November 20, 2015, 03:00 pm
The greatest story never told

By Mike Nussman

When one thinks of recreational fishing, images such as the opening of “The Andy Griffith Show” often come to mind – a father and son heading to their favorite fishing hole to spend quality time together in the outdoors. And there are many, many more images that include men and women and boys and girls of all ages. Indeed, such images capture the primary motivations that draw people to fishing: spending time with family and friends, to relax and enjoy the thrill of catching fish.

While these positive characteristics of recreational fishing have sustained the sport across generations as one of the most popular outdoor activities, the tremendous economic impacts generated by recreational fishing often go unrecognized. According to data from the U.S. Census, recreational fishing has a $115 billion annual economic impact on the U.S. economy and supports close to a million domestic jobs.

However, rarely is recreational fishing thought of in these terms, even by our own government. A recent example of how recreational fishing is often dismissed came from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NMFS is the agency responsible for managing fisheries in federal marine waters, which, in most parts of the country, extends from three to 200 miles offshore.
In a press release announcing NMFS’ latest annual report, the agency led with several paragraphs touting the economic value of commercial fishing. When the time came to highlight recreational fishing’s impact, the only figures provided were participation rates and numbers of fish caught and released. The message was clear: commercial fishing is about economic value, while recreational fishing is merely about fun.

However, according to NMFS’ own data on finfish harvest, which the agency elected not to include in its press release, saltwater recreational fishing supports roughly the same number of U.S. jobs as commercial fishing, despite being responsible for just two percent of the overall harvest. Commercial fishing comprises the remaining 98 percent. Rather than giving equitable treatment to the two sectors, given their economic parity, the agency has seemingly focused its resources and attention in a way more commensurate with the two sectors’ harvest levels.

Unfortunately this mentality that focuses first and foremost on commercial fishing has been a longstanding source of frustration among saltwater recreational fishermen and has led to management outcomes that have not allowed our fisheries resources to provide their greatest and best use to the nation. While NMFS has made progress in recent years, including its first-everNational Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy, it is clear much more needs to be done.

In no fishery is this more evident than in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper. Due in large part to changes in the shrimp trawl fishery that previously decimated juvenile red snapper, the red snapper population is rebuilding faster than anyone expected and is no longer considered to be overfished.

The results for the American public who want to take home a couple of the red snapper that are seemingly impossible not to catch nowadays? A recreational season that was 180 days in 2007 was reduced to just 10 days this year. Meanwhile, the commercial fishing industry can fish 365 days a year under a controversial “catch share” system in which the U.S. government gives away this public resource – with no compensation to the American public – to private entities to buy, sell and trade their share of the quota as they see fit.

To begin to address the longstanding issues within federal fisheries management, the recreational fishing community rallied behind a 2014 report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which was spearheaded by Bass Pro Shops Founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal. Morris and Deal co-chaired a commission, composed of respected biologists, economists, conservationists, fisheries managers and policy makers, who developed specific management recommendations for improving saltwater recreational fisheries management. The recreational fishing community is hopeful that the key policy changes identified in the report will be addressed whenever Congress takes to reauthorizing the nation’s primary law governing federal saltwater fisheries management – the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Given the increasing demands on our natural resources and the modern distractions that pull people away from enjoying the outdoors, if we want to ensure that Andy and Opie would still have opportunities to go fishing in this day and age – whether in the neighborhood pond or in the Gulf of Mexico – it’s time to shift how we think about our nation’s fisheries and finally start giving recreational fishing the recognition it deserves.

Nussman is the president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA). ASA is the trade association that represents the nation’s recreational fishing industry and the broader sportfishing community.