In a press release on the occasion of its 2016 Fisheries of the United States report, released Nov. 1, NOAA offers up this paean to recreational fisheries:

“Saltwater recreational fishing remains one of America’s favorite pastimes and a key contributor to the national economy — with 9.6 million anglers making nearly 63 million trips in 2016, catching more than 371 million fish (61 percent of which are released alive), and in 2015, contributing $36 billion to the national economy.”

Here’s what the agency has to say about commercial fisheries:

“Also in 2016, U.S. commercial fishermen landed 9.6 billion pounds of seafood (down 1.5 percent from 2015) valued at $5.3 billion (up 2.1 percent from 2015).”

In other words, deck dogs, thanks for nuttin’!

It’s hard to overlook the agency’s citation of recreational fishing’s $36 billion contribution to the U.S. economy vs. a commercial harvest valued at a mere $5.3 billion. The mainstream press will see the figures as confirming what many of us regard as the wearisome hype of recreational interests about the munificence of their sector.

And to think, they throw most of the catch back alive! What a wonderful fishery!

NOAA is offering us an apples-to-oranges comparison if ever there was one. The commercial figure represents the dollar value of landings, whereas the recreational figure is based on esoteric economic models and multipliers. The reality is that by NOAA’s own accounting, U.S. commercial fisheries contributed $46.7 billion to the gross domestic product in value added alone — in other words, not counting multipliers.

Setting aside for a moment one obvious question: why not use multipliers in assessing the value of commercial catch? I would ask another one: what is the basis for the value of recreational catch?

The answer, of course, is that there is no basis. No one knows what recreational fishermen catch, least of all NOAA, and what’s caught isn’t sold. The agency estimates the catch is 371.6 million fish taken on an estimated 63.1 million fishing trips. The harvest (fish kept or released dead) is estimated at 144.6 million fish. That means, depending on your tolerance for estimates predicated on estimates, that 61 percent of the recreational catch — 226.7 million fish — is released alive.

These estimates are legitimately fodder for discussion — beginning with the assumption that three out of every five fish that are caught and released live to hit another hook — but they are certainly not data.

Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, are under data siege. Landings and discards are not only itemized, they are in many cases witnessed by observers trained by NOAA (and paid by commercial fishermen).

There is no question that recreationally caught fish have value — people are willing to spend money to catch them — but saying they’re worth $36 billion as a result of the multiplier effect of activities associated with angling is a dicey business.

As Eric Crampton, head of research with The New Zealand Initiative, wrote in March, “Counting [recreational] fishers’ spending on groceries and restaurants during fishing trips as an economic impact of fishing… only makes sense if fishers would not have eaten anything if they had stayed home.”

Anyone who spends time with NOAA’s report will recognize that the commercial harvest of fish is a substantial driver of the national economy. Why, in a report intended to illuminate the masses, NOAA chooses to trumpet the soft science of a data-poor economic impact assessment is beyond me, and a little worrisome.

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Jerry Fraser is a retired commercial fisherman, journalist, the former editor and publisher of National Fisherman, as well as a 2020 NF Highliner award winner.

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