Managing Recreational Fisheries: A New Persepctive is Needed

Managing Recreational Fisheries:  A New Perspective is Needed


Commercial and recreational fisheries are fundamentally different activities, with dissimilar harvest data collection systems and thus require different management approaches.  Yet the last reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act, for all intents and purposes, uses the same management strategies for both.   A Blue Ribbon Panel was convened in 2010 to examine recreational data and management, one of the key recommendations was “it may make more sense from both fiscal and management effectiveness standpoints to adapt management approaches, tools and strategies to reflect available information rather than doing the reverse.” (Recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Recreational Fishing Data, TCRP 2010)


Commercial fisheries are managed for yield.  They are prosecuted by relatively few fishers, all with the same goal – to catch as many fish as possible as efficiently as possible, in order to maximize profit from the sale of whatever species they pursue. Commercial landings can usually be counted or weighed in real time, thus quotas can be enforced in real time.   This allows managers to close a fishery before the allowable catch is exceeded.  In short, a commercial fishery’s catch can be managed in real time, based on verified landings.


Recreational fisheries, on the other hand, are dynamic in nature, prosecuted by millions of individuals with diverse goals; some try to catch fish for food, some like to catch and release fish, some just fish in order to enjoy the outdoors.  They are responding to stock abundance, weather, the economy or any of a myriad of factors.  Catch is estimated, not counted, with a significant time lag for producing such estimates.  Landings estimates, at best, are compiled 45 days after the end of each two‐month sampling wave; thus 2 months pass before any real knowledge of what anglers are catching in a particular fishery can be developed.

Real‐time quota management under the current recreational harvest information system is, as a practical matter, impractical.  In reality, managers actually manage the catch of recreational fishermen by managing anglers’ behavior.

It is telling that poundage-based management is not contemplated when managing upland game, waterfowl or most inland fisheries, where similar challenges to developing accurate data exist.


Though recreational fishermen do not directly value fish caught in dollars per pound, they do produce a lot of economic activity and value, which is often far in excess of that generated by competing commercial fisheries.


Such recreational fisheries should be managed for expectation as opposed to yield[A1] .  Anglers need to believe they will have opportunity to encounter fish, with the hopes they may catch some, possibly including some large enough to take home, and perhaps even catch a trophy sized fish[A2] . Instead of yield, abundance and age structure are key elements to recreational fisheries, since those factors govern both the rate of encounters and the size of the fish caught. Maximizing yield has little meaning in most recreational fisheries; since more conservative fishing mortality targets produce increased abundance and a better age structure, they actually lead to a greater number of satisfied anglers.


Current law includes the requirement of calculating, where possible, and managing towards Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).  The concept of producing the most yield in pounds is antithetical to managing for most recreational fisheries.  MSY‐based management is a risk‐prone management strategy, and is inappropriate for a fishery which emphasizes encounters over yield.  An angler who manages to land a limit of fish over the course of a day, and releases a dozen others, will be far more satisfied than an angler who bags a limit, but catches nothing more.  In general, the recreational fishery should be managed for abundance and age structure, which maximizes encounters, not yield[A3] . This dictates an approach that sets mortality targets below Fmsy, sometimes far below.  Such a concept is embodied in the definition of “Optimum,” which is already a part of federal fisheries law but, unfortunately, is seldom employed effectively in practice[A4] .


The MSY approach, and particularly the practice of setting ACLs just below MSY, arises largely from the commercial sector’s desire to efficiently remove fish from a population.  MSY management, by definition, attenuates the age structure and produces a population dominated by younger fish, so that a fishing rate set slightly below Fmsy will result in a large stock of young fish and nearly the same yield as a population with more larger fish which, by definition, must be left in the water longer before being harvested from the larger stock.  It is analogous to management for a high‐yield pine forest as opposed to a mature oak/hickory forest. One is purely for yield and the other incorporates other values: aesthetics, wildlife, etc

Recreational fisheries respond to population abundance. As populations increase, and fish become easier to catch, they draw more anglers into the fishery and drive up recreational effort and catch; as populations decrease, effort and catch decline.   In the example below, angler effort[A5]  (in catch/day) and the estimated abundance of fully recruited (age 4+) South Atlantic black sea bass are illustrated from 1981 – 2011.  In this example, there is a very good relationship between abundance and angler effort.  It is worth noting that the fishing season was 365 days until 2011, when it was reduced to 180 and 95 days in 2012.


