Q&A with Jeff Angers of the Center for Coastal Conservation and Mike Leonard of the American Sportfishing Association

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes
Leonard with a 15-pound redfish.

Leonard with a 15-pound redfish.

Anglers and hunters are used to certain parameters. They know they must obtain a license and they understand there are designated seasons for certain species.

But frustration has been building among some saltwater anglers about limitations on certain species (the poster child is the red snapper). What many are just beginning to grasp is that limitations on coastal fish catches today can be traced to a 1970s law originally intended to keep America’s fish bounty in the hands of domestic commercial fishermen.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act began to focus on replenishing depleted stocks once it had defined clear parameters for foreign vessels. Unlike regionally managed freshwater stocks, coastal management is carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional fisheries.

Angers with a speckled trout.

Angers with a speckled trout.

The federal act has been reauthorized a number of times, but it continues to largely focus on the commercial fishing industry. Magnuson-Stevens came up for reauthorization in September, but Congress has yet to move on anything, making the current law the default.

In the meantime the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management is working to develop changes to the law that, although implemented for commercial anglers, is broadly being applied to recreational fishermen, too.

It’s hard to understand the complexities of the law without grasping the history behind it, so Soundings Trade Only caught up with two of the commission’s main players — Jeff Angers of the Center for Coastal Conservation and Mike Leonard of the American Sportfishing Association.

We asked them to explain the history of Magnuson-Stevens and to identify ways of improving its management of recreational fishing.

Q: Can you start by giving us the history of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and telling us what the issues are from the perspective of recreational anglers?

Mike Leonard

Mike Leonard

Leonard: I think when you look back historically it helps explain how we got to our current state of affairs, where we see a fisheries management system designed primarily, almost exclusively, to figure out how to sustain and regulate the commercial harvest, and recreational fishing’s just kind of been the square peg/round hole that’s been lumped in.

They’ve been trying to use the same approaches on recreational fishing, but it’s not really working. Recreational fishing participation has increased as more folks are moving to the coast.

When the Magnuson-Stevens Act was passed in 1976, commercial fishing was predominantly what people were thinking about when it came to saltwater fishing. There was a much more primitive recreational saltwater fishing industry. The number of anglers going out farther offshore was nothing like what we see today.

We were getting a lot of foreign fleets fishing out of U.S. waters, and part of the point of Magnuson-Stevens was to control that, as well as to create a conservation effort. We had a lot of fish stocks plummeting as a result of overfishing.

As we’ve moved on since 1976, there have been several reauthorizations. Over time we’ve also seen participation in saltwater fishing go up, and as a result the recreational fishing community has become better organized.

Jeff Angers

Jeff Angers

Angers: Through the early 1970s, what we saw was a bunch of foreign commercial fleets fishing out America’s bounty right up to our shores. So when Congress first acted in 1976, through the Magnuson-Stevens Act, they established what we call our exclusive economic zone, the EEZ, from basically 3 miles from shore out to 200 miles. That let every other nation know that these are our waters; you’re not welcome.

We Americanized our commercial fisheries and we really kind of established an industry then.

Commercial fishing focuses on a small number of harvesters taking as many fish as they can for profit. Recreational fisheries are focused on millions of Americans pursuing fish for different reasons. Whenever I fish with my three kids under 10, I’m not trying to fill up an icebox. In many cases, it’s to have a day on the water and catch a couple of fish and to put them back, or put one or two in the ice chest. The motivations of recreational fishing are vastly different.

That’s why we’ve said all along that you can’t manage us like you manage commercial fishermen. Commercial fisherman harvests can be digitally counted when they land catches at a small number of docks. It’s impossible for government to count every fish caught by every recreational angler, kid and grandparent. And since you can’t count recreational catches the same way, we need to be managed differently.

Leonard: When you look at how to meet the goals of the commercial fishermen, it’s not that difficult a concept. They want to harvest as much biomass as they can, the maximum sustained yield, while making sure there’s still enough out there. It’s the concept, “What’s the maximum amount of fish we can take out of the water to still make sure there’s enough out there to reproduce and grow?”

