Explained: Commercial Fishing Vs. Recreational Fishing
Apr 16, 2019 | 9 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The commercial and recreational fishing industries often find themselves at loggerheads. Whether it’s overfishing, protection of marine habitats, or just who gets to keep more fish, it always seems to come down to a battle of commercial fishing vs. recreational fishing.

But what’s the big deal? Fishing’s fishing, right? Not exactly.

The two industries, and their effects on our oceans, are very different. In this article, you can decode the jargon and learn the differences between them. You’ll find out how they use their resources and what impact they have on the environment and the economy in the process. Some of the facts may surprise you.

Defining Commercial and Recreational Fishing

It’s always best to start at the beginning. In the case of commercial fishing vs. recreational fishing, that means defining what the two terms mean. Most importantly, we need to know what makes them different out on the water. Here’s a short explanation of the two types of fishery.

What is Recreational Fishing?

A recreational angler at the front of a boat fighting a Tarpon fish which is jumping out of the water

At its simplest, “recreational fishing” means catching fish for fun, for sport, or to take home and eat. Recreational fishing is often more about the battle than the fish itself. Sport fishers and recreational anglers usually catch one fish at a time. They’re after a big fish that will put up a good fight.

The three main ways anglers go fishing in the US are from shore, from a private boat, or from a for-hire charter boat. However they do it, all the fish they catch are either released, taken home to eat, or given away. It’s illegal to sell fish caught on a recreational fishing trip.

Recreational Fishing Techniques

There are as many ways to catch fish as there are fish to catch. The thing that recreational techniques have in common is that they target one or a few fish at once. Recreational angling involves using something tasty-looking to tempt a fish to bite your hook. That could be a feather, a lure, or a real live fish.

So it’s all rod-and-reel? Not at all! Spearfishing, bowfishing, and even handfishing are popular pastimes in some parts of the country. Recreational fishers generally don’t use nets, except to catch bait or to get a hooked fish out of the water without harming it.

What is Commercial Fishing?

A commercial fishing boat with its nets extended.

As you may have guessed, commercial fishing involves catching fish to sell. The primary goal is to land as many fish as possible and sell them for a good price. You need a specific license for this, and the size and number of fish you can catch is different to recreational fishing.

Some commercial fishers are full-timers who spend their lives at sea, but not all of them. Anyone can apply for a commercial fishing license and a lot of people do it part-time alongside their day job. For example, charter captains might fish commercially during their low season. The key difference is that fee-paying guests don’t go on commercial outings.

Commercial Fishing Techniques

Commercial techniques are designed to bring in the biggest number of fish in the shortest amount of time. Large nets are hung in the water (gillnetting), pulled behind a boat (trawling), or dragged along the seafloor (dredging or bottom trawling). They can also be drawn in a circle around schools of fish (purse seines).

It’s not all nets, though. A lot of bigger fish are line-caught. This often means longlining, which is exactly what it sounds like: a long fishing line with hundreds of baited hooks attached. Expensive species like Tuna are even caught on rod-and-reel or with handlines in some places.

Environmental Impact of Commercial and Recreational Fishing

A lot of the controversy surrounding the fishing industry has to do with how it affects our oceans. Many people argue that all commercial fishing is unsustainable, while others say that certain techniques or locations should be off-limits. There are also arguments against the way recreational anglers harvest fish. Here’s a brief look at how the two industries affect our marine environments, for better or for worse.


Frozen Tuna with their tails cut off fish lined up at an industrial fish market

Overfishing is one of the biggest concerns related to our oceans. And it should be. Decades of mismanagement and an ever-increasing demand for fish are making boats fish deeper and more remote waters than ever before. And a lot of our favorite fish are running short.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases quarterly reports on overfishing. Their latest update shows that many of the country’s favorite fisheries are overfished while still undergoing overfishing: Greater Amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico, Red Grouper in the South Atlantic, Chinook Salmon on the Columbia River – it reads like a greatest hits mix, but it’s a sinister warning. And some species on the list aren’t supposed to be harvested at all.

