By Chris Adams

There are billions of fish in the sea and millions of fishermen trying to catch them. How are regulators supposed to determine how many were actually caught?

That’s one of the headaches that goes to the heart of the big business of recreational fishing, which encompasses everything from a solitary angler lazily dropping a line from the edge of a dock to a sleek boat taking dozens of people out into the Pacific, the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico to land tuna, grouper or other large fish.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Mike Leonard, conservation director of the American Sportfishing Association, explained the business and regulation of recreational fishing – and detailed some of the skirmishes between his industry and the commercial side of fishing.

It is a big business with a huge base around the country. In any given year, 49 million Americans will fish. Over a five-year period, the number is 60 million. The average fishing trip, the association says, costs $103.

One of the key issues is one of counting: How do you actually know how many fish have been caught? Regulations, which stem from the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, are based on a good assessment of how many fish there are in the sea – and how many are being plucked from it.

But the harvest data from the recreational fishing industry is a bit, well, fishy.

“Depending on the fishery, there can be a lot of uncertainty,” Leonard said. “Commercial fishing operations have big boats and people counting the catch. It’s not easy, but it is easier – as opposed to a bunch of hobbyists.”

Leonard also discussed some of the other key issues at play for the industry, such as the impact of invasive species on fisheries.