A general definition describes sport fishing as the attempt to catch aquatic animals – primarily fishes – for personal consumption or as a leisure activity. It can be carried out using either active or passive fishing methods. The active methods include line fishing, spearing fishes, or gathering, for example shellfish, by hand. In contrast, passive methods make use of nets, traps, or longlines. During the course of history the significance of fishing by individuals has thus undergone remarkable changes, today ranging from its original significance for sustenance to a popular leisure time activity whose particular value lies in physical exercise and the direct contact of the angler with nature. In the meantime not only men go fishing but women and young people, too, irrespective of their background or social status. It is estimated that in industrialised countries about every tenth adult carries out sport fishing regularly as a hobby. In addition there are numerous occasional anglers who go fishing from time to time, particularly on holiday. All of them need fishing gear for their hobby, not to mention accommodation, transport, catering and other things which together make sport fishing an important economic factor. Together their expenses add up to considerable sums that usually remain in the pertinent areas close to rivers, lakes or the sea and represent a mainstay of the local economies.
According to the European Fishing Tackle Trade Association (EFTTA) over 5 billion euro are spent on fishing tackle every year in Europe. That secures 52,000 jobs among EFTTA members alone. If the small shops and traders who are not members of any organisation are added to this the sum would probably be almost double that. According to current estimations there are at least 25 million anglers in the EU. 8 to 10 million of them mainly fish in salt water and more than 20 million mainly in freshwater. In 2006 sport fishermen in the then 27 EU member states spent a good 19 billion euro on their fishing tackle, licences and fees, fishing trips and accommodation. This figure, which is only a rough estimation, has since then evidently risen clearly for in March 2015 participants at the first meeting of a new group in the European Parliament which is primarily involved with “Recreational Fishing and the Aquatic Environment” even assumed that annual turnover within the whole angling industry was 40 billion euro. The positive social, economic and health aspects of fishing cannot be overlooked or seriously contested.
Anglers’ commitment to nature conservation not sufficiently recognized
That is only part of the story, however, for angling also comes under criticism. Especially animal welfare and environmental organisations never tire of pointing to the negative consequences of angling for the environment and fish stocks. The permanent conflict between fishermen and nature conservationists has many facets that essentially amount to two main allegations. On the one hand, fishing is considered unnecessary cruelty to animals because today no one in Europe is forced to rely on this archaic form of sustenance. On the other hand, anglers allegedly cause serious, often even irreversible, damage to the environment, and their stocking measures distort naturally developed species communities and endanger stock maintenance because they selectively remove excellent specimens at reproductive age from the waters. Although both types of fishing, i.e. commercial and sport fishing, have comparable effects on fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems sport fishing is considered worse because it is hardly subject to binding rules, there are no fishing quotas and it is virtually impossible to control.
Fishing associations hold against this, and point to the enormous benefits that anglers everywhere in Europe contribute to the protection of nature and conservation of water bodies. Thousands of hours were spent tending the water bodies, and not only fishes but also other animals and plants benefited from this. Without regular stocking (which sport fishermen often pay for out of their own pockets) some fish species would probably have long disappeared from our rivers and lakes. Sport fishing was indeed subject to numerous rules, regulations and requirements. All anglers had to observe closed seasons and minimum sizes, allowable daily catch quantities and closed water sections. A fishing licence was necessary today in nearly all countries and this was only issued after successful completion of solid professional training and a final exam. Controls within the individual water bodies were also largely carried out by the anglers themselves. These voluntary activities were mainly undertaken by particularly dedicated sports anglers who were specially trained for this task.
Socio-economic importance of fishing often underestimated
Many of the statements made about sport fishing are currently based only on rough estimates and vague conjectures, however, which are often also interpreted differently. Fishing is a hobby that is carried out by individual persons in varying degrees of intensity and frequency, at almost any time of day and in different water bodies. Due to this strong individualisation and decentralisation it is extremely difficult to obtain reliable data on the ecological and socio-economic role and significance of sport fishing in Europe. Such data would be urgently needed, however, in order to adequately appreciate the social value and the benefits and risks that are connected with this leisure time activity and to enable their consideration and inclusion in political decisions. Findings and statements on sport fishing are to date often based on personal or telephone surveys of anglers, whose statements are of course not completely unbiased and reliable at every point. This gives critics who doubt the validity of results obtained in this way plenty of scope for attack.
In order to obtain more reliable data the European Anglers Alliance (EAA) which represents nearly 3 million anglers through its 18 member organisations from 17 European states (as per 2014) designed RECFISH, a socio-economic survey and tested it successfully in Austria in the year 2000. The “Methodologies for assessing socio-economic benefits of European inland recreational fisheries” aims in the same direction, and this was accepted by the European Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission (EIFAC) in May 2010. However, the necessary funding for a Europe-wide survey which might provide sport fishing data from which current trends could be derived for individual regions over a longer period of time is lacking.
Anglers have a significant impact on fish stocks
The lack of data is of particular disadvantage during stock assessments in the context of fisheries management. In the marine sector the impact of sport fishing on fish stocks can be demonstrated fairly well because in that segment the condition of commercially important fish stocks is reviewed regularly by fisheries biologists. Several studies have confirmed that sport fishing has a significant influence on the age structure, size and gender composition of some fish populations. This is hardly surprising for already the large number of anglers – who, based on total population, account for a share of between 11% (Europe) and 20% (Australia) in the western world – suggests such influence. The 3.6 million anglers documented in Canada alone are said to catch about 70 million fishes per year, predominantly larger specimens. And so it’s not difficult to guess what quantities the 30 million anglers in the USA and 25 million in Europe might catch.
Spanish scientists carried out a meta-analysis which looked at the results of 24 individual studies which had all dealt with the influence of unregulated sport fishing on fish stocks and ecosystems in coastal and marine regions of the Mediterranean. The meta-analysis comes to the conclusion that recreational anglers – if one ignores the industrial fishery with trawlers and purse seines – catch more than one tenth of the fish in the Mediterranean region, in some regions even up to fifty per cent. The biological effect of sport fishing on fish stocks was thus greater than previously thought.
Scientific data has to be improved
Within the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) which monitors all the fish species that are important for fisheries in the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic and analyses stock development, the ICES Working Group on Recreational Fishing Surveys (WGRFS) is responsible for the collection and technical evaluation of data on sport fishing. There are about 45 experts in this working group and they have to wrestle with the problem that the reported catch and fishing effort data in the marine leisure segment are often incomplete and inexact and also of very different quality. In some countries anglers are obliged to record in a log book for every fishing day the species, quantities and sizes of the fish they catch. A lot of anglers fulfil these documentation requirements immediately and correctly while others pay less attention to accuracy. To be able to use such data at all and render the biological data consistent and comparable specialists first have to recognize the errors they contain and examine any dubious information for plausibility. Only then can the actual work begin. The focus is on the assessment of the effect that removal of biomass by anglers has on fish stocks. If the results are sufficiently reliable they are taken into account in the stock forecasts upon which the ICES researchers will finally base their fishing quota recommendations.
Up to now the work of the WGRFS covered four marine regions (Baltic, North Sea, parts of the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea) and commercially important fish species such as bass, cod, sharks, salmon, eel and tuna. In the case of bass or Baltic flounder the collection of anglers’ catch data is already comparatively good and the quality of the survey is sufficient to allow inclusion in stock assessments. Data on other species such as pollack, on the other hand lack the required accuracy although they would be important because biomass removal by anglers is probably not insignificant.
Active participation of anglers is vital
Time series from which the anglers’ annual catch quantities, their decreases and increases can be observed are also helpful in the assessment of stock development. Since 2010 the EC Joint Research Centre (JRC) has recorded and collected catch data on behalf of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries in the member countries of the EU and makes them available to the European Commission as a basis for decision making processes. However, these data are still incomplete and of varying quality. They have considerable gaps and so do not allow comparisons to be made between individual states. Here, too, the main problem is the collection of sufficiently reliable data. Some states report the anglers’ catch data every year with a high degree of accuracy, others only every two years, and some only provide estimates or do not deliver any information at all. Fish species are often not correctly distinguished and in some reports no difference is made between removal and stocking or water types. Although such inaccuracies do not make the data completely worthless they greatly limit their use as a basis for forecasts and political decisions. Their verification would require considerable manpower and financial input which is why it is usually not done.
Authorities, anglers associations and institutions in some EU member states often attach only little importance to the collection of basic data and do not get sufficiently involved in this field. This has to change radically if data collection is to be brought to the required level. Without the active cooperation of the anglers little will be achieved here, however. Precise entries in catch log books are extremely important because they represent a valuable database whose analysis enables conclusions to be drawn quickly and directly on the state of fish populations, annual fish biomass removal quantities, stocking plans, and other preservation and conservation measures. With the data they enter in their log books anglers thus contribute towards securing the future of their hobby.
Sport anglers’ expenses strengthen regional economy
An important detail in the fishing sector which also applies to sport fishing is the more exact assessment of the survival rate of fishes that are thrown back into the water after the catch. There are several possible reasons for this practice: because the fish are undersize or because the species is under protection and cannot be caught, or because there is no interest in the species. In commercial fishing the hitherto customary practice of discarding unwanted fishes is to be almost entirely stopped by 2018 following a decision by the European Commission. This discard ban does not, however, apply to marine sport fishing. But recreational anglers are said to throw about every second fish back into the water, usually because of undersize. Mostly cod, bass, pollack and brown trout, and not all of them survive the catch procedure, removal of the hook, and being thrown back into the sea. Studies carried out in the German charter boat fishery in the Baltic have revealed, for example, that about 11.2% of the cod that are caught and then thrown back into the sea do not survive the process. And this species is considered comparatively robust. Their mortality depends on a large number of factors, for example the type of bait, the depth to which the hook was swallowed and the damage this caused, and catch depth or the angler’s experience and his deftness when removing the hook. Findings can thus not be transferred from one fish species or fishing method to another. If fishing-related mortality is underestimated this will have detrimental effects on stock assessments which can then lead to the fixing of excessive fishing quotas.
Angling is not only a sport and leisure time activity for private persons, however. It is also an important economic factor. In some regions sport fishing is even of greater economic significance than commercial fishing. Sport fishing generates jobs and income, and whether petrol station operator or hotel operator, boat hire company, fishing tackle or outdoor clothing retailer a lot of people earn money in this field. In the meantime there are even computer programmes with which it is possible to examine how certain management measures will affect sport fishermen’s behaviour. For example, does a new fishing pier or marina really attract more guests to a particular location or would cheaper accommodation do that more easily? Might the construction of wind turbines that are visible from the coast put sport fishermen off? What is more worthwhile for the region – investments in the road network or in parking space? Not only the informational value of the computer programme but also some local political decisions depend heavily on the availability of the best possible data on sport fishing.