Saltwater sport fishing appears to be a bigger threat to some economically critical fisheries than previously believed.
In a study published Friday, a team of marine biologists finds that sport fishing accounts for nearly one-fourth of the total catch for the commercially valuable species the federal government most worries about conserving. For some species in some regions, sport fishing accounts for as much as 93 percent of the fish caught.
The report could well boost calls for tighter regulations on saltwater sport fishing as the nation struggles to restore threatened or declining stocks of commercially valuable fish.
"This will land like a bombshell in come circles," says Chris Mann, who served as director of ocean and coastal policy for the Pew Oceans Commission.
Indeed, the study may understate the situation, says Felicia Coleman, a marine biologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, who led the research team. The study, which relies on state and federal data on fish "landings," doesn't reflect the fish killed as anglers throw back those that may be too small or those pulled up from deep water and then released. For deep-water fish, the change in pressure alone can be fatal.
The study comes at a time of increasing concern over how best to combat overfishing and maintain the diversity of habitats and robust breeding stocks that will help populations recover. One approach has been to ban fishing in key tracts of coastal waters, called marine protected areas. The approach is controversial. Many marine biologists argue that these areas need to be expanded to ensure that enough fish will be around to support both commercial and sport fishing well into the future.
But the two fishing groups often find themselves at odds over restrictions. Commercial fishermen, who contribute an estimated $28.5 billion to the economy, compared with roughly $31 billion for sport fishing, argue that sport fishermen represent an underappreciated part of the overfishing problem. Some sport-fishing groups shoot back by pointing to their puny catch per boat compared with commercial fishing boats.
The growing interest in marine-protected areas has prompted a legislative backlash at the state and federal level. For example, Congress is considering two bills supported by sportfishing groups that would lay out strict guidelines under which MPAs could be created.
Suggesting that sport fishermen are a big portion of the overfishing problem "is a joke," says Herbert Moore Jr, legislative director for the Recreational Fishing Alliance in Washington. He notes that sport fishing is subject to gear restrictions, size limits, and uses less efficient techniques.
"From an individual recreational fisherman's point of view, there is a strong conservation ethic," Dr. Coleman acknowledges. But when an individual's recreational catch is multiplied by the millions of people who take part, she adds, the impact on fisheries can add up.
For years, conventional wisdom has held that recreational fishing accounts for only 2 percent of total fish landings in the US. Coleman, along with colleagues at Duke University collected 22 years' worth of data, then looked at the totals caught by both groups. By 2002, the overall figure for sport fishing reached 4 percent. But the number grew substantially when the team focused on "species of concern" to regulators.
In 2002, the last year for which complete information was available, recreational anglers were hooking 23 percent of total landings nationwide for the species of concern. Off the Northeastern US, sport fishing accounted for 12 percent of the catch for the most troubled species. That number rose to a high of 64 percent along the Gulf Coast.
The results of the study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, are not news to many regulators, who say they already regulate sport fishing and know the problem's regional dimensions.
Instead, the report is probably aimed at a much broader audience, says Andy Rosenberg, a professor of natural-resource policy and management at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a member of the presidential Commission on Ocean Policy. "The audience for this is the public and policymakers," he says.
To some, the study suggests that more coastal states should require saltwater anglers to purchase licenses - a tool for regulating sport fishing's catch. Currently, some 40 percent of coastal states have no license program, says Larry Crowder, a Duke University marine scientist who took part in the study. "This means they have no effective way to control the overall management of their fisheries."
At the least, he adds, the study indicates a need to get past finger-pointing against one type of fishing. "If the goal is to reconstruct fishing stocks, then you can't just restrict commercial fishermen."