Commercial fishermen do not affect recreational fishing

January 31, 2020

There is a misconception among some recreational fishermen that commercial fishermen are to blame for all the ills we suffer with a lack of flounder, bluefish, trout, striped bass, or (you name it) . Sorry, Charlie, it just ain’t so.

There was a time when both commercial and recreational fishermen could take as many fish of any size as they wanted, and we did. I have seen coolers full of flounder come off the Point at Cape Hatteras with many of those fish well below 12 inches. Blues stacked up like cordwood at Indian River when the run was on, and trout deck loaded in Delaware Bay. At the same time, commercial fishermen were filling their nets with the same fish until the market value dropped to the point where it became a losing proposition to go after them.

I was a small part of the movement to put limits on both recreational and commercial fishermen here in Delaware and in Virginia. In Delaware, I was on the Delaware Wildlife Federation’s Advisory Council, and we met regularly with state officials to try to bring some order to the fishery. The late Buddy Hurlock and his wife Rose were the driving force behind this movement.

I also served on the Federal Bluefish Advisory Council that came up with the 10-fish bag limit. That did not make me very popular in New Jersey, where head boats had a good business selling bluefish at the dock after every trip.

In Virginia, I was one of several recreational fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay Advisory Council with an equal number of watermen. We spent a year developing a license system for recreational and commercial fishermen, then another year getting it through the Virginia General Assembly.

Back in Delaware, I worked with DNREC Fish and Wildlife to establish the current General Fishing License. That also took two years to get approval from the Legislature. The Delaware Mobile Surf Fishermen became the driving force behind that law.

Along they way, quotas were established for commercial landings. These were brought about by commercial fishermen who realized that conservation was the only way to maintain a reasonably steady supply of product. Of course, they too must deal with the fluctuations of Mother Nature.

Let me use summer flounder as an example. When we were debating seasons and limits, the commercial fishermen suggested four quarters to split the quota, or else they would catch everything in January. They also suggested a 14-inch minimum size because no matter the mesh size of the cod end, it will get clogged and trap small flounder. Most discards die, so why not count the 14-inch saleable flounder toward the quota rather than have them perish to no one’s use? 

The allocation of 60 percent to the commercial and 40 percent to recreational came at a time when flounder populations were low and the commercials were landing most of the fish. When flounder populations are high, recreational anglers land more than commercial fishermen.

Keep in mind that every fish caught by commercial fishermen is accounted for. They fish under quotas, and once a quota is reached, that fishery is closed. There can be exchanged quotas between states or between commercial and recreational, but quotas may not be increased without changing the law.

Are there dishonest commercial fishermen? Of course. Are there dishonest recreational fishermen? You better believe it.

A dishonest waterman steals our fish for money. He sells them to a dishonest wholesaler who markets them to his customers who may or may not know the fish were caught illegally.

A crooked recreational fisherman steals our fish because he knows there is little chance of being caught and he has no self-worth. He may say anything to justify his spiteful actions, from, “God put the fish there for me to take,” to, “This is a free country and no one can tell me what fish I can’t keep.” I’m not making these up, folks. I have heard both and lots more.

When you look at the commercial versus recreational situation objectively, you can see there is really no conflict. The commercial fisherman is on the water to make a living. True, he could have picked accounting, computer repair or the practice of law, but for whatever reason, he chose to be a waterman. The recreational fisherman is on the water to have fun and catch fish. True, he could have picked golf, bridge or stamp collecting, but he chose fishing. When there are enough fish for one, there are enough fish for all. Even when we have to divide them up and one group gets a few more than the other.

Fishing report

Tog are being caught on good weather days out of Lewes, Indian River and Ocean City.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age. Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast. He has been the regional editor for several publications and was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine. Eric is the author of three books: Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits. He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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