NMFS Should Acknowledge Value of Recreational Fishing

When it comes to fisheries economics, NMFS just won't learn

OPINION

The value of recreational fisheries
Recreational fishing nationally generates far more money in expenditures than commercial fishing while using a comparative tiny fraction of the resource. So why, asks Brad Gentner, do federal fishery managers continue to tout the commercial sector in their annual report?Tom Smith

Yet again, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has issued its report, Fisheries of the United States, and under-reports the value of good fisheries management to the United States economy. While groups such as Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership have advocated for the inclusion of the economic footprint of the recreational fishery alongside the economic footprint of the commercial industry, NMFS has only responded to this request only by ignoring it.

And quite visibly shooting itself in the foot in the process.

NMFS leads the report with the dockside value of commercial fishing at $5.2 billion dollars, which is down 4.5 percent from 2014. They use that to show that this economic footprint “underscores the collective progress of the U.S. fisheries management system, the fishery management councils and the fishermen that make it work in order to insure the sustainability and economic stability of our nation’s fisheries.”

That is a great testament … to commercial fishing. What NMFS flatly refuses to state is that in 2015 recreational fishing generated $31.2 billion in trip and durable expenditures. That is nearly five times the expenditures generated by the management of commercial fishing. Once again, we need to remind the agency that that level of expenditure is generated on less than 2 percent of the mortality generated by commercial fishing. What could be more sustainable than that?

Why wouldn’t an agency responsible for managing both sectors not be proud of a total economic footprint for both sectors that is $36.4 billion, instead of a paltry $5.2 billion? It is inexcusable, but after bringing it to the agency’s attention for several years about this, it appears the agency is completely tone deaf.

When will NMFS listen to its biggest constituency?

Last year, NMFS responded to our complaint by stating that producing recreational numbers in Fisheries of the United States was impossible for two reasons: 1) it is simply too hard to generate recreational numbers and 2) it is inappropriate to compare dockside revenue to recreational trip expenditures. Neither is true.

To the first point, it took less than an hour to generate the recreational expenditure totals above using publicly available, online queries. We know they can do it because the agency will produce its annual report, Fisheries Economics of the United States, that includes these numbers sometime in the next year.

To NMFS’ second objection, when you are an agency that uses these economic footprint numbers to advocate for better management and higher funding, you would be foolish to ignore the enormous impact of recreational fishing. The numbers are staggering; both in terms of economics and sheer numbers of stakeholders. By NMFS’ own suspect estimates, there are 7.4 million saltwater recreational anglers in the US and that number doesn’t include Oregon, Washington and California nor does it include participants that do not reside in a coastal state.

When will NMFS listen to its biggest constituency? Will it ever recognize that the largest number of participants generating the lion’s share of economic activity while harvesting far fewer fish are worthy of recognition and that, by recognizing that contribution, could leverage that to provide better funding and infrastructure that would benefit all constituents and all US citizens?

As a nation, we simply cannot afford to have the agency charged with managing the nation’s fisheries base its decisions on such a one-sided and incomplete picture.

Brad Gentner is an economist specializing in the economics of fishing, recreational and commercial, with long experience both in government and, more recently, in the private sector. The Gentner Consulting Group is a full service consultancy in natural resource economics and public opinion research.