About Fisheries

Where people and water meet, fisheries exist...

The following is an excerpt from the textbook “Inland Fisheries Management in North America, 2nd edition.”


A dictionary style definition might read, “the manipulation of aquatic organisms, aquatic environments, and their human users to produce sustained and ever increasing benefits for people.” This conception is often illustrated as three overlapping circles that represent the three principal components of fisheries: organisms, habitats, and people. Each is important, each affects the other two, and each presents opportunities for enhancing the value of fisheries resources.

The Historical Basis for Fisheries Management

Fisheries in North America are public resources. State, provincial, and federal governments hold the resources in trust for the general use of their citizens. Although this system is different from the private ownership of fisheries in much of Europe, public ownership in North America derives directly from early English practices…

…Fisheries management was born of a need to balance the supply-demand equation.  The modern history of fisheries is basically a chronicle of individual and governmental attempts to control the exploitation of common property fisheries.  Over the past century, scientists and public officials have struggled to develop suitable objectives for managing fisheries – objectives that preserve the time-honored ideal of free access to fisheries and that preserve the productive capacity of fish populations.  In pursuing these objectives, they have also developed the technical capacity to enhance fisheries productivity and to reduce the influence of other human activities on fisheries resources.

Modern Fisheries Management

The modern era of fisheries management began after the end of World War II. State and provincial agencies grew rapidly by enlarging management, fish culture, and law enforcement staffs. Spurred on by the trend for higher education and by the increasing use of fisheries resources for recreation, governments invested generously in education, research, and management. Along with this investment came an outpouring of data that has allowed fisheries management to develop as the multifaceted profession it is today.

Perhaps the greatest stimulus to inland fisheries management in the United States was the passage in 1950 of the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, popularly known as the Dingell-Johnson Act.  Patterned after the earlier Pittman-Robertson Act for wildlife, the Dingell-Johnson Act created a 10% excise tax on specified fishing equipment. The tax was dispersed to state fisheries agencies to support the creation and improvement of recreational fisheries. From its inception through 1985, the Dingell-Johnson program had dispersed over US$480 million for fisheries development and research. In 1985, the Dingell-Johnson program was expanded significantly, increasing the range of items taxed, adding marine fuel taxes to the program, and authorizing development of marine, as well as freshwater, recreational fisheries. This important legislation, known as the Wallop-Breaux Act, has more than doubled the annual funds available…

The initial decades of the twentieth century had been dominated by the concept of fisheries as crops, with the single objective of achieving the highest physical yield, or [maximum sustainable yield]. Since 1950, focus on [maximum sustainable yield] has been challenged repeatedly, and possible objectives for management have been continually expanded…The initial challenge to [maximum sustainable yield] was the idea that producing physical yields was really secondary to the more universal objective of producing economic value…In the 1950s, fisheries economists began to point out that [maximum sustainable yield] should be replaced by the concept of maximizing profit, alias maximizing net economic revenue…

While economic concerns were challenging [maximum sustainable yield] in commercial fisheries, it was also being challenged as a sufficient objective for recreational fisheries.  The quality of recreational fishing had been measured traditionally as the number and size of harvested fishes.  Nevertheless, anglers had always admitted that other parts of the fishing experience were at least as important as the catch itself.  People value companionship and pleasant surroundings in their fishing experiences, and their preference for catch might vary from one large fish to many small fish.  The idea that such sociological concerns should be part of fisheries management gained popularity in the 1960s as public opinion became more important in directing government decisions.  The addition of aesthetic values to the relationship between fishing effort and fish harvest was formalized by James McFadden (1969) in a modern class of fisheries literature. Since then, the development of socioeconomic principles for fisheries management has been a high priority for management agencies.

The third major addition to the objectives of fisheries management that challenged [maximum sustainable yield] was the result of continuing advances in ecological science. Because fisheries are components of the productivity of aquatic ecosystems, ecological research has continuously improved the theoretical foundation of fisheries management. In the 1970s, for example, ecologists supplied the notion that the management of single fish species must be replaced by multiple-species management. The yield of predatory fish (e.g., largemouth bass) depends on the condition of the food base; when the food base is also exploited (e.g., bluegill), the pair of species must be managed together, not separately. The idea that fisheries must be thought of as communities, or at least as interacting groups of populations, has become firmly rooted…Ecology has been and will continue to be the basic science that contributes most to the understanding of fisheries management.

The accretion of additional concerns – economic, sociological, and ecological – into the management of fisheries forced [maximum sustainable yield] off its throne in the 1970s. It has been replaced by a new guiding principle: management for optimum sustainable yield. Optimum sustainable yield was formalized in a 1975 symposium (Roedel 1975) that assessed management from a variety of viewpoints. The basic tenets of [optimum  sustainable yield] are that the appropriate goal for fisheries management includes a broad range of considerations (not just maximizing physical yield) and that a unique management goal exists for each fishery. Optimum sustainable yield thus greatly complicates fisheries management. Defining the optimum sustainable yield for a fishery is much more difficult that defining the [maximum sustainable yield] because fishery-specific information is needed about biological, ecological, economic, and sociological aspects of fishery use. Optimum sustainable yield, however, is much more realistic in that it recognizes the diversity of aquatic ecosystems and the diversity of human needs in relation to them.


The job of the fisheries manager has evolved rapidly. What the manager does today has been conditioned as much by the events of the past two decades as by the accumulated history of fisheries…And just what is this profession we call fisheries management? Viewpoints about management are as diverse as the collection of human activities that full under the rubric of what we call fisheries. As the profession has evolved and radiated in recent decades, the precepts that fisheries management was applied biology, applied ecology, or even applied economics have all proven too restrictive. A dictionary definition is not really important; a principle for guiding the management of fisheries, however, is necessary. Most fisheries professionals would agree that the principle objective of fisheries management is to provide people with a sustained, high, and ever increasing benefit from their use of living aquatic resources.  In the pursuit of that principle, fisheries managers manipulate all aspects of the natural and human ecosystem. Where people and water meet, fisheries exist; where people and water could meet, potential fisheries exist; and wherever fisheries, real or potential, exist, fisheries management can make them better.