Does Recreational Fishing Impact Fish Stocks and the Environment?

Another big question that has been posed in the debate over new marine parks around Australia is: does recreational (or amatuer) fishing really have an impact on marine life and fish stocks?  Or in personal terms, how could little old me with my rod and line impact the vast big blue ocean?

Its a fair question, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.  The metaphor ‘death by a thousand cuts’, or in this a few hundred thousand, applies.   In WA alone, there are more than 100,000 boats, many of which are used for fishing.  Many thousands more people fish from shore.  Thats a lot of cuts.

So thats the short answer, but what is the evidence? That is best answered in two separate ways:

  • Whats the evidence of recreational fishing taking enough fish to impact the marine environment and fish stocks?
  • Whats the evidence that removing recreational fishing  in marine reserves benefits marine life and fish stocks?

The first question is hardest to answer because so little research has been done on the impacts of recreational fishing.  The amount of fish taken by recreational fishers is very hard to predict or measure as there are no formal reporting mechanisms, so managers rely on surveys and/or modelling.  Also, because it hasn’t traditionally been perceived as a potential problem for marine life and fisheries, very little serious research has been done.

However, in WA the most researched, and threatened, fish are the demersal reef fish, and in particular the Western Australian Dhufish.  Estimates in 2005/2006 show recreational fishers took 319t of fish compared to  commercial fishers who took 163.9t – meaning recfishers took 66.1% of the catch.

These species are typically long living and slow breeding, the kings of the reef, making them highly susceptible to overfishing.  Big old ‘trophy’ fish also tend to be the best breeders – a one metre female dhufish will produce as many eggs as eleven fish half her size.

The Government has halved commercial take of dhufish, and is now seeking to halve the recreational take through a series of measures, which shows up another problem.  You can reduce the take of a commercial fleet (excluding bycatch issues with some fishing methods such as trawling or gillnetting) by applying quotas or effort restrictions.  But it is much much harder to reduce the number of fish taken by thousands of recreational fishers all along the coast.

WA’s state recreational fishing lobby group Recfishwest is now negotiating with the Fisheries Department for recfishers to be allocated around half the catch of demersal reef fish on the west coast, which will be a 50% reduction in the current estimated recreational fishing take.  There is a draft of the recfishwest submission on this at the Fishwrecked forum here.

With all these measures in place, evidence still suggests the take of dhufish is still too high.  Time will tell, but this is increasingly a threatened species.

Its not just WA. Similar circumstances are occurring with snapper in SE Queensland where the Fisheries Department is moving to reduce recreational fishing take through seasonal closures.

NSW isn’t having to deal with harsh fishing restrictions at the moment, but figures for NSW recreational vs commercial take below show that recreational fishing is a major contributor to take of a number of species in NSW too:

Annual Tonnes 


Commercial catch Recreational catch 


Dusky Flathead 120 570-830 


Mahi Mahi <5 100 


Mulloway 40 100-500 


Yellowfin Bream 360 820-1070 


Bluespotted flathead 125 320-450 


(Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries Status of Fisheries Resources 2006/2007)

Given these figures it is clear that  both commercial and recreational fishing is having an impact.  So taken as a total picture, the answer is yes, people with a rod and reel are impacting fish stocks and the marine environment.

So what about removing recreational fishing from marine reserves?  Is this necessary, and will this really make any difference?

In this area there is much more clear evidence because there has been much more study of the effects of different types of marine parks.  I will share the very best example I have seen to illustrate this from the very well studied Poor Knights Islands marine reserve in NZ.

The area was closed to commercial fishing in 1981, but by 1998 it was clear there weren’t significant benefits for protecting snapper populations and the reserve was made a fully protected marine sanctuary.  You can see from the graph what then happened.  The red dots are snapper numbers in the Poor Knights Marine Reserve, and the green is snapper numbers in nearby reference sites.  As the graph shows, numbers of legal sized snapper increased to 14 times their previous abundance in just half a decade.

Perhaps more exciting for fishermen, you can also see a seasonal variation in snapper numbers.  This means some large fish are migrating out to surrounding waters where they are accessible to fishermen. The marine sanctuary is providing environmental benefits by protecting large fish, and also acting as an ‘engine room’ for local fishing.

Graph of snapper recovery in Poor Knights Island marine sanctuary

The environmental impact of this depletion of large fish is also fascinating.  In NZ again, after decades of coastal overfishing large areas of coastal waters were in areas called ‘urchin barrens’, where sea urchins had thrived and reduce the cover of kelp over the rocks.  This was thought normal until marine sanctuaries were established.  Within a few years, renewed populations of large snapper and crayfish had eaten many of these urchins, allowing the kelp to regrow and increasing the productivity of these coastal waters.

It was even observed than large lobsters actually changed their physical structure at a certain size to better break open urchins, something that had not been observed in NZ before the sanctuaries were put in place.

A similar result was seen on the Great Barrier Reef where crown of thorn starfish outbreaks were reduced in green zones.

So the answer is yes, recreational fishing does impact fish stocks and the marine environment, and yes, creating sanctuaries protected from all fishing is necessary to protect marine life – and it can also improve fishing.

However, for my recfishing friends, I’d like to emphasize that this doesn’t make recfishing bad.  All it means is that recfishers who care about the marine environment and future of fishing should be as supportive of marine sanctuaries as the greenies who care about marine life.  Done right, they are a win-win for all ocean users.

I’ll keep working on this important topic and post any further research and information I can find.

If you have anything interesting, leave a comment or email me at

For more on marine sanctuaries and the environment/fishing/economy, see my previous ‘post of the month’: What is a marine sanctuary and do they work?


7 thoughts on “Does Recreational Fishing Impact Fish Stocks and the Environment?

  1. Pingback: Snapper ban questions still remain | Taking care of your pet

  2. Pingback: Post of the Month (May): Does Recreational Fishing Impact Fish Stocks and the Environment? « The Happy Squid Blog

  3. Excellent post, in my local area the number of recreational fishermen has increased exponentially in recent years. the vast majority of these anglers target big snapper, which since the advent of soft plastics are easier to catch than ever before. This increased targeting of breeding stock will surely have highly negative impacts in the future. Its good too see that people are realizing that inadequately regulated recreational fishing is just as harmful if not more harmful than commercial fishing (trawling excluded).

  4. Thanks Grahame, it is too easy to assume that just because it is individuals, not big vessels, that recreational fishing can’t have an impact. But there are a lot of individuals out there and especially if people are targeting the big breeding fish as is often the case because they are most rewarding to catch. The future of recreational fishing and the marine environment depend on taking an objective view of these issues and making smart decisions.

  5. Gidday onehappysquid, thanks for this post, as I just found and linked it to a Facebook page at, which has a petition to the Federal Government > “Australian Goverment – Marine Parks: Show us the scientific research that supports the marine parks.”, as your post shows some excellent baseline results, which also shows how vital marine parks are for protection of the marine enviroment and how fast fish stocks can recover if they’re left alone for a while!

    So thanks and a headsup.


  6. they need to be big area’s, we have another marine sanctuary called Goat Island which for the first time in its existence the crayfish have gone 80% of the snapper have gone,
    the seaweed is in abundance everything is back to normal except the urchins have all been eaten,
    now that is interesting, and needs to be addressed when laying down the foundations for a reserve. too small and it will out strip itself.

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