The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Managing recreational fisheries alongside commercial fisheries

Arlinghaus et al. 2019, an article in last week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlined a 5-step plan for integrating recreational fishing into commercial fishery management. In the paper, scientists called for reforms on both the commercial and recreational side to produce better overall sustainability.

Recognizing recreational fishers

I write a lot about fisheries as food. Essentially, the entire point of commercial fisheries is to provide food; but with the massive scale of industrial harvest, it’s easy to forget that fish provide other benefits (like leisure and recreation) that have important economic and social outcomes. Recreational fishing provides jobs and income for tens of thousands of people and enjoyment for millions. Around 10% of people in developed nations fish for pleasure, amounting to over 200 million people worldwide.

Participation rates in recreational fishing vary across the globe. From Arlinghaus et al. 2019.
Participation rates in recreational fishing vary across the globe. From Arlinghaus et al. 2019.

Recreational vs commercial fishing

Recreational fishers outnumber commercial fishers 5 to 1, yet commercial fishing brings in 8x the amount of fish. Naturally, this disparity creates resentment between the two sides and conflict is not unusual, e.g. Atlantic striped bass. Arlinghaus et al. 2019 proposes a 5-point framework for integrating recreational fishing into commercial management that will hopefully lead to conflict resolution and improved sustainability.

“Even countries with strong governance for fisheries fail to integrate angling into their fisheries and conservation management system effectively. We are convinced that fisheries management and conservation measures would be more effective if the interests of anglers were given equal consideration to those of commercial fishers and other stakeholders,” stated the lead author of the study, Robert Arlinghaus, explaining his expectations of the reform process.

The 5-point plan for equity & sustainability

1. Explicitly integrate angling targets into aquatic ecosystem and fisheries management

Currently, most fisheries management is focused on objectives specific to commercial fisheries, e.g. maximum sustainable yield. The needs and objectives of recreational fishers should be integrated into management.

Dr. Thomas Klefoth, a fisheries biologist from the Angling Association of Lower Saxony, Germany, and co-author of the article says, “Management tools applied in commercial fisheries, such as those under the umbrella of the concept of maximum sustained yield, are inappropriate in recreational contexts. Nonetheless, many countries adhere to traditional management systems, particularly in marine fisheries, and fail to recognise the high socio-economic value of recreational fisheries. Local water and nature conservation policy is also often more geared towards crowding out anglers from waters, rather than integrating them into polices. And yet it is clearly in the interests of recreational fishers to protect species and nature.”

2. Establish angler organisations and involve them in fisheries management

Organizations of people that represent and fight for their collective best interest are a good way to influence and improve policy (workplace unions are a good example). In a fishing context, this would mean angler organizations. In other words: stakeholder representation.

In central Europe, most anglers belong to a club or an association, however in the rest of the world, this is rarely the case. Organizing recreational fishers and empowering them in the decision-making process is a necessary step to improve equity. Spearfishing clubs offer a unique possibility. The nature of the sport almost requires a club or association membership as freediving safely requires a partner; clubs are the best way to find dive buddies. In California, spearfishers have some input in management decisions and have lobbied successfully for several rule changes, in part due to a well-organized community.

3. Use variable management approaches, and implement them at the local level

Standard management tools, like gear restriction or minimum-size applied to all waters in a particular region are problematic. Fisheries vary locally and should be managed that way. However, policies and rules tailored towards local needs require for a degree of decision-making sovereignty on the part of recreational fishers and other managers. For example, in central Europe, providing local private property fishing rights and involving angling clubs and associations in local management measures has decreased conflict and improved sustainability.

4. Use the right tools

All anglers use a common pool resource, which may also be depleted by their activities. Many stocks are under high harvest pressure due to both commercial and recreational fishers. Non-fishing factors such as river engineering and climate change also have a negative impact on fish productivity. Under such circumstances, unpopular management strategies such as access restrictions or individually costly harvest tags are more appropriate than continuing to release annual licences permitting a theoretically unlimited number of anglers and individually unlimited landings.

5. Improve monitoring

All these measures are only of any use if the most important stocks and waters are periodically assessed. The provision of high-quality, compelling data is ultimately also the responsibility of anglers. Smartphone apps offer a compelling way to increase and improve recreational fishing data, but some anglers and associations consider them to be a form of surveillance, and are against them; Ray Hilborn, another co-author on the paper (and founder of this site), has argued that fishers should embrace self-reported data. Regardless, anglers’ trust in the use and analysis of such data must first be built up and secured long-term.

A visual representation of Arlinghaus et al. 2019 5-point plan
A visual representation of Arlinghaus et al. 2019 5-point plan. From Arlinghaus et al. 2019


 “The five steps for policy reform call on policymakers, governments, science and stakeholders to take a proactive approach towards recreational angling. Fishers should be treated on an equal footing to other users of nature and the demands placed on it. Only then can the ever-growing conflicts with other claims to aquatic ecosystems and fish stocks be addressed. It is essential to maintain the quality of fisheries and nature as a whole, and this is only possible together rather than against one another,” Arlinghaus concludes.

On his excellent website, fishery scientist Trevor Branch keeps a running list of the “must-read” papers of the year. Arlinghaus et al. 2019 is the first entry of 2019 and is well worth your time. It is relatively short and open access.

Picture of Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

Check out some of our other writing on ‘fisheries as food’

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