Weekend fishermen may play a greater role in depleting saltwater fish stocks than previously believed, a new study suggests. Findings published online today by the journal Science indicate that recreational fishing accounted for some 23 percent of the total catch of overfished populations in 2002. With over 10 million saltwater recreational anglers in the U.S. and recreational fishing activity growing as much as 20 percent in the last 10 years, their aggregate impact is far from benign, says study co-author Will Figueira of Duke University.

The widespread belief that recreational fishing has a negligible impact on fish populations grew out of a previous estimate that it only accounted for 2 percent of the total fish caught in the U.S. The conventional wisdom is that recreational fishing is a small proportion of the total take, so it is largely overlooked, says the study's lead author, Felicia Coleman of Florida State University. Coleman and her colleagues analyzed 22 years of data covering both commercial and recreational landings throughout the U.S. They were surprised to find that for some already depleted populations, sport fishermen actually removed more fish (by weight) than commercial fisheries did. For instance, in the Gulf of Mexico recreational catches for species of concern such as red drum and red snapper made up 64 percent of the landings. Along the Pacific Coast, recreational fishermen hooked 59 percent of these catches.

For all other fish (except for the two most important commercial catches, menhaden and pollock) recreational anglers account for 10 percent of the total take. If those two types are included, fishing for fun still takes twice as many fish--4 percent--out of the ocean than previously believed. The challenge is to come up with new ways to balance the increase in the number of people fishing with the need to reduce the number of fish caught and killed, comments Andrew Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire. The stocks can't sustain the increasing pressure and the only way to ensure we will have fish in the future is to leave more in the water now.