Managing Marine Recreational Fisheries

Donald R. Leal and Vishwanie Majaraj

Marine recreational fishing is a popular activity in the coastal regions of the United States enjoyed by more than 13 million anglers annually, but along with such popularity come a number of issues that need to be addressed (NMFS 2007). For species of concern­those overfished or undergoing overfishing­the impact of recreational fishing can be especially significant. For example, recreational fishing accounts for 64 percent of the total annual harvest of red snapper and other species of concern in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (Coleman et al. 2004).

For angling interests, fisheries regulation can be another issue. Prior regulatory tightening has not prevented recreational catches from often exceeding state-level targets in the East Coast summer flounder fishery­a fishery with preliminary 2006 recreational landings totaling 11.2 million pounds or 4.1 million fish (ASMFC 2007). To make up for the overages, significantly lower catch targets have been issued for New Jersey and six other states along the East Coast for 2008 (U.S. Department of Commerce 2008). Meeting the lower targets means tighter restrictions and inevitable disagreement over which restrictions should be tightened and by how much. Bay anglers spar with ocean anglers over minimum landing size, surf anglers are upset over possible fall closures, party boat operators disagree on bag limits, and bait and tackle shops are concerned with lower participation in the fishery. “We’re dealing with geography and demographics among other things,” says one angling spokesperson in New Jersey. “The needs of those in the fishery are so different in New Jersey” (quoted in Geiser 2008).

For fish stocks shared by recreational and commercial fishers, the problem of allocation and enforcement is another issue. Off Alaska, charter boat anglers face a possible reduction in the halibut bag limit­from two fish per day to one fish per day if their catch allocation is exceeded during the 2008 season (Associated Press 2008; NPFMC 2008). Commercial fishers complain that the “soft” recreational harvest limit for halibut is frequently exceeded. They have grown weary of recreation’s increasing share of total halibut landings­from 2 percent of total landings in the 1970s to more than 18 percent in the 1990s (Criddle, this volume). But charter captains claim that any reduction in client bag limits would severely hurt their businesses.

For regional stocks threatened or endangered, fishing bans are another issue. Off California and most of Oregon, managers are set to ban all commercial ocean salmon fishing and drastically reduce recreational ocean salmon fishing in 2008 to protect the fabled Chinook salmon run in California’s Sacramento River. For reasons other than fishing, the salmon run declined precipitously in 2007­from a previous average of 500,000 returning adults to 90,000 returning adults (McClure 2008; Koepf 2008). Oregon anglers complain that such severe restrictions prevent them from accessing healthy runs of salmon off coastal Oregon.

Three lessons should be noted here. One is that while marine recreational fishing is an activity carried out for sport and personal use, it is still susceptible to what Garret Hardin (1968) calls the “tragedy of the commons.”[i] In this case, the tragedy manifests itself when the aggregate recreational catch often exceeds safe target levels or takes a growing share of the catch, resulting in growing conflicts with other users of the resource. The second lesson is that the traditional management approaches of reducing daily bag limits and seasons and increasing the minimum size for landing fish is often not enough to prevent overfishing (other than an outright ban on fishing), but they do generate angler discontent and lower economic benefits for those who service anglers. The third lesson is that implementing a one-size-fits-all set of restrictions over a large geographic area ignores widely varying preferences among angler populations and environmental conditions, resulting in additional angler dissatisfaction and further loss of economic benefits.

Is there an alternative approach to managing a recreational fishery ­one in which the aggregate catch is effectively controlled, the fishing experience remains enjoyable, and the chance for user conflict is reduced? The answer is yes. Based on evidence from the areas of pollution control, inland hunting and fishing programs, and commercial fishing, market-tradable user rights can prevent overuse of a commons without having to resort to ever tighter fishing restrictions. Moreover, they provide anglers and those who service them­charter boat operators, fishing guides, bait and tackle shop owners­with longer seasons, more flexible harvests, and the means to trade for additional allocations with other resource users. Organized in four parts, this volume investigates such alternatives as well as the theoretical and practical aspects of implementing transferable user rights in some of today’s recreational fisheries.

1. For a classic article on the fishery as a commons, see H. Scott Gordon (1954). See also, Colin W. Clark (1981

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