolidate and would promote their steady demise.