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Unity boosts prospects for favorable saltwater fishing reforms

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A recent headline in The New York Times gave me a brief moment of déjà vu: “Saving Striped Bass.”

As a writer and an angler, I had both covered and endured the collapse and subsequent rebuilding of striped-bass stocks that began some 30-odd years ago. Signs that striper stocks are in decline once more have been evident for several years.

Are we fated once more to watch this fishery tumble into real trouble as fishery managers and fishermen of various stripes do what they have traditionally done best — squabble, vacillate, ruminate, point fingers and sit on their hands until the resource is declared damaged goods?

Maybe this time will be different. Positive change appears to be in the air when it comes to some aspects of saltwater fishing. With reauthorization of the critical Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act on the short horizon, the message coming out of the American Boating Congress was one of strength and unprecedented unity on the recreational fishing front.

“This is probably the first time in history that all of the saltwater recreational fishing associations are working together,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich says. “That’s incredibly significant. If we’re not working together on this reauthorization, we’re not going to get what we need.”

Although they may not see eye to eye on every fishery issue, the groups are in agreement that Magnuson-Stevens needs to broaden its hidebound commercial fishing focus and give attention to the recreational community. “There are 11 million saltwater fishermen,” Dammrich says. “And the economic significance of recreational fishing is equal to or greater than the economic significance of commercial fishing. We don’t want to hurt commercial fishing, but the recreational community needs equal attention in terms of policy.”

Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president Scott Deal were honored at ABC for their efforts in marine fisheries conservation. They shared the Eddie Smith Manufacturer of the Year Award from the Center for Coastal Conservation.

Morris and Deal are co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management and were instrumental in developing a praised report outlining what has been described as an “innovative and results-oriented approach” for fisheries management. “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” was released at the Miami International Boat Show in February.

“Over the years, I’ve come to believe that to achieve really great things in conservation it definitely takes teamwork,” Morris said as he accepted the award at ABC. “Federal agencies can’t do it alone. And they can’t do it just through regulation. State agencies can’t make much progress alone. Individuals can try, but we’re not going to go far without others by our side. Even our important conservation organizations can only do so much.”

Morris says he felt as if he were on cloud nine, given the high level of unity that fishing and boating organizations have shown of late.

As difficult as it is in today’s slow-growth economy to invest in fishery conservation initiatives, Morris says that type of investment is critical to long-term growth. “Giving to conservation isn’t always easy because in the short term it only represents an expense, especially for publicly traded companies,” he says. “It’s a very long-term investment. But when you do look at the long term, I just can’t imagine an investment that we can all make that’s going to pay bigger dividends so that we all have the most healthy, vibrant, robust market to compete in and to have opportunities for the future.”

Strong fisheries are critical to the health of the industry, where an estimated 60 percent of the boats are used for fishing at least some of the time. “There’s no doubt that a healthy fishery means a healthy marine economy,” says Phil Dyskow, former president of the Yamaha Marine Group, a past recipient of the Eddie Smith Award and a strong advocate for marine fisheries conservation. “They go hand in hand.”

Center for Coastal Conservation president Jeff Angers stressed in an interview in Trade Only in April that recreational and commercial fisherman can’t be effectively managed the same way — hence the need for change under Magnuson-Stevens.

“Commercial fishing focuses on a small number of harvesters taking as many fish as they can for profit,” Angers says. “Recreational fisheries are focused on millions of Americans pursuing fish for different reasons. … The motivations of recreational fisherman are vastly different.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.

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