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The future of recreational fishing is at stake

Tuesday’s Dealer Outlook called for increased penalties for commercial fisherman who break the law as something that should be considered in the upcoming reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. But there’s much more that should be accomplished, particularly as related to recreational fishing.

So just what is the Magnuson-Stevens Act? It’s the primary law governing fisheries in U.S. federal waters, first passed in 1976 and most recently reauthorized in 2006. It’s a complicated law, having both national and international components, but its stated purpose was to promote the U.S. fishing industry's optimal exploitation of coastal fisheries by “consolidating control over territorial waters.”

It’s most notable that a basic design flaw of the original act was that it didn’t consider recreational fishing. Not until the 2006 reauthorization that required establishing eight Regional Fishery Management Councils to “steward fishery resources” did things begin to change. The idea of the councils was to enable stakeholders to participate in the administration of fisheries and consider social and economic needs of states. A good idea, to be sure, but not really successful because the councils were made up primarily of commercial fishing members eyeing their own interests, not those of the recreational community.

In establishing the eight councils, Congress directed them “to achieve the goal of ending overfishing.” Moreover, the process required fishery managers to establish science-based annual catch limits and accountability measures for all U.S. fisheries with a deadline of 2010 for all stocks deemed subject to overfishing.

Big problem: Assessments of fish stocks either didn’t exist or were being done by the SWAG (scientific wild-ass guess) method that even the National Science Foundation couldn’t support. Meanwhile, fishery managers, faced with a far-too-short deadline and no flexibility, rushed to determine the health of stocks. The result has been many questionable restrictions and policies allocating allowable catch limits and recreational anglers getting the short end. The red snapper allocations and sector separation policies have become recreational fishing’s lightning rod.

“Time for change” has been the cry of recreational anglers who are now more vocal than ever. Many organizations have been pursuing recognition and changes in the context of Magnuson reauthorization. Groups like the American Sporfishing Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Coastal Conservation, National Marine Manufacturers Association and state marine trade associations, among many others, have been leading the way.

As a result, the importance and huge economic impact of recreational fishing is now being recognized. Last month, NOAA unveiled its first-ever National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy. The fishing organizations have convinced NOAA to recognize, define and coordinate federal efforts to advance saltwater recreational fishing. NOAA Fisheries assistant administrator Eileen Sobeck announced the new policy last month at the Miami International Boat Show.

“This policy represents a milestone in NOAA Fisheries’ relationship with the recreational fishing community,” American Sporfishing Association president Mike Nussman said. “While the sportfishing industry and the recreational fishing community have been frustrated with saltwater fisheries management in federal waters, much of it is attributable to the lack of clear guidance within NOAA Fisheries for how to properly manage and consider recreational fishing's interests. This new policy sets forth a path for how the agency will elevate recreational fishing in a way that benefits both fisheries resources and public access to them.” Specifics on implementation of the new policy are expected to be released this spring.

On still another front, the state wildlife agencies from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas just announced an agreement for state-based management of Gulf of Mexico red snapper. According to the states, decisions made by NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council in recent years have increased privatization of this public resource and decreased recreational fishing opportunities.

The states’ plan to form a Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority is predicated on transferring management away from the regional council. “Coordinated management among the states is the only solution to an unaccountable federal system of fisheries management,” Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation president Jeff Crane said.

Coastal Conservation Association president Patrick Murray said: “We have long pushed for the states to take over Gulf red snapper, but until now, we haven’t had a detailed plan for what state-based management would look like. Under this approach, we are confident that management outcomes will begin to align with the health of the resource and anglers’ access to it.”

How this plan will play out is unknown. However, what is clear is the recreational fishing community no longer accepts failed management policies that have resulted in unbalanced fishery decisions. Changes to Magnuson-Stevens during the reauthorization process are among the highest industry priorities and dealers should be prepared to be engaged in this critical process when called on.



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