Blue, White, and Striped Marlin are all listed as both overfished and undergoing overfishing, despite being illegal to harvest commercially. Why? Bycatch. Billfish often end up on commercial longlines intended for Swordfish and Tuna. They’re also occasionally killed by tournament anglers and world record seekers, although not on anywhere near the same scale.

A NOAA map detailing the fish which are overfished or undergoing overfishing as of the end of 2018

Source: NOAA.

So who’s catching all the fish? It varies depending on the species. For example, the Gulf of Mexico’s Red Snapper quota is split evenly between anglers and commercial boats, while the sporting crowd gets over 60% of the Gulf’s Amberjack quota. Some species, such as Redfish and Speckled Trout, are only open for recreational anglers. But when all’s said and done, commercial boats land around 97% of all fish, according to the American Sportfishing Association.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. According to NOAA, overfishing is actually at “an all-time low.” Around 15% of fisheries are listed as overfished, while just 9% are currently suffering from overfishing. This is the combined result of better fisheries management and a greater lobbying power by the recreational fishing sector to protect important species.

Habitat Destruction

A view from above of a bottom trawler in the ocean. The dark water under the boat shows the destruction of the seafloor.

The effect dredging has on the seafloor is easy to see, but it’s only a part of the problem.

Catching too many fish isn’t the only issue our oceans face. The destruction of marine habitats like seagrasses and reefs can be just as disastrous. A big part of this has nothing to do with fishing. Ocean plastics, rising temperatures, agricultural runoff, and industrial accidents all affect our waters. Some fishing practices do have a huge impact, though.

The most obvious damage is caused by dredgers and bottom trawlers. These boats drag nets along the seafloor, destroying the structure that fish cling to. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey found that stirring up this much sediment also changes the chemical makeup of the seafloor, killing the plants and animals that live there. Luckily, bottom trawling is now banned along most of the West Coast, although it’s still legal in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

This isn’t the only threat that fishing causes to ocean habitats. A growing problem is the damage fishing gear keeps causing even after people stop using it. “Ghost fishing” has become a talking point on an international level in recent years. Nets, traps, and fishing line that get lost at sea will continue to catch fish for years or even decades. They also catch on reefs and seagrasses, damaging and poisoning them as the plastics they’re made of break down.

Ghost fishing. A colorful coral reef covered in a commercial fishing net.

This isn’t something that people are doing on purpose. Equipment gets stuck or lost sometimes, that’s just a fact of life. The sheer size of the country’s commercial fishing fleet means that it produces the vast majority of ghost gear, but some of it also comes from anglers. Everyone can play a part by recycling fishing line or cutting it up to stop it from causing as much damage.

Economic Effects of Commercial Fishing Vs. Recreational Fishing

This is where things get interesting. The stereotype is that commercial fishing is big business, contributing massively to the economy and employing vast numbers of people. That’s certainly true, but the recreational industry also creates a lot of jobs and puts a lot more into the economy than you might expect. Who makes more? Well, that really depends who you ask.

The Numbers, According to NOAA

Tables detailing NOAA's data on the jobs created and value added created by recreational and commercial fishing. Commercial fishing created $60 billion and employed 1.9 million people. Recreational fishing produced $38 billion and employed 472,000 people.

FishingBooker’s representation of data from NOAA.

NOAA creates a yearly assessment for Congress on the state of America’s fishing industries. According to their most recent figures, covering 2016, the commercial fishing industry produced around $60 billion in value added (the amount of money produced throughout the supply chain after bills, taxes, wages, and other costs).

Commercial fishing also employed 1.19 million people, from fishing crews and dock workers to freight companies and fishmongers. It’s a huge source of both money and jobs. But here’s the thing: The sportfishing sector is, too.

The same study found that sportfishing employed over one third as many people (around 472,000) and created almost two thirds as much value (over $38 billion). To the surprise of nobody who’s owned one, private boat expenses made up a huge chunk of that money. Twice as much as fishing tackle and guided trips combined, in fact.

