What’s the Catch? Challenges and Opportunities of the U.S. Fishing Industry

The economic importance of the fishing sector extends well beyond the coastal communities for which it is a vital industry. Commercial fishing operations, including seafood wholesalers, processors, and retailers, all contribute billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy. Recreational fishing—employing both fishing guides and manufacturers of fishing equipment—is a major industry in the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic. Estimates suggest that the economic contribution of the U.S. fishing industry is nearly $90 billion annually, and supports over one and a half million jobs.

A host of challenges threaten fishing’s viability as an American industry. Resource management, in particular, is a key concern facing U.S. fisheries. Since fish are a shared natural resource, fisheries face traditional “tragedy of the commons” challenges in which the ineffective management of the resource can result in its depletion. In the United States, advances in ocean fishery management over the past four decades have led to improved sustainability, but more remains to be done: 17 percent of U.S. fisheries are classified as overfished, and even those with adequate fish stocks may benefit economically from more-efficient management structures.

Meeting the resource management challenge can lead to improved economic activity and better sustainability in the future. Rebuilding our nation’s ocean fish stocks can drive up sales by billions of dollars and lead to hundreds of thousands of new jobs for American workers (Rauch 2013), while lowering public disaster payments to fisheries, reducing commercial fishing fatalities, and raising the quality of fish for American consumers.

A founding principle of The Hamilton Project’s economic strategy is that long-term prosperity is best achieved in a changing global economy by promoting sustainable, broadly shared economic growth. One important way to fulfill the goals of this strategy is to encourage the efficient use of our nation’s natural resources. In this policy memo, The Hamilton Project considers the economic challenge of ocean fishery management, which has important implications for the commercial and recreational fishing industries and to the economic viability of myriad coastal communities around the country.