Sportfishing by the Numbers

“Hey, I’m one guy who fishes a couple of times a year and I only use one hook on my line when I do fish.  After watching the giant industrial fishing boats that I see on the videos, my little fishing contribution doesn’t even make a speck on the graph when you talk about overfished and depleted fisheries.  Right?”


Talk to most recreational fishermen about their fishing experience and it’s not uncommon to get an answer like this.  They don’t go fishing all that often and when they do go, they don’t take home a lot of fish.   If there’s overfishing going on, why don’t the feds go after the commercial guys and concentrate on the real problem.  Somehow it just doesn’t make sense for the National Marine Fishery Service to pick on us recreational fishermen who are just out for a little time on the water and want to take home a few fish.

Interestingly, last fall the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) released data on recreational fishing and it contained some pretty astounding figures not only about how many of us fish, but importantly, insight into just how we fish.  According the NMFS office of external affairs, in 2011, some 10 million marine anglers took 60 million trips and caught about 345 million fish.   Suddenly it becomes clear that when counted with the other folks who fish, our one hook and one line can have a significant impact on the overall health of our marine world.   However, the truly interesting thing about the way we fish also came out in the NMFS report:  we recreational fishermen release nearly 60% of the fish that we catch!   This isn’t just CPR –catch, photograph and release, the 60% number includes regulatory discards – under or over sized fish, over limits or out of season and recreational bycatch.  So if we release 60% of what we catch and keep 40%, that means that we release 50% more fish than we take!  Do the math and we release some 200,000,000 fish a year.  All of a sudden, when you add all of the little specks on that problem fishery graph together, our recreational fishing contribution shows an immense impact on resources.

“But wait a minute – didn’t I just hear that we release 200,000,000 fish every year – don’t we get credit for throwing those back?”

Here’s the rub.  While we release a lot of fish, many, and in some fisheries most of those released fish don’t survive.  While there are many reasons why released fish do or don’t make it, the mortality figures are compiled by marine scientists and become important to regulators who include them in our total catch.  Fish released that don’t survive are counted the same as those we take home for dinner.

So what are “Best Practices” and why should I even care?

In light of declining fish populations for key recreational fisheries, the health of the 200,000,000 fish that we release each year can have a great affect on the way in which managers regulate fisheries.  Many fisheries that we participate in currently have low survival rates.  Best practices tries to look at regional fisheries and employ the tactics that can improve those survival rates.  Importantly, when we employ best practices and improve survival rates, we not only help the fish, but we also provide regulators with an opportunity to count less dead fish and potentially increase overall catches.  Taking the high road to conservation helps not only our resources, but is clearly in the long term best interest of our fishing and our grandkids fishing.

Best Practices workshops are being held around the country to learn from anglers and share some of the science on better ways to handle and release fish.



Department of Fish & wildlife