These numbers are impressive, but not that shocking. Fishing can be an expensive hobby, so it involves a lot of money, but nothing on the level of the commercial fish industry. Or does it? Another report that came out just a few years earlier tells another tale entirely.

The Numbers, According to the ASA

Tables detailing the ASA's findings on the jobs and money created by the recreational and commercial fishing industries.

FishingBooker’s representation of the ASA’s findings.

Back in 2011, the American Sportfishing Association commissioned an independent study on the money and jobs behind the two halves of American fishing. They used NOAA’s own data, but came out with very different results. The numbers for the recreational sector were more or less the same: around 454,000 jobs and $32 billion in value added. However, the numbers for the commercial sector weren’t even close.

They found that commercial fishing employed just 380,000 people in 2011 – less than one third of NOAA’s findings for 2016. They also found that it produced a little over $13 billion, not even a quarter of what NOAA calculated. How could these results be so far apart?

Well, for starters, the ASA didn’t count imports when comparing the two industries, as these have nothing to do with America’s fish harvest. Secondly, they removed the money and jobs created by shellfish, as the recreational data doesn’t count this.

What they were left with was all fish caught by both groups, and the money and jobs that created. Take away the fish that anglers don’t target, and you’ve got around $10 billion and 305,000 jobs. Not exactly petty change, but nowhere near the numbers from the recreational sector.

Making More From Less

Tables from the ASA detailing the money produced per 1 lb of fish and the jobs produced per 100,000 lbs of fish in the commercial and recreational fishing industries. The data shows that recreational fishing makes 100 times as much money and 50 times as many jobs.

Source: ASA.

Recreational fishing takes around 3% of the total catch, but it does a lot more with it. According to the ASA, 1 pound of fish caught recreationally creates 100 times more value than 1 pound caught commercially. It also creates 50 times more jobs. At the same time, recreational fishing causes much less damage to marine habitats and puts a lot less gear into the sea.

And here’s the kicker: The fish that anglers actually aren’t even the most important part of the commercial fish harvest. If you compare the ASA’s 2011 findings to NOAA’s report for the same year (which is where the ASA got their data), it turns out that all recreationally-caught fish are worth just 18% of the commercial sector’s value and create just 26% of its jobs. They make up half the total landings but only a small part of the industry’s bottom line.

Surely there’s a more effective way to use these fish stocks?

Teach a Man to Fish…

Two fishing rods secured on the side of a boat at sea. The rods are bending from a fish on the line.

We’re not arguing for anyone to go out of business or for the commercial fishing industry to be shut down. It’s an essential part of the country’s economy and of its food supply. What we’re saying is this: Recreational fishing makes significantly more money per fish and causes a lot less damage along the way. Because of this, we should be pushing for more people to catch their own fish.

If quotas were weighted more toward recreational catch, and commercial crews were encouraged to switch into the charter industry, the overall fish take could be hugely reduced without causing a financial hit to the people involved. Quite the opposite, in fact. Commercial crews could stay employed and make more money while catching a fiftieth of the fish if they switched into the recreational fishing industry.

It’s not a perfect solution. Not every fishery is suitable for the recreational sector, and even if it was, a smaller commercial harvest means shop-bought fish would be much more expensive. But in a world with an ever-growing population and depleting fish stocks, isn’t it about time we rethought how we use our oceans?

Comments (2)
  • David W. Tanner

    Feb 10, 2019

    Have sport fished in B.C. for years. Have seen commercial, long liners and net fishing and it isn’t right. Have been on some of the prun boats. They don’t leave much for the sport fishing. What is the value per pound of a sport caught fish against the value for commercial caught fish. What are the fish pens going to do to the wild stock when the fry pass by the pens. What happens to them??? who knows.
    More money made for the community by sport fishing then commercial. Just a sport fisherman for the last 30 years. Knight Inlet and Winter Harbor, Port Alice.

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      Feb 11, 2019

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      You’re completely right, sportfishing can contribute a lot to communities without depleting the local fisheries. How much depends on the species but it’s easy to see the impact the sport has had in B.C.

      I hope you can keep on enjoying amazing fishing there for many years to come!

      Tight lines!

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