Outdated Management of Recreational Fishing Leaving $1 Billion On The Table

New study shows saltwater anglers value a different approach to conservation

August 20, 2018
Matt Smelser, (202) 572-3272, msmelser@edf.org

(Austin, Texas – August 20, 2018) New research published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows, for the first time, that a management system which provides year-round fishing opportunities using secure allocations could increase the economic value of recreational fisheries, encourage better conservation outcomes, and satisfy more anglers with longer seasons, which could result in as much as $1 billion per year in additional economic benefits in the United States.

The study uses survey data from anglers who fish in the Gulf of Mexico to estimate the potential benefits of management reforms. The results showed that anglers valued the flexibility of choosing when they could fish rather than having their fishing limited by fixed seasons.

For example, frustrations over inflexible and shrinking seasons for recreational red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico have long been a source of political debate, sparking contentious proposals in the region and in Congress. This study shows that most of these proposals focus on approaches that fail to fully maximize the kind of conservation-oriented flexibility that anglers value most.

“Many recreational fisheries, including Gulf red snapper, are struggling with outdated management that relies on season and bag limits to control catch,” said Daniel Willard, Senior Economist for Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program and co-author of the new study. “Seasons are closed for much of the year and overharvests are routine. Status quo management does little to conserve fish populations and excludes many anglers from the fishing experience. This squanders potential angler benefits.”

The new research also bolsters the success of a pilot program in the Gulf of Mexico that tested an alternative management approach for headboat fishing (headboats are for-hire fishing boats that take large groups of people offshore fishing). The pilot program for headboats was established in 2014 by a group of headboat captains and included 19 separate boats from across the Gulf of Mexico.

The pilot tested an allocation-based management system, similar to the commercial red snapper fishery, which provided headboats with the freedom and flexibility to fish when it is best for their business and customers. Through strict monitoring and reporting requirements, the pilot allowed participating headboats to catch the same number of fish they would normally catch during the short fishing seasons, but to take anglers fishing anytime during the calendar year.

“A management system like the one tested by the headboats in the Gulf provides recreational service providers with a secure quota of valuable target species to provide more valuable fishing experiences to their customers throughout the year,” said Joshua Abbott, the study’s lead author and an Associate Professor of Environmental & Resource Economics at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. “Our study found that the status quo management in the Gulf was forgoing $12 million in potential economic value per year in the red snapper headboat fishery alone.”

Over the two years the pilot operated, the 19 participating headboats saw a 100 percent increase in the number of anglers they took on red snapper and grouper fishing trips, taking over 120,000 people from all 50 states fishing. While more anglers got to fish for snapper and grouper, the participating businesses reported increased profits, adherence to catch limits, and a decrease in discarded fish, meaning better business and conservation outcomes.

“The quality and value of fishing experiences depend on whether anglers can catch what they want, when they want,” added Willard. “We can achieve that, providing year round fishing opportunities for recreational fishing businesses and anglers using sustainable catch limits, secure allocations, and careful tracking of what they catch. This is a win-win for conservation and the angler experience.”

This new study comes out as two bills currently being considered by the United States Senate threaten to make it virtually impossible for headboat operators and their customers to test or adopt these types of approaches. Further, these bills contain misguided efforts to lengthen recreational fishing seasons through promoting reallocation and weakening science-based catch limits.

“This new research shows that these proposals in Congress are missing the mark when it comes to what anglers actually want,” said Matt Tinning, Associate Vice President for Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program. “The pilot results and this new research show that in recreational for-hire fishing you can significantly increase the value of fishing access for anglers through better management of current quotas, like the approach used in the headboat pilot, instead of undermining conservation plans.”

The headboat captains in the Gulf of Mexico who led the effort to test the approach studied in this new research are now advocating that it be made permanent. They have a proposal being considered by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

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