The Dirty 10-Letter Word

blogpic-leonard_150x175by Mike Leonard, Ocean Resource Policy Director, American Sportfishing Association
May 15, 2014

There’s no word I know of in the saltwater fisheries management world that generates as much agitation as allocation. Or more specifically, re-allocation. The recreational fishing community persistently clamors for it, the commercial fishing industry vows to fight it tooth and nail and fishery managers avoid it like the plague.

In a nutshell, for fisheries with both a commercial and recreational component (e.g., red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, striped bass along the Atlantic coast, Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest), fishery managers must determine how to allocate the total allowable catch between the two sectors. For example, the current split for Gulf red snapper is divided 51 percent toward the commercial sector and 49 percent toward the recreational sector, although the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is currently proposing relatively small but important changes.

Most allocation decisions were made decades ago. Needless to say, things were a lot different back then than they are now. Fishing participation, economic activity, environmental conditions and stock abundance change rapidly. However, the regional Fishery Management Councils and NOAA Fisheries have been reluctant to reexamine allocations despite the drastically different conditions in our marine fisheries now compared to when allocations were originally set.

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Why is that? Because in essence, it requires managers to pick perceived winners and losers, and the losers never go down easy. However, the continuously growing body of evidence demonstrating the substantially greater value that fish have when caught recreationally versus commercially demands a change from the status quo approach.

One of the primary recommendations of the Morris-Deal Commission is for the development of a process to periodically review allocations. The Morris-Deal Commission isn’t demanding all the fish, but rather calling for a reasonable process for examining and potentially changing allocations based on socioeconomic, conservation and cultural criteria. Simply put, the excuse that, “it’s how we’ve always done it,” isn’t going to fly anymore.

When you look nationally, in 2011, recreational fishing accounted for only 2 percent of all finfish harvested. Commercial fishing accounted for the remaining 98 percent. However, saltwater recreational fishing generated 454,542 jobs out of those 2 percent of fish, compared to 380,513 jobs on the commercial side. To look at that another way, recreational fishing generated 210 jobs per 100,000 pounds landed, compared to just 4.5 jobs in the commercial fishing industry. That makes a pretty compelling case to reconsider how we’re divvying out the fish, no?

The commercial fishing industry is pulling out all the stops to preserve the outdated and inequitable allocations that were granted decades ago years. NOAA Fisheries contributed to their hollow campaign recently by releasing a report titled Fisheries Economics of the United States 2012. In a major deviation from how commercial fishing data were reported in previous years, NOAA decided to combine domestic and imported commercial fisheries together, thus over-inflating the overall commercial fishing economic impact estimates.

The commercial fishing industry immediately latched on to this erroneous presentation of the facts by proclaiming that their superior economic impact – a substantial portion of which comes from fish caught in foreign waters by foreign fishermen – eradicates the need to reexamine allocations.

Leaders in the recreational fishing community recently demanded that NOAA Fisheries release a revised economics report that does not combine imports and domestic seafood, thereby presenting a more accurate view of the domestic commercial fishing sector. Or perhaps another, just as illogical, approach NOAA Fisheries could take would be to include the economic impacts that come from freshwater recreational fishing. Or from recreational fishing trips that Americans take internationally. If they’re going to count imported seafood in estimates of the U.S. commercial fishing industry, there are all sorts of ways we can erroneously overinflate estimates of saltwater recreational fishing too!

I recently came across an academic paper from 1986 titled “The Life Cycle of Fisheries,” in which the author makes a compelling case that fisheries generally will follow a life cycle much like an organism. In it, the author, Dr. Courtland Smith, writes, “(t)he typical life cycle begins with an initial emphasis on food production, next a growing interest in recreation develops, and finally comes aesthetic uses. As commercial productivity and the number of commercial and recreational users increases, conservation requires more stringent management measures. Food production opportunities decline and recreation uses expand.

On the topic of allocation, Dr. Smith writes, “(s)ince management tends to be dominated by allocations as they were in the past, it is often out of step with the life cycle of the fishery which is changing toward greater recreational and aesthetic use.

Unfortunately, almost 30 years after his paper was released, the same unwillingness to reexamine allocations persists, which is slowing down the natural evolution of fisheries. The thing about evolution is, you may be able to slow it down, but you can’t stop it. It’s long past time for policymakers and fishery managers to stop clinging to old, outdated approaches that are preventing economic and conservation benefits to the nation, and instead recognize the tremendous potential in simply letting evolution proceed.