When you hear the words “fishing for your dinner,” what image comes to mind?
Do you picture a middle-aged guy with a spin rod hauling a small panfish out of a woodland lake, gutting it, skewering it on a sharp stick, and cooking it over a campfire? Perhaps you have a more modern scene in mind, involving a charcoal grill on a tailgate with a Styrofoam cooler of gas station beer. Or maybe you’re of a saltier camp with a beach pit barbecue and Jimmy Buffett crooning in the background about a tin cup chalice of red wine.
No matter what remote corner of forested solitude or saltwater paradise your brain drifts to at the thought of catching fish for dinner, it probably doesn’t involve honking taxis, towering buildings, or an overpass roaring above your head.
Or the looming threat of hunger if you don’t catch anything.
For most anglers, especially those living in urban areas, the option to cut bait and drive to the grocery store protects them from going hungry if they get absolutely skunked. But a new study from Eckerd College in the Tampa area shows that 11% of the city’s anglers fished to avoid hunger for themselves and their families in the last year, demonstrating that fishing is much more than a hobby or a way for city dwellers to connect to natural environments. For some, it’s the difference between eating and not eating.
By the Numbers According to the study, which was published by Eckerd's Urban Fishing Project led by Dr. Noëlle Boucquey and Dr. Jessie Fly, Tampa Bay is Florida’s biggest open-water estuary and is surrounded by a population of over 3 million people. Tampa has a poverty rate that is consistently higher than the national average, and the article notes that in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Area, “one in four children and one in six adults are food insecure.”
More data from their research shows that 43% of the urban anglers surveyed were from households that fit into the $0 to $50,000 income bracket. Tampa’s median household income in 2019 was almost $58,000, meaning that an estimated one out of every two urban anglers in Tampa is living significantly below the median household income.
Perhaps the most glaring statistic from the study arose in the last year. Seventeen percent of respondents sometimes or often didn’t have the money to buy food. But for economically disadvantaged anglers, Tampa Bay is a grocery store of sorts: When the going gets tough, the tough go fishing.
Jason Dattilo and Kevin Lariviere are co-presidents of the fishing club at Eckerd College, which is located right near downtown St. Petersburg. They’ve both spent many hours fishing on public piers in and around the area and said that subsistence fishing is commonplace, especially around popular areas like the Skyway Bridge piers.
“When we go to the Skyway at night, there are people there doing everything they can to catch fish,” Dattilo told MeatEater. “They’re not just fishing, but they’re also catching shrimp with these really big nets. I’ve seen them multiple times and I think they’re probably there every night. It seems like they’re fishing for more than just leisure, they’re fishing for food.”
Casting from Common Ground The study from Tampa Bay also paints a picture of anglers from a diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds and demographics coming together on public piers and building community well-being together.
“I meet all sorts of people fishing, people I’d never have cause to talk to otherwise,” one respondent said. “But fishing gives us common ground.”
Dattilo and Lariviere said that Tampa’s population of urban anglers is extremely diverse and people from all walks of life are often fishing alongside one another.
“You definitely have your tourists there, you have your regular goers who consider these piers to be ‘their spot,’ and you have people who just go there to catch fish to eat,” Dattilo said. “All different types of people going there, fishing for all different reasons.”
But the researchers from the study also witnessed judgmental and distrusting behavior at the popular, well-equipped piers where more middle- to upper-middle class anglers were common.
“[These behaviors were] often simultaneously entangled with expressions of care for fish,” the study said. “These problematic expressions of care and blame were most often voiced by catch-and-release or ‘sport’ fishers, who sometimes couched their care for fishery resources in terms of their disapproval of others’ actions (i.e., keeping undersized fish). As one fisher who was upset at seeing undersized fish kept mused, ‘I wonder, are they so hungry? Does the end justify the means?’”
But even those observations were overshadowed by evidence of public fishing piers as welcoming places.
“At one urban neighborhood pier, a self-described ‘regular’ explained that the pier contained a ‘real community’ of people, ranging from ‘high-rollers’ who gathered at sunset each day to fish and admire the view, to homeless and other food-insecure visitors, who were often recipients of extra fish,” the study said.
Lariviere rehashed a story of pier fishing with his sister. A Florida local who seemed to be from a different socioeconomic background rushed over to help them haul in a barracuda.
“He was more than willing to help get this big fish up the pier,” Lariviere said. “Then, from his experience of eating the fish around Florida, he helped me—who had no idea the fish was edible—clean it and consume it in a safe way, highlighting that people in more urban areas find these fish and experiment to find the best way to have a sustainable meal.”
