Escalating economic debates between commercial and sport fishermen, and between competing groups within each category, gives new meaning to Calvin Coolidge's observation that "the business of America is business."

The primary business of sports and commercial fishermen today often appears to be the gathering of economic data to win political or legislative favor. New statistical analyses surface with increasing frequency. Their purpose is to promote each group's private agenda, or counter some other group's economic "claim." The accuracy of these analyses often is disputed, and many question the economic conclusions which often are presented as fact.

All of this raises several questions: Should we discount the economic impacts of fishing in apportioning the catch? Should we continue to emphasize the economic gains realized from the exploitation of our natural resources? Can wealth be measured solely in dollars?

Economic History

Commercial fishermen first used economic data to win political favor. It began long before the current conflict erupted between sport and commercial anglers. The fishermen sought government assistance for programs such as the artificial seeding of oyster beds. Proponents argued that if declining oyster landings were valued at "X-dollars," artificial seedings of oyster beds by government agencies would increase the value of harvest to "X plus Y," with "Y" being the dollar value of the seeded-oyster landings. This increase would boost the individual oysterman's income, which would in turn stimulate local economies and this would in turn increase regional or state economic activity. All of us are familiar with this economic reasoning.

Naturally, your view of this will depend on your political outlook. Some call this the proper role of government, other describe it as a raid on the public treasury. Some argue that government should promote economic activity, others suggest government should stay out of the marketplace.

It is important to note that commercial fishermen did not act alone. Their primary ally was government, especially the agency designated to conduct the program. It would need additional money to buy the spat. It would need to hire additional personnel to undertake the work. It provided a means for bureaucratic growth. This prompted the agencies to gather economic data to justify their requests for budget increases. The agencies argued that the greater the expenditures, the greater the economic return.

Sport angling was not ignored. Fish were stocked in lakes and streams, but this was viewed primarily as a public goodwill gesture. Little economic date was gathered because sport fishing was considered a pastime, while commercial fishing was a business - a big business.

Evidence of this big business remains with us today. The Maryland Watermen's Gazette, for example, recently cited National Marine Fisheries Service data to report that U.S. commercial landings "in 1995 totaled 9.9 billion pounds valued at $3.8 billion," and this resulted in "more than $41 billion in economic activity from seafood products.

The message is clear: A $41 billion industry is too big to politically dismiss.

The Arguments

Commercial: Consider the following, based on striped bass data compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Commercial striper landings from New York to Virginia in 1993 were valued at $2.3 million. This, in turn, generated a total "economic output" of $40.8 million, after adding such items as fuel, boat repairs, wholesaler profits, restaurant sales and so on.

At first glance, this seems mighty good. Every "striped bass dollar" generated nearly $20 in the overall economy. The $40.8 million total "economic output" is sufficiently significant to win consideration by any legislative body concerned about the economic welfare of its citizens.

Commercial fishermen not only cite such data to declare they are economically significant, they use it to argue they are too valuable to be curtailed in their efforts to catch fish or be legislated out of existence by a ban on commercial striper fishing.

It is important to recall that when the first clashes erupted between sport and recreational fishermen, the commercials overwhelmed their opposition. They had economic data to support their position and sport fishermen did not.

Recreational: Sport fishermen, rebuffed in their initial efforts to achieve greater political influence, quickly learned to emulate their commercial brethren. They hired economists to calculate the expenditures of sport anglers and determine recreational angling's overall economic contribution, an effort that ultimately prompted government agencies to gather sport fishing data. The results were startling.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, for example, estimated that recreational striped bass anglers from New York to Virginia in 1993 spent $72.4 million on such items as tackle, fuel, lodging, bait and so forth. This ultimately produced a total "economic output" of $144 million, compared with $40.8 million for commercial fishing.

Spokesmen for sport fishing interests lost no time in spreading the word. If fishing regulations are designed to maximize the economic contribution of a given stock, as legislatures and regulatory agencies had emphasized, then sportsmen should be awarded all, or the lion's share, of a given stock, they argued. No rational person could arrive at a different economic conclusion, they added.

Overdoing it: Naturally, some individuals have taken the basic economic arguments to the outer limits of rationality. An article from a publication of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishing Association should suffice for illustration. It was written by Pete Barrette, a big-game sportsfisherman who journeys offshore to battle bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna and sharks.

Although he denounces commercial fishing, his longest and most pronounced argument is that for economic reasons, big-game fishermen deserve greater political favoritism than striped bass or bluefish anglers. He notes:

  • "One 80-pound class rod and reel costs more than 14 bluefish rods and reels."
  • "A shark tournament generates more fuel, bait and tackle sales in one weekend than a month of inshore bluefishing."
  • "A midsize, twin-diesel tuna boat costs 10 times more than a striped bass boat."
  • "One canyon boat may purchase 5,000 gallons of fuel a year, the equal of 100 bluefish boats."
  • "Who will pay $120,000 for a boat to catch only 6 1/2 fish per year?" he asks, after explaining that the proposed yellowfin tuna quota works out to 6.5 yellowfin per offshore sportfishing craft.

Mr. Barrette's arguments are so awkwardly discriminatory that they can be dismissed as beyond the public and political pale. (Consider this corollary thought experiment. Tell Eastern Shore duck hunters that owners of expensive Purdey shotguns will be permitted to kill eight ducks a day, while those who fire Remington 870s will be restricted to four. How many seconds will elapse before irate waterfowlers dump sacks of corn in front of each Purdey owner's blind and anonymously tip off the game warden?)

Yet, the fundamental questions remain. What should we make of these arguments?

Economic judgment

Our nation's history is filled with examples of grotesque waste. The 1800s witnessed the extirpation of the beaver and buffalo, the collapse of coastal striper stocks, the wanton killing and ultimate extinction of the passenger pigeon, to name a few.

Critics argue that our economic view of our natural resources ultimately dooms any stock, whether fish, bird, furbearer or tree. Biological laws set limits to exploitation, but these are ignored in most economic analyses. Efforts to increase a stock's economic contribution then bring about exploitation, resulting in both biological and economic collapse.

A modern case in point involves sharks, whose Atlantic Coast populations declined alarmingly in the 1980s. Barrette notes authorities estimate that if all commercial and recreational shark fishing were halted today, shark stocks would not recover for another 40 years. Yet, he argues for the continuation of shark tournaments, emphasizing that they produce more revenue than a "month of bluefishing."

Must each species pay tribute to the highest bidder? How can this be considered a rationale for conservation?

Perhaps the greatest underlying flaw in the current economic analysis of our fish stocks is its basic assumption that wealth derived through allocation is an end point. A free-swimming fish is without value; it cannot be deposited in a bank. It assumes economic value only when pursued and killed by the group that is considered to put the most dollars into the economy.

This is a fairly new idea in man's history. It is contrary to ancient wisdom, which still survives in remote regions of the world where nomadic tribesmen continue to follow their wandering herds of cattle and goats. These tribesmen heed the ancient belief that true wealth is not measured by the number of cattle you have slaughtered, but by the number of head in your herd.

Should we change the assumptions that underlie contemporary motives for economic analyses? Should we change the emphasis on economics in managing our fish stocks?