Go Fish! Managing the eco(logical and nomic)-impact of commercial and recreational fisheries

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In a day’s work

Last week, I spent an afternoon “clamming” in a Massachusetts estuary with my family. After a few hours of futile “raking,” a local resident told my dad and me that a commercial fisherman swept the area just the week before, and we were unlikely to find very many clams. He directed us toward an area that the commercial fisherman overlooked.


A common “tragedy of the commons,” the fluid nature of fisheries can make them somewhat difficult to manage. If overfished, a fishery loses the numbers necessary to replace itself.In addition to a devastating biological loss, an overfished fishery can result in a significant economic hit to coastal communities. As a result, state biologists, regulators, and sometimes even legislators, must balance short-term economic gain against long-term economic sustainability, and in doing so, must consider the value of various “uses” of fisheries.

This spring, the state of North Carolina weighed the economic impact of commercial versus recreational coastal fishing for three coastal fisheries in the state: the red drum, spotted seatrout, and estuarine striped bass. House Bill 983, the Fisheries Economic Development Act, sought to manage these fisheries for maximum economic output by officially designated three species of coastal fish as “gamefish,” meaning they could only be caught, kept, and eaten for recreational purposes. The state would pay commercial fisherman for loss from the bill from 2014 through 2016 with money raised through an increase in the price of recreational fishing licenses

One reason cited for the legislation was to protect coastal fishery resources and help provide plentiful fishery resources to maintain and enhance tourism as a major contributor to the economy of the state. This legislation would have supplanted the fishery management plan adopted by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission for each of these species.

In order to better manage the state’s fisheries, the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997 requires the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to prepare fishery management plans for adoption by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission for all commercially and recreationally significant species or fisheries that comprise state marine or estuarine resources. In the plans, the state must consider the biological, socioeconomic, and economic impact of each fishery in recommending a management plan for the sustainability of the fishery.

The economic impact of each fishery is estimated individually for both the commercial and recreational industry. Unfortunately, at this point, it is not an “apples to apples” comparison. The economic impact for commercial fisheries includes the costs associated with a commercial fishing trip (such as fuel, insurance, and equipment purchases and repair), as well as the fishermen’s profit from sales, but it does not include the economic effect of fish landings on dealers, seafood markets, restaurants, and shipping. The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission estimates that the economic impact from these additional sectors to be substantial and is working on methods to model it.

On the other hand, the economic impact of recreational fisheries includes the effect on food stores, wholesale trade, oil and gas sales, domestic trade, ice manufacture, hotels, charter fees, realty, home work and repair, business management, food service, and medical services.

The following table summarizing economic impact was excerpted from the 2012 Spotted Seatrout and Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan. The difference in the left-hand columns for commercial fisheries and the right-hand columns for f recreational fisheries shows the difficulty in comparing the two.

Commercial Fishery

Fish Pounds Landed

Economic Impact

Additional Jobs Generated

Spotted Seatrout


$3,898,553 (2008)


Striped Bass


$3,966,694 (2009)


Recreational Fishery

Fish Pounds Landed

Economic Impact

Additional Jobs Generated

Spotted Seatrout


$49,493,807 (2008)


Striped Bass


$41,255,800 (2009)


House Bill 983 was put-on-hold in deference to coastal legislators who opposed the measure on behalf of commercial fisherman in their districts. Other opponents claimed that it would reduce food sovereignty in the state and question the need for mutual exclusivity of use. Proponents touted a higher economic value in recreation than commercial.


….Back to that bay in Massachusetts: We ended up catching all we wanted to shuck on the less-accessible side of the bay after a fun day on the water. Limited to four bushels of quahog clams, the prior week’s commercial fisherman left us plenty to enjoy, and I certainly appreciate the amount of planning that went into making that happen.

Mary Tiger was formerly on staff with the UNC Environmental Finance Center.


North Carolina Estuarine Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan Amendment 1, May 2013

North Carolina Spotted Seatrout Fishery Management Plan, March 2012

A Bill that Takes Fish from Tar Heel Plates, News and Observer Opinion article, May 2013

North Carolina’s Surprising Decision to Ignore the Economic Value of Gamefish, Forbes Sportsmoney, May 2013

Mike, Monomoscoy Island, August 2013



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