GAMEFISH: A PRIMER
The recreational fishing industry’s latest push to win
gamefish status for three species of North Carolina’s saltwater fish prompts
the question: “What’s it all about?”
In sporting terms, fish are considered to be “game” if they readily slam lures
or baits and, once hooked, valiantly resist capture. Whether or not a species
is a “game” fish is therefore a subjective determination, but there’s nothing
hazy about the legal designation that sportsmen seek: Once a fish has
been officially declared a “gamefish” it may be taken only by recreational
fishermen, and is forevermore off limits to commercial fishermen and seafood
HOW MUCH IS
THAT LITTLE SPECIES IN THE WINDOW?
Since wild fish are, for management purposes, considered to
be public property, their re-allocation from the public-at-large to a subset of
the population must be accomplished via the state legislature or some other
governing entity. Yet when politicians reach into the diverse marine
environment and select a single species for special treatment, what are the
In addition to their fighting ability, most gamefish have
other desirable attributes, namely good looks and good flavor.
Many might argue that all fish are beautiful but it takes a mother to love an
oyster toadfish. And whiskers are a definite turn-off—no great battles have
been fought over catfish. Consider North Carolina’s three contested species,
the striped bass, red drum, and spotted seatrout: Already gamefish in some
states, they’re head-turners all.
But it’s a fish’s performance on
the plate that ultimately does it for most anglers. And sportsmen must be
aroused to engage in the surprisingly fierce political battles that are fought
Of course, for naturally
competitive sportsmen such battles can themselves serve as sport, but these
aren’t games to commercial fishermen. That’s because the fishermen’s
livelihoods depend on the sale of these wild-caught fish to consumers. So when
sportsmen “win,” and working fishermen lose, so do consumers.
Such monopolization, or “royalization,” of the public’s wild resources is
commonly associated with Merry Olde England, when Robin Hood and his rural
associates were forced to “poach” what had become the king’s own deer. Its
continuation today seems anachronistic, given the public’s growing appreciation
for the healthful benefits of wild-caught fish, and the “food security” derived
from locally produced protein.
Sequestering a species as “gamefish” not only shrinks and
homogenizes our food supply, it also hits us in the pocket by shrinking and
homogenizing another public domain, our economy.
Recreational fishing is a wonderful
pastime, and the money people spend on their hobby supports an amazing array of
manufacturing and service businesses. But if we all quit our jobs and went
sport fishing, could we really pave our streets in gold?
To justify allocating the resource
to themselves, private anglers, sport-fishing guides and “higher-ups” in the
recreational industry minimize the economic value of the seafood-producing
industry relative to that of the recreational. Their “economic impact” studies
invariably contrast the money that a multitude of recreational fishermen spend on their hobby, with the money that relatively few commercial fishermen earn
by selling their catch to consumers. The results?
“Two billion dollars versus 49
This apples-to-oranges argument is
meaningless, yet it gains credibility, like all propaganda, through repetition.
If, however, you had to invest your life savings in a business that boasted of
its expenditures, or one that quietly and steadily took in money, which would
Actually, you’d want to diversify
by investing in both! Since spending on recreation is discretionary,
sport fishing requires a certain level of affluence and is therefore very
sensitive to economic downturns. For a real-life example, link to: http://www.wral.com/news/state/nccapitol/video/10679599/#/vid10679599.
This video, produced by WRAL-TV,
captured the February 2, 2012, gamefish hearing of the North Carolina
Legislative Research Commission’s Committee on Marine Fisheries. In it,
commercial advocates first argue against giving sportsmen all of the state’s
redfish, trout and striped bass; then a couple sport-fishing guides argue why
they should have all the fish, and then the owner of a sport-fishing tackle
shop complains that his business has gone down “amazingly” in the past couple
years. Carried away with the prospect of winning all of the fish, he suggests
that his recent hardship stems from the fact that tourists are avoiding North
Carolina in favor of states that have already allocated their choice fish to
sportsmen. A more objective observer, however, might consider how coastal
tourism would be impacted by the nation’s worst recession since the Great
Meanwhile, coastal food-producers
did just fine, thank you. People can do without vacations but not food. And,
completing the circle, some of the wealth that the seafood industry brought
into the state derived from those very same states that prohibit their own
fishermen from supplying their local markets!