The same can generally be said of anglers, but like Jeff said, we’re not interested in squeezing out the exact last pound we can take. We’re interested in time on the water and having the most days we can enjoy our natural resources, spend time with family and friends.

Angers and his son, Graham, with the boy's first redfish.

Angers and his son, Graham, with the boy’s first redfish.

So it takes a different approach. Generally you want to manage so you have greater abundance. Anglers are interested in making sure they have a lot of fish to catch, but making sure they have big fish.

That’s not necessarily the way you want to manage the goals of the commercial fisheries, yet … the managers have approached the sectors the same. Here are the pounds; here are the numbers you can take. That’s possible in commercial fisheries, but with the millions of anglers you have out there it’s just impossible to know how many pounds of fish they’re catching. We’re starting to look at how we can move past that.

Q: What you’re saying makes sense, so where is the disconnect? And how does allocation work between recreational and commercial fishermen?

Angers: You mentioned the word allocation. I think we’ve not actually spoken to that question, and I think that will be part of the answer here. In the commercial fishery responsible for the taking of pollock in Alaska, which is the No. 1 fishery by volume in the country, I believe that commercial fishermen are allocated 100 percent of the fish.

To me, that is fine because the likelihood of my wife and I going to Alaska and renting a boat to go out and compete in the Bering Sea to catch a pollock is next to nothing. We’re not doing that. If we want pollock we’ll go to the school cafeteria and get fish sticks. In some cases of these predominantly or solely commercial fisheries, the allocation is proper. The allocation of pollock rightly should be 100 percent commercial. That just works.

Conversely, in a purely recreational fishery, like tarpon in South Florida, or one of the billfish fisheries in the Gulf South Atlantic, the allocations are all recreational because there’s no reason for a commercial fisherman to target tarpon. They don’t taste good and they couldn’t sell them.

There are, however, many stocks for which there is competition between commercial and recreational fisheries. For example, black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic, or Gulf red snapper … Many allocations of fish in these mixed-use fisheries were set decades ago and set on one criterion — historical catch. If my dad and his dad and his dad caught “X” number of fish, I’m entitled as a commercial fisherman to catch that many tons forever.

That’s not a good way to do natural resource policy, especially when you consider the cosmic changes in coastal states in the years since Magnuson was first passed. The coast of Florida had 8 million people [then]. Today they’ve more than doubled, to better than 20 million people.

So if we’re talking about coastal communities that cater to recreational fishing and boating, and the mom and pop bait and tackle shops, the restaurants, the shops, the hotels, the motels that cater to people who are targeting fish recreationally, we think the government needs to look at allocation based on what’s best for the nation as a whole.

Many of these fish are managed by the state, and frankly, many do a really good job as willing partners in conservation with recreational anglers. But in many cases the stocks of fish that are managed by the federal government have allocations based on data literally going back to the 1970s.

Anglers want big fish, Leonard says, proudly showing off a trophy striped bass.

Anglers want big fish, Leonard says, proudly showing off a trophy striped bass.

I mean, gosh, in the 1970s, my hair was parted down the middle. That’s a long time ago. The state of Florida had less than 10 million people. Things have changed in boating technology and fishing technology. In 1976 at the Miami boat show, what might’ve rolled out then was a 200-hp engine that was really thirsty and didn’t have good fuel economy. The largest center console was 18 to 20 feet.

What they were talking about this year in Miami were fuel-efficient 4-stroke 350-hp-plus engines powering 42-foot-plus fishing boats that can get you out to the fishing grounds in the blink of an eye. There have been cosmic changes in technology and in coastal communities, and our management structure does not reflect that.

Q: Why is it taking so long for these changes to be made?

Leonard: You have to look at the major issues we needed to address. We talked about Americanizing the commercial fleet and getting foreign boats out of U.S. waters. Then we moved on to ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks because we had so many that were not in good shape.

