Overfishing Deals Severe Blow to Local Economy, Pew Environment Group Says

Scientists tend to frame the consequences of overfishing in esoteric ecological terms that seem frightening but are difficult to comprehend. A new study commissioned by the Pew Environment Group, however, translates the consequences into dollars and cents, making it all too clear that South Florida has lost millions in revenue due to depleted fish species. 

Between 2005 and 2009, according to Pew, overfishing cost tens of millions of dollars in recreational fishing revenue across the southeastern United States. The group says that dwindling populations of species such as black sea bass and grouper have slowed bookings for charter boats, which in turn have cut sales at bait and tackle shops and hindered the tourism industry. 

"Speaking with a majority of my captains, this year is one of the slowest they've had in a while in terms of business and in terms of actually catching fish," says Steven Seigel, who runs VIP Fishing Charter, a company that acts as a broker for more than 50 fishing boats around the state. "Overfishing has definitely impacted everything."

Seigel points out that while overfishing hurts the industry as a whole, it's mainly industrial fishing fleets that are the perpetrators and not private charters that take families out for a day of recreational angling.   

The Pew study examined a handful of species found in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico that are considered important to recreational fishing. It broke up the financial losses into two categories: Direct losses, including boat rentals, bait and tackle sales, and fuel charges; and broader economic losses, such as hotel reservations and restaurant tabs picked up by tourists on fishing trips. 

"We wanted to take a look at the real, big picture economic costs of overfishing," says Holly Binns, director of Pew's Southeast and U.S. Caribbean fish conservation program. "Depleted fish populations aren't capable of supporting a robust fishing industry."

According to the study, the slim population of the red grouper resulted in half a million dollars in direct losses and $1.3 million in broader losses during the study period. The numbers are more startling for the red snapper: $15.9 million in direct losses and $41.6 million in broader losses. 

On the other hand, Binns says, rebuilding these species to healthy levels could yield "real economic gains... It makes economic sense as well as ecological sense."

Not everyone thinks overfishing is the sole factor behind these economic losses. Capt. Mike Johnson, who runs the charter boat Local Knowledge out of Fort Lauderdale, says the recession had the biggest impact on recreational fishing.

"The first year [the economy] got really bad, it was scary. I didn't know if we were going to make it," he says. European and South American tourists helped Johnson stay afloat those years. 

So far, 2012 has treated Johnson well, though he admits that his reputation and 18 years in the industry give him a leg up on the competition. Still, Johnson, who's a third-generation fisherman, says everyone in the industry feels the effects of overfishing, particularly when it comes to grouper. "They've taken a whack," he says.

According to the Pew report "overfishing has depleted nearly 20 percent of the nations' commercially and recreationally important ocean fish." 

Although some progress has been made toward replenishing fisheries, it's important to keep tight catch limits on certain species and not reverse course, Binns warns. 

"There has been legislation introduced in Congress that would weaken conservation provisions in fishing laws," Binns says. "We need to keep these provisions from being gutted. It doesn't make sense to turn around and go back to the failed policies of the past."

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Chris Sweeney