The recreational fishing industry’s latest push to win gamefish status for three 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 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 is permanently off limits to commercial fishermen and seafood consumers and may be taken only by recreational fishermen.

HOW MUCH IS THAT LITTLE SPECIES IN THE WINDOW?

For management purposes, wild fish are considered to be public property, so their re-allocation from the public-at-large to an elite subset of the population must be accomplished via the state legislature or some other governing body. Yet when politicians reach into the diverse marine environment and select a species for special treatment, what are the consequences?

IT’S OUR FOOD, STUPID!

In addition to their fighting ability, most gamefish candidates have other desirable attributes, namely good looks and good flavor.

Some folks 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 all pleasing to the eye.

But it’s a fish’s performance on the plate that ultimately does it for many anglers. And sportsmen must be aroused to engage in the surprisingly fierce political battles that are fought over “gamefish.”

Of course, for naturally competitive sportsmen those battles themselves can serve as sport, but they’re not games to commercial fishermen. That’s because the fishermen’s livelihoods hinge on the sale of these wild-caught fish to consumers. So when sportsmen “win,” and working fishermen lose, so do people who like to eat fish.

Such monopolization, or “royalization,” of the public’s wild resources harkens back to Merry Olde England, when Robin Hood and his rural associates were driven to “poach” what had become the king’s own deer. Its revival today seems anachronistic, given the public’s growing appreciation for the healthful benefits of wild fish, and the “food security” derived from locally sourced protein.

ECONOMICS

Sequestering 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, the economy.

Recreational fishing is a great pastime, and the money people spend on the sport supports an amazing array of businesses in manufacturing, retail and services. But if everyone quit their 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 cents.”

This apples-to-oranges argument gains credibility, like all propaganda, through repetition. But if you had to invest your life savings in a business that boasted of maximizing its expenditures, or one that quietly and steadily took in money, which would it be?

Actually, you’d want to diversify by investing in both!

Since spending on recreation is discretionary, participation in sport fishing requires a certain level of affluence, and the expenditures track the ups and downs in the economy. For a real-life example, check out 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 bypassing North Carolina in favor of states that have already allocated their choice fish to sportsmen.

A more objective observer might have noted that the purported drop in tourism happened to coincide with the nation’s worst recession since the Great Depression.

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 North Carolina’s seafood industry brought into the state derived from those very same states that prohibited their own fishermen from supplying local markets!

Commercial fishermen generate wealth by creating something of value and selling it. Their earnings in turn ripple through the economy as they’re 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 and ultimately 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 is disrupted.

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

“Sustainability” is one of the most overworked 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 the early 1600s 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 clear evidence that this venerable industry is inherently sustainable.

Seafood products are living renewable resources that are managed by harvesting 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 ourselves. At the same time that real-estate development directly displaces wetlands and other vegetated areas that absorb rainfall, it creates a profusion of impervious surfaces like lawns, rooftops, 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 generated by gamefish designations. Does that sound sustainable?

TWO PARTIES = HIGHEST ROAD

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 virtual ownership only renders sportsmen more emotionally vulnerable 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 the sport fishermen are promised even more thrilling victories. By the time they win those campaigns, the anglers are so convinced that they’ve “saved” the fish from their enemies—commercial fishermen—that they see little reward in long-term stewardship.

Meanwhile, the public derives even less nutritional and economic benefits from its resources.

Alternatively, we could take the highest road, forget about “gamefish” and continue to share all of our publicly owned resources with the public.

GAMEFISH: A PRIMER
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