Sewer Salmon Most concerns about water quality and safe consumption go out the window for urban subsistence anglers. On a scale of 1 to 5, respondents rated the cleanliness of the water a 3.7 and their perception of their own health for eating the fish a 4.2.
In other words, when it comes to enjoying their bounty, urban subsistence anglers are just like other hunters, anglers, and foragers across the United States: Everyone feels better when they know where their food came from, especially when they got it for the cost of gear and an afternoon spent outside rather than a per-pound price at a supermarket.
Urban anglers from other cities feel the same way. Lino Jubilado, a school nurse and urban fishing enthusiast from Los Angeles, has been hauling fish out of urban waters since he was a kid. You might recognize Jubilado as the cheery, Orvis-clad guy who pulled a carp out of the L.A. River, filleted it atop an abandoned mini-fridge, fried it, and chowed down on the riverbank in a video featured on Vice. (He isn’t the only one to ever eat fried carp on camera—watch Spencer Neuharth and Steve Rinella indulge here.)
“When I was younger, [the river] wasn’t open to the public. We used to go to this park and my uncle had to cut a hole in the fence and we’d walk in and fish right by the car,” Jubilado told MeatEater. “The area at the time was really gang-infested, so we had to be close to the car because otherwise it would get broken into. But we did catch bass, bluegill, a variety of fish, and my grandfather would keep some and we would cook it and eat it.”
Jubilado jokingly refers to carp with a variety of alliterative names meant to poke fun at the fish, including “sewer salmon” and “dumpster dolphins.” But in the decades that Jubilado has spent on the river, he’s witnessed lots of lower-income families catching and keeping carp in large quantities. And while he admits that he has rarely eaten carp outside of his experience on Vice, he knows that puts him in the minority.
“There are a lot of folks that go down there to fish for carp, and I see them keeping them in nets and on stringers all the time,” Jubilado said. “And I always ask them if they have any problems or if they ever get sick, and they never do. Some of them have been doing it for a long time.”
Of course, there are risks associated with consuming too much fish caught in urban waters, which are generally more subject to wastewater contamination and stormwater runoff than waterways in less populated areas. But when faced with the choice between a fresh fish dinner and no dinner at all, the choice is obvious.
Changing the Narrative Around Subsistence Fishing While subsistence fishing is a way for food-insecure populations in urban areas to feed themselves and their families, the practice is certainly not limited to people from lower-income households. In the Tampa Bay study, 97% of respondents cooked and ate whatever fish they kept, and almost half shared fish with friends and neighbors. Dattilo and Lariviere confirmed that keeping and eating your catch was something lots of urban anglers seem to do.
“Almost anywhere we go, everyone has coolers to keep fish,” Dattilo said.
Pro fisherman and MeatEater contributor Oliver Ngy hopes that more people will consider transforming into sustainable subsistence anglers. Ngy’s family immigrated from China before he was born, and he grew up in a lower-income part of Los Angeles. He taught himself to fish in nearby urban waters, and when he started hauling in bigger fish, his family’s “waste not, want not” mentality rose to the surface.
“When I got into fishing and I caught my first keeper largemouth bass, my mom threatened to beat me because I wanted to release it,” Ngy recounted, laughing. “I'd been brainwashed by fishing culture media here in the United States. And she's like, ‘Are you kidding me? I spent money to buy you this fishing tackle. You're not throwing that back.’”
Ngy, now 39, spends much of his time traveling around the United States, fishing for a living. While he is heavily invested in the bass competition world, the emphasis on catch-and-release is a far cry from what he grew up around.
“Catch-and-release has kind of become the rule, and the idea of harvesting certain species of fish, like a freshwater bass, is considered sacrilege,” Ngy said. “But if you actually look at the science, a healthy level of harvest is both good for the health of the fishery and it’s a great excuse to provide food.”
Ultimately, from Tampa Bay to the Golden State, urban anglers have been hauling in and feasting on whatever their home waters provide for a long time. This foraging has kept lots of people from going hungry, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“If you walk up and down a public saltwater fishing pier anywhere on the California coast, you're going to see a lot of lower-income representation with their five-gallon Home Depot bucket or paint bucket or soy sauce bucket, and it's got some Pacific mackerel or some croakers or what someone else would perceive as a trash fish in it. And it’s going home to the table,” Ngy said. “That should apply to all socioeconomic levels. But when someone in a better position economically looks at that person and says, 'you're lower on the totem pole,' that bothers me."