We went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, hoping to bring home a few snapper dinners. We dropped anchor about 16 miles offshore and we found lots of action. But it wasn’t the snapper that were biting. It was gag grouper attacking our baits. Hard hitting and always an exciting fish to catch, gag grouper is also our favorite fish to cook up.
Unfortunately, we had to release all our tasty gags. You see, the fishery for gag grouper in federal waters (starting nine miles offshore) was closed on Jan. 1 for six months. I admit, we grumbled a little about having to let our beautiful gags go, but we play by the rules and we were basically peaceful about it. Peaceful, that is, until a commercial grouper boat passed by heading for shore with what we’ll bet was thousands of pounds of gag grouper in its hold.
What we were seeing was a living example of what’s wrong with the federal management of our saltwater fisheries. These days, it seems no matter where we boaters and anglers choose to fish -- East Coast, Gulf Coast, West Coast -- the changing limits and area closures are nearly impossible to keep up with, and not even close to fair or reasonable!
In our case, the National Marine Fisheries Service's closure of Gulf gag grouper for six months applies only to recreational anglers. Commercial fisherman can take 100,000 pounds of gag grouper during the closure. But, not one grouper for us! It’s a similar situation for red snapper on the southeast Atlantic coast. And that illustrates the basic problem.
As incredible as this may seem, NMFS officials somehow logic that cutting off family fishing while allowing commercial guys to take tons and tons is the fair way to manage the resource. What bull! It’s blatant pandering to the commercial interests. NMFS will say they must follow so-called historic uses of the resource and must give the largest percentage of fish for commercial taking. Never mind that recreational boaters outnumber commercial interests by over 100 to one. Never mind that the recreational fishing and boating industries contribute more to our economy and jobs. Never mind that a logical alternative for sustaining the fishery would be to set a recreational bag limit of, say, two or three gags while making major reductions in allowable commercial takes.
If you’re a dealer selling fishing boats on fresh water, you’re in luck because fresh water fishing management programs correctly make recreational fishing families their number one priority. They’re a model for salt water policies.
However, if you sell salt water fishing boats, you’ve got trouble ahead. The NMFS is commercially biased. Its policies are distorted. It’s likely your customers will be shut out of more fish and fishing areas in the future as many in the NMFS lean toward instituting policies like “catch shares” and “sector separation.”
Traditionally, our boating and angling customers are escape artists. They boat and fish to “get away from it all.” To take on battles goes against why they boat and fish. However, when they’re treated unfairly, or their rights to fish are usurped, it’s time to act. That’s finally happening with groups like the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the United Anglers of Southern California. They’re filing lawsuits. They’re rallying boaters and anglers to speak out at federal and state agency hearings. They’re backing legislative initiatives to protect fishing rights. They’re demanding fair treatment.
If you’re a salt water fishing boat dealer or manufacturer, you and your customers need to become engaged now. Invest some time to get up to speed on what’s happening or could happen. If you do, you’ll be convinced it’s good business to join and support the fishing organizations that are out front taking up the fight!
To learn more and join the RFA, call 888-JOINRFA or visit www.joinrfa.org. For the UASC, go to www.keepamericafishing.org and to support and donate to the UASC’s Ocean Access Protection Fund, visit www.oceanaccessprotectionfund.org.