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September 07, 2012

The Politics Of Fish

Identifying the friends of saltwater anglers on Capitol Hill

Fish are the most political of all animals. Commercial fishermen want to make a living harvesting them. Recreational fishermen want to enjoy time on the water pursuing them. And even if they’ve never been fishing themselves, environmentalists want to guarantee there will be fish for everyone.

Fisheries managers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must make tough decisions interpreting the limited science — particularly regarding recreational fishing — available to them. And members of Congress are caught in the middle.

Political Tug of War

Congressmen hear from commercial fishermen that ­regulations are strangling their business, from anglers that management uncertainty is strangling their fishing opportunity, and from some environmentalists that there are no fish left so all fishermen should get off the water.

Then the members of Congress call fishery managers and administration officials to Capitol Hill to explain why. Why are fisheries allocated between the commercial and recreational sectors as they are? Why are seasons so short? So unequal? So unpredictable? Why do some regions spend so much on fisheries science but others so little?

Like you, I’m not always happy with the on-the-record answers to these questions. As a matter of fact, I’m not always happy with the questions.

But it’s easy to see the political tug of war over ­saltwater fish, the most political of all animals.

Sport Fishing: Big Business

The most recent year that NOAA Fisheries generated national estimates of fishing effort and participation was 2006. Those numbers from six years ago indicate that 24.7 million saltwater anglers take four fishing trips a year. That translates to almost 100 million fishing trips annually.

This great homegrown enterprise — marine ­recreational fishing in America — offers numbers to back up its ­importance. It:

  • Generates $92.2 billion (2011 dollars) in total sales;
  • Employs 533,813 people;
  • Contributes $621.5 million in license purchases ($329.8 million across just the coastal states); and
  • Pays $650 million nationwide in excise taxes to be ­apportioned back to the states for fishery-management purposes.

In terms of economic impact, Florida has the highest numbers at $14.2 billion in total sales, supporting 130,900 jobs, followed in order by Texas, California, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Despite these amazing economic numbers, we don’t see headlines in the secular (nonfishing) media offering a hat tip to sport fishing. It would sure be nice to occasionally see, “U.S. Saltwater Angling: $92 Billion-a-Year Business,” or “Recreational Fishermen Support Stewardship, Pay the Bills for Conservation Nationwide.”

Instead of such news stories, we are barraged with headlines in the mainstream media generated by ­environmental organizations (“No Fish Left”) and ­commercial fishing groups (“Too Many Regulations”).