We had to come up with changes to build those back up. That took a lot of effort, time, energy and focus to build a system that could do that.

When you look specifically at problems with recreational fisheries, we’ve talked about how hard it is not only to count how many anglers are out there, but also how many fish they’re catching and harvesting. For many years we had an antiquated system that was exceptionally poor at figuring out how many anglers were out there and how many fish they were catching. In the last reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens, they called for an improved system for counting fish harvests on the recreational side.

So that’s been the focus. If we can make those changes and get fisheries up to healthy levels and can figure out a way to count how many fish are caught by recreational anglers, that may help take care of some of these other concerns. But we’ve gotten where we’ve largely built fisheries up to healthy levels, but they’re not there yet.

We’ve changed the system in which they’re counting harvests on the recreational side, but it’s far from perfect. But even after doing all that, it’s become abundantly clear that it’s still not working. What we’ve done so far has been good, but it’s clear it’s not going to be sufficient to meet the needs of anglers.

Q: In terms of counting fish stocks, I hear it’s old methodology. But how do you viably count how many fish are in an ocean?

Angers: I can tell you the science has gotten better on the commercial side of things because, as we said, it’s not that hard to count actual fish at a small number of docks in some of these boutique fisheries. The challenge is how to manage a robust, vibrant, growing recreational fishery that counts 11 million anglers and an equivalent $70 billion economic impact throughout the country.

The tools to manage a recreational fishery in fresh water are things like seasons, size limits and clear limits. Those are the classic tools of fishery management.

In federal waters the National Marine Fisheries Service gives the commercial industry catch limits that are hard numbers that they will not fish beyond. As they translate those hard numbers on the recreational side, they attempt to give seasons, size limits and clear limits to recreational fishermen. But there’s such uncertainty in the catch data that comes about as a result of having 11 million licensed participants that they build in such a huge factor for error that those seasons, size limits and clear limits are unnecessarily restrictive, even in the most basic conservation sense.

We think it’s inappropriate to manage us to the pound like commercial fisheries are managed, and then to have the federal government announce abrupt in-season closures because they predict we may have gone over our quota. The appropriate way to us is to have what we like to call an extraction rate. Like, in most any freshwater fishery, you can take X number of widget fish for X number of days between X and Y inches. Maybe only one over a certain size.

That’s what you do for duck hunters. Duck hunters know there’s a season and you can take X number of critters, and the season is set. Can you imagine the outcry in an announced duck season if the season was interrupted because a federal bureaucrat says we projected you might be exceeding the take of ducks and we’re just going to give you half a season this year?

That’s what the National Marine Fisheries Service is doing from coast to coast. So our focus is more on freshwater and terrestrial management techniques and making sure recreational fisheries in saltwater don’t get shoehorned into how commercial fisheries are managed.

Leonard: There are continued concerns with the science and quality of science, both on the biological side and how we’re counting fish being caught. More broadly, we’re starting to realize the problem is more with what we’re trying to use that information for.

It’s clear no matter how much money and time and energy you put into improving determining how many fish we’re counting, if we’re trying to manage 11 million saltwater anglers to figure out the exact day and time they caught X pounds of fish and at that exact time close the sea to them, we’ll never get to that level of precision. And I don’t think we need to get to that level.

Instead, as Jeff pointed out, [there’s] the way we’ve managed terrestrially with freshwater fisheries and wildlife, where we don’t try to count individual pounds of critters taken out. We set our seasons and determine the rate at which resources are being harvested. At the end of the season we go back and look and adjust after determining, ‘Did we catch too many or not enough?’ and manage it conservatively to make sure we didn’t go too far. But that way we don’t have to worry that on day 27 of red snapper season we worry we’ve exceeded our quota, and boom, we shut it down. It just doesn’t make sense to manage it that way.

Q: Red snapper allocation has been very contentious. Can you talk about that? How does bycatch factor into everything?

