Fishing’s worth is easy to measure — and it isn’t
It’s the middle of winter in the fish world. Not much happening under the water’s surface except the usual predator-prey dance in slow motion.
Across much of Mississippi, it’s the middle of winter for most anglers, too. Not many are on the water, although with most hunting seasons over, a lot are starting to think about fishing. It is a good time to think a little deeper than just about fish biology or catching them. What are fish and fishing opportunities worth?
Dollars are sense
Many popular and technical articles tout the economic value of recreational fishing; it is significant. Nationally, in 2016, more than 31 million anglers age 16 and older spent almost $30 billion fishing in freshwater; another 8.3 million saltwater anglers age 16 and older spent more than $11 billion. The most-recently compiled statistics for Mississippi (2011)report 603,000 Mississippians age 16 and older spend $528 million annually.
Fisheries management is a political game. License sales generate revenue, as do taxes on the sale of fishing equipment. Fishing also generates jobs in the manufacture and sale of fishing-related equipment, fishing guides and businesses like restaurants that support anglers. Fisheries management activities — monitoring fish populations and anglers, habitat enhancement, operating hatcheries, maintaining access, enforcement, research — and the personnel and facilities needed to accomplish these activities involve money. Legislators decide how money is spent. Fishing expenditures, revenue and jobs are statistics legislators understand. They also understand that every angler age 18 and older is a potential voter.
While dollars and number of anglers may not mean much to you, they mean a lot to the folks who have control over fisheries resources
The fish you catch are part of the aquatic web of life. Regardless of the species you target, robust populations of sportfish depend on a healthy aquatic ecosystem that begins with good water quality and habitat. And good fishing is a good indicator of a healthy environment.
A lake or river is a microcosm — the organisms that live there are bound by the water’s edge. But the lake or river is strongly influenced by the watershed, everything upslope and upstream. Good fishing suggests the environmental health of the entire watershed; consistently poor fishing indicates repairs are needed.
But fishing has other values, and these accrue to participants: anglers.
Many fisheries are managed to fulfill Native Americans’ rights to fish, because fish and fishing are deeply rooted in their cultures. Their rights to fish are legally mandated by federal laws. Such is the case for salmon fisheries in the Pacific northwest and walleye fisheries in Minnesota.
I think restricting cultural value to Native Americans is narrow-minded and naïve. I’m a fisheries biologist, not a sociologist, but if culture is the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group, then angling has cultural value to many people. Anglers share common interests and develop friendships and bonds, like a tribe. Groups of anglers may be connected via Facebook or other social media. In some cases, they may not even know each other’s name, but they chat on the water or at the access site. This is part of the fishing experience. I mourn the passing of the bait and tackle shop where anglers used to gather to share fish stories and their mutual interest in fishing.
Does it matter whether their ancestors fished four centuries ago, two generations ago, or they are first-generation anglers who will share fishing with their children? The cultural value of fishing is reflected in the passage of right-to-fish legislation by 20 states, including Mississippi, since 1996.
Fishing is fun (most days), and fish are healthy food. That’s reason enough to value fish and fishing, But there is much research suggesting that fishing and exposure to nature can improve feelings of positive emotion, reduce stress and increase cognitive fascination. Dr. Paul Quinnett, an avid angler and a clinical psychologist, prescribes fishing for suicide prevention. I highly recommend his entertaining and thought-provoking books on fishing: “Darwin’s Bass,” “Fishing Lessons” and “Pavlov’s Trout.”
Fishing provides opportunities for contemplative and competitive anglers. The health benefits are available to all, regardless of gender, age or physical and mental abilities.
The list goes on
I have only touched on the recreational side of fishing. Commercial fishing, in addition to providing millions of tons of valuable food consumed by billions of people, provides values to the fisheries similar to the categories above.
How do you value fishing?