No Time to Let Anglers Off the Hook

Recreational fishermen like to blame depleted stocks on their commercial counterparts. In doing so, they ignore they own responsibility

By David Shook

While fishing recently from a 60-foot sport vessel off the southern coast of New York's Long Island, I reeled up my first fluke -- a flat, dusky bottom-feeder with both eyes on one side of its head. I was part of a group of 20 people spending the warm Sunday afternoon aboard the Dolphin, a fishing boat chartered by Colgate-Palmolive for its employees and a few of their friends (I have a friend who works for the company). A light breeze came off the ocean as we cruised through the shallow inlets near Freeport, N.Y., passing beautiful waterside mansions as well as an old power plant and a capped landfill.

It was fun, too. We caught fluke -- which looks like a big flounder -- all day long. Once in awhile, someone pulled up a "winged fish," a rust-colored creature with whiskers and flapping fins that makes it look as though it can fly. We also caught an occasional spider crab -- a nasty-looking crustacean with giant red legs.


  Nevertheless, my fishing trip, while fun and relaxing, was far less than I had expected. I had envisioned a bountiful take of striped bass and other coastal gamefish -- not the bottom-feeders of the deep we brought up. I had expected to revisit fond memories of heading out to a nearby lake or river with my father for a relaxing afternoon of perch and bass fishing. Remember the opening sequence of The Andy Griffith Show, where Andy and Opie are goin' fishin'. That's the ideal I remember.

What I discovered is that the booming recreational-fishing industry seems to be thriving off consumers' desire to replicate what a Sunday afternoon fishing trip was like years ago -- before coastal waters became so depleted. But if most of these people are like me, the sport-fishing industry may increasingly disappoint them. To continue to grow, it needs to deliver on its image and its promises. For many desk jocks, that means having a chance to reel in "big game" fish (for a sample, check your weekend cable TV schedule). For others, the lure is the restorative quality of a visit with nature.

The problem, of course, is that the two goals are to some degree contradictory. It's hard to commune with nature when thousands of pleasure seekers are on the Gulf of Mexico with charter vessels doing battle with sailfish. And since Robert Redford's 1992 movie adaptation of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, the bucolic rivers of the Northwest and Canada seem to have more yuppies in them than trout.


  In the process, sport fishing has become a huge business. In the blue waters off Galveston, Texas, charter boats charge $500 a day per person for those wishing to try for 150-pound tarpon. At the trendy Orvis fly-fishing store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the most conspicuous consumers on earth shell out more than $2,000 for premium fly-fishing equipment. In fact, much as golf has exploded in popularity in recent years, recreational fishing has become a more widely admired pastime. Anglers in the U.S. -- excluding Texas, Hawaii, and Alaska -- reeled in an estimated 429 million fish last year, VS. 286 million fish in 1981, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Anglers spent an estimated $100 billion on fishing activities in 1996, a 37% increase from 1991, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In fact, as a contributor to the U.S. economy, recreational fishing now dwarfs the commercial fishing industry, says longtime salmon fisherman and environmental scientist Craig Orr, of the Center for Coastal Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who is working on a database about the ocean's value to the U.S. economy, agrees. He notes that while U.S. fishermen bring in about $3.5 billion in seafood from the ocean a year, recreational fishermen in Massachusetts alone spend more than $1 billion a year.

There are no figures for how many trophy fish are hauled from the water each year. But what it all adds up to is that inceasing numbers of people are chasing fewer and fewer fish -- and put more pressure than ever on marine resources. Even as fishing regulations have become stricter, many fish in the Northeast -- such as the New England cod or the Atlantic whiting -- have been overfished to the brink of collapse. The same is true of the threatened California rockfish, the giant tarpon caught off the southern Texas coast, and even the tasty lake perch I used to catch by the dozen in Lake Michigan with my father. Worldwide, the same is true for hundreds of species.


  The two arms of the fishing business blame each other. It's "us vs. them," says veteran angler Jim Winn of Voorhees, N.J., who takes his 16-foot bass boat into the salty bays behind Atlantic City's casinos. While commercial fishing is the culprit for much of the overfishing that troubles waters along nearly every coastline and in thousands of rivers, though, recreational fishing is to blame, too.

Many states have responded by stocking lakes and rivers with baby fish from inland hatcheries. Lake Michigan is perhaps the best example of this practice. The Department of Natural Resources in Michigan plants thousands of baby salmon and trout in the lake each year to keep the fishing stocks high and the recreational-fishing industry happy. Anglers now pull in coho and chinook salmon of up to 20 pounds, even though salmon aren't even indigenous to Lake Michigan.

Stocking bodies of water with sport fish may ensure a catch for millions of anglers. But if the next generation hopes to enjoy the same experiences that Craig Orr and Jim Winn have had their whole lives, then fish stocking is only part of the answer. More likely, the recreational fishing industry will have to accept more stringent regulations, and embrace better conservation and wild-fishery management methods -- even as it lobbies to require the same of the commercial industry.

When he isn't chasing the wily fluke, Shook writes for BusinessWeek Online from New York.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.