By Sandy K. Johnson

How many fish are there in the sea?

This seemingly biblical question is one charter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s governance of fishing and fish stocks. It matters because the government’s estimates help decide annual fishing quotas for commercial and recreational fishermen.

It’s an inexact science, based on factors such as biology and ecology, age data, size data, monitoring, scientific surveys and bycatch (unwanted caught fish).  It’s also a delicate balance, weighing the economic impact of those who catch fish for a living versus depletion of a species.

Fishing is big business. In the southeast region of NOAA alone, which stretches from Texas to the Carolinas and the Caribbean, regional director Roy Crabtree described the stakes to National Press Foundation fellows:  Commercial fishermen land 1.8 billion pounds of fish a year worth almost $5 billion in sales and account for 84,000 jobs. Recreational fishing lands 105 million fish worth $18 billion in sales and account for 151,000 jobs.

Nationwide, commercial and recreational fishing combined generate $208 billion in sales and support 1.6 million jobs a year.

Spread across 50 states and all U.S. territories, NOAA has quite a task: monitoring fish stocks and enforcing regulations across 4.4 million square miles of marine habitat.

There is some evidence that careful fisheries management is making an impact. NOAA reported this year that overfished species has reached an all-time low.

The red snapper, one of the most popular fish in the Gulf of Mexico, is one success story. “The recovery of the red snapper in the Gulf has been nothing short of remarkable,” Crabtree said. It had been dangerously overfished and hit its lowest population level in 1990. Through careful management, red snapper has been brought back to 1967 levels. Today, anglers routinely catch red snapper in the 15-20 pound range.

Other challenges? Technology has made fishing more efficient. Some equipment is so high-tech that it would have been state-of-the-art on a scientific research vessel just five years ago – “you can see everything,” Crabtree said. And the proliferation of artificial reefs – everything from offshore oil platforms to concrete blocks laid in formation – has increased catch rates beyond some fish species’ ability to reproduce.