Figure 1.  Black sea bass recreational catch/day and catch of 4+ fish over time.  John Carmichael, SAFMC



Stock assessments on most popular stocks are done sporadically, usually every three to five years.  This delay may lead to hard annual catch limits (ACLs) placed on a stock which are generated from a 3‐year‐old assessment, based on 4‐year‐old data, which likely no longer reflect the current state of the stock (and the resultant allowable catch). Yet it is the current stock size that is driving the recreational effort and catch. This is especially problematic in a rebuilding plan where the recreational catch, driven by increasing abundance, is higher than an outdated assessment, and resultant ACL, would allow, but is not actually harmful given the current stock size.


The hard ACL requirement sometimes leads to management measures which are simply not credible.  If stock size decreases, an ACL in a recreational fishery will likely not be met, and no management restrictions are taken.  If the stock size decrease is transitory, that’s fine.  However, if the stock size decrease continues, it would seem some management restriction should be contemplated.  Yet, if the stock size increases and catch rates go up, the ACL is more likely to be exceeded and management restrictions could be implemented.  Thus the message to fishermen is that management success causes punishment and declining stocks are OK.  That’s just illogical, frustrating to anglers and kills managers’ credibility.


In the example below we created a hypothetical stock (using mid-Atlantic black sea bass as the basis for the model).  In our example, the stock had not been assessed in several years while a strong year class or 2 recruited into the fishery and increased the biomass above equilibrium conditions.  Fishermen, responding to the large stock size, exceeded a poundage based ACL, and were reduced the following year.  Once below the ACL, restrictions are relaxed and the recreational sector goes over once again due to the large stock size, thus creating a management “yo-yo” effect.  After several years the harvest reduces the stock back to the long term equilibrium, yet the halting fashion in which they arrived there would have made anglers angry and frustrated.  Had managers been able to ascertain the current conditions of the stock, they would have known anglers were responding to increased abundance and not causing harm to the stock.   Both management measures ended up in the same place, yet the latter would have had much more angler acceptance.



Figure 2.  Hypothetical graph of exploitation over time of a stock that starts above MSY and is reduced back to equilibrium harvest.  Dr. Gary Shepherd, NOAA Fisheries.


It is worth noting that few, if any, inland fish or wildlife species are managed at or near

maximum sustainable yield. They are generally managed more conservatively.  One reason this is more readily accepted by inland fishers and hunters is there is no commercial sector competing for the same resource. Most anglers would gladly forego harvest in order to keep a population healthy, but that is a much tougher argument when there is another sector competing for those fish foregone by anglers.   For anglers, the concept of Optimum Yield may include fish left in the water.


Unfortunately, despite the inherent differences in the recreational and commercial fisheries,

managers employ the same basic tools to manage both sectors – the use of an annual catch

limit in pounds or numbers, tied in some way to maximum sustainable yield to constrain

harvest, with closures used to prevent overages, and pound‐for‐pound paybacks imposed in subsequent years to compensate for whatever overages may occur. Using the same management tools to regulate two fundamentally different approaches to prosecuting a fishery, when most of

the current management science and tools are geared towards determining and managing

commercial harvest is now a thoroughly documented recipe for failure with respect to managing the recreational fishery.


Managers must finally recognize that recreational fisheries differ fundamentally from

commercial fisheries, and management for predominantly recreational fisheries should be

different from the way commercially dominated species are managed. Some states already

manage recreational fisheries in this manner: red drum in the southeast[A6]  and striped bass in the

mid‐Atlantic and New England area. It is no coincidence that both of those species are among

the five leading recreational fisheries in the United States.


Here are the specific recommendations:


1.  This strategy is contemplated for fisheries that are either primarily recreational or have a high value to recreational fishers.   Clearly this type of management would not be appropriate for primarily commercial species such as sable fish, butterfish, golden crab or even Atlantic croaker.


2.  Institute F-based management for those species determined to be of high recreational importance.  The ACL in such fisheries should be a contemporary estimate of permissible F based on the state of the stock, not a poundage‐based ACL rooted in past harvest. This is the most critical issue for recreational fisheries.  Make the Fthreshold the ACL and the Ftarget the ACT, so that we are managing to a fishing mortality rate and not absolute removals. Estimates of F are likely to be more robust than estimates of biomass or Bmsy.  From[A7]  a biological standpoint, controlling the magnitude of F is more important than merely capping the poundage of removals, without reference to the size or age of the fish harvested.