Angers: The Gulf and South Atlantic fisheries have stocks of red snapper, both of which are mismanaged beyond comprehension. The red snapper is a classic example of a fish for which there’s competition for what is the filet mignon of the sea.

This fishery in the Gulf, in my region, has gone from being severely depressed and overfished in the 1970s to being a wildly rebounding healthy fishery in this decade because of conservation measures put in place to reduce the bycatch of juvenile red snapper in the shrimp fishery and because of a reduction in the size of the shrimp fleet due to hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ivan. There are simply not as many shrimpers today as there were.

The way that fishery is allocated, based on data from 1979 and 1983 when the fishery was very depleted by commercial overfishing and shrimp bycatch, 51 percent is allocated to commercial and 49 percent to recreational. A lot of things have changed in the Gulf coastal states since 1979. Most notably, there are some 4 million Gulf saltwater fishermen.

The commercial fishery for red snapper in the Gulf has been consolidated down to less than 400 commercial harvesters. The federal government has gifted the exclusive right to catch the snapper in perpetuity to these less than 400 Americans. I’m all for business certainty. I wish I had certainty in my business, but I really question whether it’s an appropriate use of America’s resources to give them away to anyone in perpetuity, especially when these commercial harvesters don’t even pay enough in fees to administer the commercial red snapper program.

That allocation has been rusted shut because federal regulators don’t want to touch it. It is contentious because it’s been that way since the 1980s and it would cause controversy. Much to the credit of the Gulf Council, they advanced an amendment about a year ago, Amendment 28, to look at whether the current allocation was efficient from a commercial, economic and conservation standpoint. That amendment advanced to public comment [in February]. Over the course of the next 90 days, there will be acrimonious public comment in the Gulf about whether or not the status quo is efficient.

I believe that the number of saltwater anglers will not only double, but it will be some other multiple greater today than compared to 1979. I think the current allocation is absolutely inefficient for a number of reasons. I think that the Gulf Council will hear that from a number of people over the course of the next couple of months. The council’s going to vote on whether or not to reallocate modestly just a few percentage points in the allocation points in May.

The preferred alternative was to leave in place the existing 51-49 for the historical high quota of 9 million pounds between the two sectors, and then everything over the 9 million pounds, the historical high, would be distributed 75 percent recreational and 25 percent commercial.

That’s the alternative that all five states voted for, along with the conservation and recreational fishing bloc. The commercial fishing bloc, of course, voted against that and against pursuing it because they love the status quo. They helped invent the status quo and they don’t want to turn back the clock on any fish they have been gifted by the federal government, even if it’s a new percentage going forward.

There are so many issues in the Gulf red snapper fishery that four out of five states have taken provocative action against the federal fisheries management on red snapper and the fifth, Alabama, is in the process of taking action, telling the government to go fly a kite. Texas has for 15 years ignored the federal management rules on red snapper management. Louisiana joined Texas last year, as did Florida, in saying, “We’re not going to follow these ridiculous federal parameters on management of red snapper.”

Leonard: You asked about the bycatch. Where that is a particular concern is in deepwater fisheries, and red snapper is a prime example of that, too. We have greater restrictions or concerns with one or more stocks, but as an angler it sure is difficult to discriminate when the hook is hundreds of feet down in the water which species you catch and which you don’t.

We, and when I say we, I mean ASA, individual angler organizations, National Marine Fisheries Service [and] state fisheries managers are all coming together to figure out how to address that concern — where you want to avoid fishery stocks and how if you do catch a fish unintentionally, how do you release it so they survive to be caught another day or spawn another day? That effort is called Fish Smart, and it’s less legislative and more ‘How can we get together to get the science we need and tools to improve things on that front, from circle hooks to release devices, to help the fish avoid trauma?’

There’s a whole host of tools anglers can and should be using. We just need to figure out how to get them into the hands of anglers. We’re continuing to address that head-on.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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