Commercial fishermen generate
wealth by creating something of value and selling it. Their earnings in turn
ripple through the economy as it is spent on groceries and the full gamut of
living expenses, as well as the outlays that fishermen incur in running their
businesses. And as the fishermen’s harvest ascends the market ladder from
dockside buyer to urban distributor, to markets, restaurants, and exporters,
these enterprises in turn add value to it; from revenues thus generated they
meet their business expenditures such as wages, taxes, insurance, utilities,
transportation, packaging and other supplies.
When sportsmen take all of the fish
for their own use, this seafood-related economic activity ceases and the
Fishery economics can get
complicated, but when it comes to allocation, it’s amazingly simple: According
to common sense--and unbiased natural resource economists--the best way to
maximize the economic value of a publicly owned fishery is to share it
with the public. Imagine that.
“Sustainability” is one of the most overused words today,
but what does it mean and how does it relate to the gamefish controversy?
An activity is considered to be sustainable if it leaves future generations
with at least the same opportunities that present generations have. In short,
sustainability is forever.
Commercial fishing is often referred to as America’s oldest industry; the
Basques pioneered the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery 500 years ago, and the
Plymouth colonists supported themselves in 1623 by netting striped bass. In
1670, an act of the Plymouth Colony provided that income from Cape Cod’s
striped bass, mackerel and herring fisheries be used to establish a free
school, the first public school in the New World.
That these same species continue to
support substantial commercial fisheries in the 21st century is
evidence enough of this ancient industry’s inherent sustainability.
Seafood products are living
renewable resources, and like other living renewable resources, they’re managed
by taking a safe number of individuals from the system while leaving enough
behind to reproduce and replace those removed. It sounds easy but it’s not. Not
only are fish underwater, out of sight and therefore difficult to quantify, but
their populations fluctuate wildly from season to season in response to natural
variations in the environment. Yet most seafood species are quite prolific, and
able to rapidly compensate for downturns associated with overharvest or
cataclysmic events like freezes or floods, if the quality of their waters and
habitats is maintained.
Pollution and the degradation of
habitat by human society—i.e. all of us—are the most serious threats to abundant fisheries. Indeed, the single greatest
threat to all of our wildlife is the displacement of natural habitats
with those more suitable for us. While real-estate development directly
displaces wetlands and other vegetated areas that absorb rainfall, it creates a
profusion of impervious surfaces like lawns, roofs, parking lots and highways
which amplify the runoff of impure waters into the marine environment.
How does this relate to gamefish?
Commercial fishermen export
renewable resources from their coastal communities and bring in only money
while the sport-fishing industry brings in people. In the clip from North
Carolina, several of the gamefish advocates tout the increased development that
would be spurred by gamefish designations. Does that sound sustainable?
TWO PARTIES =
Conventional wisdom suggests that exclusive access to a
species encourages stewardship of that species. But experience hasn’t shown
that to be the case. Instead, such ownership has only rendered sportsmen more
emotionally susceptible to claims that some of “their” fish are inadvertently
being taken in the nets of fishermen in pursuit of other species.
“Ban the Nets!” becomes the battle
cry, and sportsmen are promised even more thrilling victories. By the time they
win those campaigns, the anglers are so convinced that they have “saved” the
fish from their enemies--commercial fishermen--the necessity for long-term
stewardship pales. And the public’s loss of food and money is
The alternative is to take the highest road which is, of course, to forget
about gamefish and keep on sharing all of our publicly owned resources with the
public. The two parties thus continue to limit each other. Isn’t that the