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For sport fishers, what’s the global limit

[Editor's note: Jude Isabella is filing Hook items as she attends the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting being held in Vancouver. Find previous ones here. ]

Call it sport fishing or recreational fishing, but often catching fish for “fun” adds up. Scientists estimate that the recreational fishery in the United States is 20 to 30 per cent of the country’s commercial catch. In Canada, that number remains more elusive.

The Underreported Yet Overoptimistic: Fisheries Catch Reconstruction and Food Security session at the AAAS meeting called attention to poor fishery accounting on a global scale. Dirk Zeller, senior research fellow with The Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia, is part of a team of researchers reconstructing catch data from around the world. One area seriously underreported is the recreational fishery.

“In most countries in the world, sport fisheries, or recreational fisheries, data are not collected at all,” Zeller says. “Some countries do some estimates, however, they are treated completely separate from the national fisheries, which is purely a commercial focus.”

In the Bahamas, for example, scientist Nicola Smith found that sport fishing removed far more fish than the commercial fishery -- not information welcomed by the tourism industry. A fishing mecca made famous by Ernest Hemingway, the Bahamas has a heavy reliance on sport fishing tourism. It’s a tough place for politicians to better regulate recreational catches.

“If you’re the minister of tourism, or a politician, by the time a fishery collapses, you’ll be long gone and everyone will throw their hands up in the air, and say the fisheries [managers] did not do a good job regulating,” says Smith, who works for the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources.

Not accounting for recreational fish is a historical artifact. Zeller says it’s related to taxation -- governments needed statistics to demand taxes from industry. So data collectors focused on commercial activities, like fisheries, following the Second World War. Recreational, subsistence, and even aboriginal fisheries were not perceived as part of economic development.

“Now, in many places, recreational fisheries and all the indirect industries associated with it, charter boats, the purchase of boats, motors, fuel, fishing gear, bait and so on, is a huge industry and has a massive economic impact,” Zeller says. “But conceptually at the government level, they haven’t realized, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a whole sector that we’re not considering as fisheries.’ And therefore the switch in the data component, in the boring statistics, hasn’t happened yet.”

Limiting what a recreational fisher can catch implies that fisheries managers have an idea of how much fish is taken. But it’s not hard data.

“If a country starts imposing bag limits, it suggests that to even establish that rule there must have been a perception of a problem -- too many boats, or too much fishing or too many people complaining that there’s not enough fish,” Zeller says.

Zeller’s team is still working on the reconstruction data for Canada. “I wouldn’t be surprised if here on the West Coast, particularly for salmon, it’s a substantial number.”

Jude Isabella writes about marine biology and sustainability for The Tyee and others.

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