In Managing the World’s Fisheries, Scientists Angle for More Attention to “Fishing for Fun”

Boaters prepare for a fishing tournament. Photo: Alex Latzka

MADISON – When we think about the world’s fisheries, the images that readily spring to mind are big ships hauling nets full of wriggling fish up from the depths of a lake or an ocean. What we don’t picture is an individual angler perched in a boat or standing on a pier casting a line into the water.

But those individual anglers add up. In developed countries, one in ten people fish for pleasure, meaning that there are roughly 220 million recreational anglers in the world, or five times more than the number of people engaged in commercial fishing.

Steve Carpenter. Photo by: Jeff Miller, UW-Madison Communications

Despite those numbers, recreational fishing hasn’t landed the attention it deserves, says Steve Carpenter, director emeritus of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  For the last fifty years, he says, there has been a concerted, organized effort to develop fisheries management science for commercial fisheries – something that’s not been done for recreational fisheries.

In an article published March 19th in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Carpenter joined with a dozen collaborators in a call for this to change. In order to both protect the health of inland and near-shore fish populations, as well as preserve the experience of recreational fishing, “recreational fisheries deserve to be acknowledged on equal footing to commercial fisheries,” the researchers say.  

While recreational anglers don’t collectively catch the same amount of fish as their commercial counterparts, the impact this huge group of anglers can have on their respective fisheries is often overlooked.

Fishing in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Noah Lottig

“It is an old bait shop legend that you can’t collapse a recreational fishery,” Carpenter says. Accepted wisdom around recreational fisheries is that, once anglers have harvested so many fish in a water body that their numbers get low, fish become too hard to catch and anglers head elsewhere, which lets the remaining population rebound.

But that’s often not the case, Carpenter says. What fisheries managers see instead is the more skilled anglers stick around and harvest fish long after the casual angler heads for new waters.

“In many commercial fisheries, we have healthy management systems that prevent overexploitation,” Carpenter says. “As long as fishers and regulators are working together, you can have a sustainable marine fishery. It’s much harder with freshwater, because you don’t have the right regulatory tools.”

As an example, Carpenter points to the concept of daily bag limits. Bag limits are used in recreational fisheries to set a cap on how many individual fish of different species an angler can harvest in a day. The problem is that there are no limits on the number of trips. Theoretically, an angler could take their daily bag limit of fish out of a waterbody every single day for the entire fishing season. While that is an unlikely scenario, it points to the difficulty of managing fish stocks with bag limits as the main regulatory tool.

Carpenter also points out that, in addition to overharvesting, recreational fishery management lags behind commercial fishery management in responding to variables like warming lakes, changing water levels and other outside impacts on rivers, lakes and coastlines.

In Wisconsin, the problems with this lag are perhaps best illustrated by walleye, the state’s most prized sportfish. The walleye management system, co-managed by the state and the tribes, “worked very well,” Carpenter says, “then it stopped working because climate change changed the rules of the game.”

Andrew Rypel holds a walleye caught in a Wisconsin lake. Photo: A. Rypel

Walleye do best in cool water environments, but lakes in northern Wisconsin are warming, which leads to stressed, less healthy fish and favors warm-water species of bass and sunfish. Additionally, droughts cause clearer water conditions due to less organic matter flowing into lakes[. Walleye are adapted to feed in dark water (that bright eye is not just a decoration) and baby walleye need dark water to hide from their predators. Sometime around the mid 1990’s, Carpenter says, walleye began struggling with these new conditions but management practices remained the same. The result was a collapse in their populations in many lakes traditionally thought of as “walleye lakes.”

The science behind walleye management is now catching up to this new reality, but the cautionary tale highlights the need for recreational fishery management to adapt and grow.

Image: Wisconsin DNR

In their article, the researchers call for a handful of changes that could begin to address gaps in recreational fishery science, management and policy. They also look to lessons learned from other areas. For example, Carpenter says, fisheries managers could move to something like a tag system for struggling species of fish. We already do this for the harvest of terrestrial game, like deer and turkey, and technology has made the process far easier. “Right now, if you hunt deer, your deer tag is a number on your smartphone,” Carpenter says. Once you’ve successfully completed a hunt, “you turn on your smartphone, go to the app … register your deer and, bang, you’re done. I think we could do the same thing with walleye.”

The idea behind this isn’t to make more work for fishery managers and more paperwork for recreational fishers, Carpenter says. It’s to make the experience more sustainable.  According to the article, in affluent countries where recreational fishing is prevalent, catching food for the family table is of secondary importance to “non-fish” attributes of the experience like “solitude or experiencing nature.” The catch is, even if they’re just doing it to get outside, anglers also report that they wouldn’t go fishing if there wasn’t at least the chance of catching a nice fish. It would be like heading down to a casino that never paid out.

In other words,  as researchers learn more about the status of the world’s recreational fisheries and the habits of the anglers who use them, what they’re finding is that maintaining a sustainable fishery isn’t just good for the fish – it’s good for the fisher too.

A PDF of the article can be found here –

Contact: Steve Carpenter: steve (dot) carpenter (at) wisc (dot) edu

or Adam Hinterthuer: hinterthuer (at) wisc (dot) edu