ACL’s based on poundage are largely inapplicable to recreational fisheries. They represent an

archaic approach carried over from the times when only commercial fisheries were considered.

ACL’s based on the proportion of fish that are harvested from a stock, which must inherently

account for the changing age and size structure comprising such stock, would represent a much more effective and informed approach to managing recreational fisheries.


This can easily be accomplished via the current MSA.  The language in the Act does not specify pounds or numbers, it simply states a mechanism must be in place to prevent overfishing:



(15) establish a mechanism for specifying annual catch limits in the plan (including a multiyear plan), implementing regulations, or annual specifications, at a level such that overfishing does not occur in the fishery, including measures to ensure accountability.

NMFS would have to adjust their guidelines to implement such a strategy


3.  F‐based fisheries management ideally would require annual updates on the relative fishing rates, similar to the annual surveys currently performed for waterfowl, which base each year’s

harvest rates on a May‐June pond index (ie habitat survey) and an annual breeding waterfowl

survey (ie a harvest independent survey).  These surveys are then used to determine each fall’s harvest regulations.




There is a current example of such management:  Atlantic striped bass.  They are managed by the Atlantic coast states from North Carolina through Maine under a Fishery Management Plan adopted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.


The Atlantic striped bass stock was essentially collapsed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s by the usual combination of factors – unrestrained harvest, ineffective minimum size limits, habitat loss and poor recruitment.  In response to the precipitous decline in abundance, Congress enacted the Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, giving the ASMFC the authority to promulgate management measures.  Ultimate enforcement of the management measures was vested in the Secretary of Commerce, with the authority to enforce a moratorium on any jurisdiction that violated the management measures.


The stock recovered to a high abundance in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and has declined somewhat since, due largely to below average recruitment.



Figure 3.  Striped bass recreational harvest and abundance in metric tons. Kate Taylor, ASMFC)


The ASMFC recognized striped bass were one of, if not the premier recreationally sought species in the mid and north Atlantic regions.  They set a commercial harvest at an historic level with a hard quota, and set an allowable harvest rate that allowed the recreational fishery to respond to abundance.  The recreational fishery went from catching 5700 mt when the stock was declared recovered in 1995, to a high of  14,000 mt in 2006  a nearly 300% increase in harvest in 12 years.  Yet the target fishing mortality rate was never exceeded.


Figure 4.  Fishing mortality on fully recruited striped bass in relation to the FMP fishing mortality threshold and target. Kate Taylor, ASMFC.


Imagine a hard quota scenario during that time period, set at 5700 mt for 1997, when 7300 mt were in fact caught.  The paybacks, if implemented, would have caused great frustration and ultimately had little effect on resultant stock size. This important stock has recovered and largely done well for over 15 years, with recreational catch rising and falling with abundance, never exceeding the Ftarget level.

 [A1]Good way of putting it.  The next task is to translate this into terms that relate to optimum yield.

 [A2]These are all things that can be measured, though it is difficult, and could become FMP objectives and management metrics.

 [A3]Suggests additional management metrics:  total catch and catch rate (e.g. # caught per angler per directed trip).

 [A4]Yes!  I think we are very ripe for a new discussion of what OY means in a recreational context.  FWIW, I also believe that  allocation is really a NS#1, OY issue.  I don’t think the current dialogue has emphasized NS #1/OY sufficiently.

 [A5]Is catch/day the best measure of effort?  i.e. aren’t both parameters measures of abundance?  Would this parallel still hold if you plotted directed trips?

 [A6]Some might argue that the primary “management” was to close the commercial (and EEZ in GOM) fisheries.  It might be useful to provide description of these management program and how they differ from typical MSA mgt. (Striped bass is addressed below, but not drum.)

 [A7]From the above, it would seems that this is just the minimum.  We’d also want to adopt supplemental management objectives  that establish additional metrics (catch rate, measures of angler participation and/or satisfaction, etc.) that assure attainment of “recreational OY”.  Perhaps this is a third recommendation?

 [A8]It would be nice if one could supplement this discussion with some data on angler satisfaction, participation, growth of economic  return, etc that confirm the success of this mag program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *