Sea Angling Economic Importance Grossly Under-Exaggerated

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Bass are worth so much more to the economy as a sport fish than captured in a net. The same applies to numerous other sea fish species of interest to recreational sea anglers. Image credit: Steven Neely.

Fishing News – the weekly newspaper for commercial fishing in the UK – recently printed a bewildering article by Ian Gilbert (no relation I assure you!), a commercial line fisherman who works out of Poole. I use the word ‘bewildering’ not so much for the fact that the content is appallingly written but because the editor of Fishing News chose to give Ian Gilbert’s drivel front page prominence.

The Angling Trust and the Angling Trades Association felt compelled to respond to the article, such was its ludicrous nature. Their response, along with another from Kieren Hyder of Cefas, has been published in the latest issue of Fishing News and can be downloaded here.

Ian Gilbert’s article was a hysterical and fatuous attack on the recreational sea angling (RSA) industry. This is undoubtedly in response to increasingly widespread recognition that RSA and its economic and employment impacts are dependent upon a number of public marine fishery resources and that management of those resources should take full account of the legitimate requirements of RSA.

Ian Gilbert’s article was a hysterical and fatuous attack on the recreational sea angling (RSA) industry.

The credibility of Ian Gilbert’s assertions about recreational sea angling appears to be attributed solely to the fact that Ian is a “former sea angler”.  The article, entitled “Sea Angling Economic Importance grossly exaggerated”, makes a number of assertions, including:

  • there are only a quarter the number of sea anglers shown by recent scientific studies;
  • the number of jobs supported by RSA is about 5% of the figures shown by published studies
  • the number of bass anglers is ‘tiny’ “because geographically bass aren’t caught above a certain line in the UK”.

Unsurprisingly, despite Ian Gilbert’s assertion that the recreational sea angling industry and in particular the number of recreational bass anglers are vastly less than shown by a number of scientific studies over the last thirty years, he doesn’t attempt to emphasise that the proportion of bass fishing mortality attributable to recreational exploitation is also similarly grossly exaggerated. Furthermore, Ian clearly isn’t well-versed of the geographical distribution of bass, which are now routinely targeted and caught in Scotland!

The article in Fishing News initially criticises the Angling Trust and other organisations for quoting what Ian Gilbert claims are grossly exaggerated figures in respect of the economic importance of recreational sea angling. Ian’s claims read as though the sea angling lobby has just wildly plucked figures out of thin air, but he later does acknowledge that the angling lobby’s figures derive from a Defra study published in 2012. This is an important distinction.

Ian Gilbert fails to provide any backdrop whatsoever to give his assertions credibility and I for one am pondering whether they are just wildly plucked out of thin air.

The Defra study called Sea Angling 2012 was initiated by Defra, funded by Defra and the research was awarded by Defra to the scientific establishment known as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). Ian Gilbert fails to provide any backdrop whatsoever to give his assertions credibility and I for one am pondering whether they are just wildly plucked out of thin air?

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Around 2% of the English population sea fish recreationally (according to Sea Angling 2012) and they pump over £800,000 into the English economy every year.

Let’s take a look at some of Ian Gilbert’s ideas (in bold italic) and my own response to his ideas.

“There should be a recreational sea angling rod licence introduced to show the true number of RSAs.”

This is a recurring message from commercial fishing interests who themselves are indeed licensed. Having said that, presumably those who call for the implementation of RSA licences want them made available to sea anglers in just the same way and on the same terms as they were made available for commercials; i.e. totally free of charge? Yes, I know some commercial vessel operators have spent money on licenses BUT that money has been paid to another commercial fishermen and those licenses were originally provided by government for zero charge. They now change hands for significant sums between fishermen but not one jot goes to the government towards management costs. Tax payers pick up that tab and all the other administrative/research/enforcement costs, not to mention the millions of pounds of grant in aid.

“The survey methodology used in Sea Angling 2012 was flawed.”

Since Ian asserts the methodology as used by Cefas scientists is flawed it would be good to know what methodology he used in his own “research”.

“They say 26,000 jobs depend on recreational sea angling, but the true figure is probably not much more than 1,000. The only people who rely on recreational anglers are the charter fleet – and 300 charter boats in the UK is probably an overestimation. Most are skipper-only, but some have a deckhand, so if you are generous that’s still only 450 jobs.”

Hmm, so the boats used by charter operators just materialise? The fuel they use just appears in their tanks? They don’t pay any marina or mooring fees?  As for maintenance and servicing, they are maintenance-free and never require servicing?  What about all the coastal tackle shops?  What about the thousands of privately-owned angling boats and their engines, as well as a wide range of chandlery they purchase?  What about all the tackle manufacturers and distributors? What about all the staff and publishers of sea angling magazines? What of the individuals and businesses providing RSA with bait?

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Hundreds of charter boats are based in ports around the UK and their skippers make a living by taking recreational anglers offshore. These skippers all pay mooring fees, maintenance costs and fuel. Well, not if you believe Ian Gilbert!

As the past owner of a bait company (one of many) employing fourteen full-time staff plus seasonal packers (all paying tax and National Insurance), I can assure Ian Gilbert his assertion that RSA only supports around 1,000 jobs is utter complete rubbish and perhaps that assertion more than any other demonstrates just how imbecilic his ranting is.

Presumably those who call for the implementation of RSA licences want them made available to sea anglers in just the same way and on the same terms as they were made available for commercials; i.e. totally free of charge?

Just how thorough has Ian Gilbert’s “research” been? He refers to Defra’s Sea Angling 2012 report but contests its findings. However, the enormous economic and employment impacts of RSA are also supported by many previously published scientific studies all independently researched. There was the Drew Report (again commissioned by Defra) published in 2004, the Nautilus Consultants studies for the Welsh Assembly Government and their separate work for Invest in Fish (South West England). More recently in 2014, consultants MRAG were commissioned by the Blue Marine Foundation to examine the bass fishery in Sussex and concluded that recreationally captured bass generated many more times the economic and employment impacts of commercial bass fishing. This report can be read here.

Some of the earliest research (over a quarter of a century ago) carried out by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) & The Centre for the Economics & Management of Aquatic Resources (CEMARE) in the early 1990’s also showed that whilst the annual first sale landings of bass were £3.9 million, recreational bass anglers were already pumping almost £20 million into the coastal economies and that in England there were 361,000 recreational bass anglers.  Presumably, Ian Gilbert regards all these studies by a wide range of scientific establishments as equally flawed?  Or perhaps his “research” failed to even make him aware of their existence?

If Ian Gilbert’s appetite for research is motivated by a wish to establish the facts, he might consider researching the value of commercial fish landings into England. This will not be complicated as the MMO publish landings data and a good starting point would be here.

On page 41, Table 3.2a shows reasonably consistent annual landings into English ports of around £160 million annually between 2011 & 2015. As an experienced past recreational sea angler he will know as well as anyone that the overwhelming majority of that £160 million derives from resources of no direct interest to recreational sea anglers, such as shellfish, megrim sole, lemon sole, hake, monk and others. If he takes the trouble to evaluate JUST those species of direct interest to recreational anglers such as plaice, turbot, brill, mullet, rays, bass, flounder, sharks, pollack, whiting, cod and others (he will know the species) he will find that the first sale value of those fishery resources landed commercially in England upon which the Recreational Sea Angling Industry in England is dependent, is about £34 million – 20% by value of all English commercial landing.

Contrary to what many commercial fishermen state, the overwhelming majority of recreational sea anglers do not want an end to commercial fishing. However, they do want an end to unsustainable commercial fishing and an end to the ongoing deterioration of the quality of their angling experience.

£34 million is what commercial fishermen earn from those species jointly targeted by both commercials and recreational. That £34 million is used to pay for boats, fuel, insurance, crew wages, maintenance, fishing gear, moorings and other overheads. Much of that £34 million worth of fish is exported with additional economic value derived from wholesale margins, packaging and transport. The remainder is distributed throughout the UK with additional value from retailing, processing and so on.

What is undeniable is that those public marine fishery resources that are worth just £34 million at first sale value to English commercial fishing are also the same identical resources upon which the English RSA industry depends, an industry stated in Sea Angling 2012 to involve 840,000 participants whose cumulative direct spend on their fishing activities is £831 million after imports and taxes are excluded.

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Wrasse are the latest ‘gold-rush’ species to be targeted by commercial fishermen; a fish that until recently was previously only targeted to any extent by recreational sea anglers.

Contrary to what many commercial fishermen state, the overwhelming majority of recreational sea anglers do not want an end to commercial fishing. However, they do want an end to unsustainable commercial fishing and an end to the ongoing deterioration of the quality of their angling experience. They also seek a seat at the table to fully participate in the process of formulating fishery policy and measures to ensure stocks of species in which they have a direct interest are rebuilt and only fished sustainably.

One of the ironies of Ian Gilbert’s attack on RSA is that it is the RSA lobby who have consistently advocated priority for commercial exploitation of bass should be by hook and line. Ian Gilbert is apparently a hook & line fisherman who currently enjoys a 10 tonne annual catch limit!

malcolm-gilbertMalcolm Gilbert

Past commercial vessel owner/operator and recreational angler for over 60 years.

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