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All aboard on Morris-Deal

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Advocates of regulatory reform say federal saltwater fishing policy shortchanges recreational anglers.

Advocates of regulatory reform say federal saltwater fishing policy shortchanges recreational anglers.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity among saltwater fishing stakeholders, the Recreational Fishing Alliance is endorsing a vision for managing saltwater fisheries that would give recreational anglers a seat at the table.

“This is really a landmark,” National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich says. “If we’re going to be successful [in having recreational boating and fishing interests represented], we’re going to need everybody pulling on the same oar, and today we’ve got that — probably for the first time in history.”

The RFA joins a host of other industry and fisheries stakeholder groups, including the NMMA, Yamaha Marine Group, the American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation in support of “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.”

The “vision” is the comprehensive proposal put forth last year by the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management that would give recreational anglers a much more representative voice in setting federal fishing policy. The commission’s recommendations also have come to be known as the Morris-Deal report, in recognition of the leadership of its chairmen, Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president and co-founder Scott Deal.

Martin Peters, manager of government relations for the Yamaha Marine Group, says the RFA has long represented the interests of saltwater anglers and that the unification will benefit the whole industry. “As a result of this endorsement, we become a stronger voice for the U.S. recreational fishing community,” Peters says, adding that he became an RFA member on the day of the endorsement. “When anglers everywhere raise a unified voice to Washington, D.C., we send a message that cannot be ignored, and with RFA’s endorsement of the Morris-Deal vision our coalition takes a very important step toward achieving sound policy for the good of the American angler.”

The industry wants greater differentiation between the rules for commercial and recreational fishing.

The industry wants greater differentiation between the rules for commercial andrecreational fishing.

Boating and recreational fishing advocates have increasingly pushed for the law governing saltwater fishing — the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — to specifically address the economic, social and conservation needs of recreational fishing. Additionally, the Morris-Deal vision calls for the needs of recreational fishing to be differentiated from those of commercial fishing in the Magnuson-Stevens law, which is up for reauthorization.

“For the first time in many years, the industry and angler groups are united behind a common-sense framework that addresses many of the policy issues that remain after the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2007,” says RFA founder and executive director Jim Donofrio, adding that his organization wholeheartedly supports the policy objectives set out in the vision.

At a time when Congress has a hard time moving when everyone agrees, it is particularly important to have everyone on the same page, Dammrich says. “We weren’t being as successful as we need to be,” he says. “We basically sat down to talk about what the real issues were and we realized that, frankly, there was a lot more agreement than disagreement. I think everybody agreed that we needed to work together in an environment of respect and trust and … it’s been working. The only way we’re going to be successful for saltwater recreational fishing in this country is with a unified front.”

“Everyone welcomes RFA’s formal embrace of the of Morris-Deal vision,” says Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “Morris-Deal continues to gain momentum, and we look forward to additional endorsements of the vision as it works its way through the Congress.”

Having respected industry conservationists, such as Deal and Morris, to rally around is working, Angers says. “The vision is sound, and it’s getting traction, and it’s bringing everyone in our space to it. Whether you’ve got people interested in fishing politically on the left or on the right, the principles embodied in Morris-Deal are centrist. They’re the type of policies that everyone can, should and does embrace.”

Sport anglers catch fewer fish but create more jobs, advocates of reform argue.

Sport anglers catch fewer fish but create more jobs, advocates of reform argue.

Angers says he doesn’t want to lose sight of those policies in the midst of peripheral news. “As excited as I am to have everyone on the same page, I really love talking about the page because we worked on getting the page right for years. This whole Morris-Deal process did not happen overnight. We’ve already seen Congress be responsive to those principles.”

“It bears repeating all six major bullet points of the document. The more we talk about them, the more people understand them and the less people are afraid of them,” Angers says. “Because they are relatively new concepts to federal fisheries management, though they are not new in states, which have managed fisheries well.”

The Morris-Deal Commission’s report identifies six key recommendations:

  1. Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing
  2. Adopting a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management
  3. Allocating marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation
  4. Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines
  5. Codifying a process for cooperative management
  6. Managing for the forage base

Deal says the vision marks the first time that people in the overall community got together to advocate what they are for rather than against, “instead of crying and gnashing our teeth about what happened. Because that’s been chapter and verse for the last 30 years: Something bad happens, we all decry it and then we live with it. But we don’t impact management on the front end.”

Deal continues: “That was the concept behind the commission —��getting some really smart people together that are fishery scientists, and lawyers who understand how bills get written, to kind of codify what it is that we think should be the guiding principles as it relates to recreational fishing and NOAA. That’s how we came up with the six recommendations that are part of the commission report.” (See the interview that starts on Page 10 for more about Deal’s work on the commission.)

Anglers are astounded when they hear that the fishing season for red snapper, “the poster child” for poor fishery management, is so short because the fish are so abundant, and so big, that the poundage limit is hit so quickly, Deal says. (The 2014 Gulf season lasted nine days.)

In a nutshell, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which dates from the 1970s, was designed to Americanize the commercial fishing fleet in domestic waters. It has been modified over the years to help rebuild overfished stocks, but its focus has been on commercial fishing, and the law’s several reauthorizations have largely overlooked recreational angling by not altering their approach.

In fact, though, more jobs spring from the fewer fish caught by sport anglers than from the commercial haul, says Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. In 2011 about 11 million Americans fished recreationally in salt water, spending $27 billion, he says. That activity, he says, generated more than $70 billion in economic output and sustained 450,000 jobs.

Commercial fishermen have the goal of catching as much as possible with as few resources as they can, Angers says. Recreational anglers might spend all kinds of money and not catch a fish during a weekend on the water.

“The proposed changes make sense for the anglers,” says Angers. “The more we’re able to direct people back to what Johnny Morris and Scott Deal did, the better off we’re going to be and the more we’re doing something really important for conservation.

“Whenever someone is raising an eyebrow, it’s because they haven’t read it,” Angers says. “When you read that document, and you are an angler, if you live part of your life on the water with your family, that is sound, common-sense conservation. I think everyone in our community owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Johnny Morris and Scott Deal to have the vision and stature to gather everyone together. I just feel like we’re in a really, really good place.”

Despite that good place, Mike Leonard, ocean resource policy director for the American Sportfishing Association, said in a Feb. 25 blog post that most D.C. insiders “expect the process to drag out over the course of the year, and possibly beyond.”

“Fisheries management is a byzantine, weedy place,” Angers explains. “The best advocates for conservation are our anglers and boaters on the water because when bureaucracies confuse our assets with the weediness of the process, that is bad for our fisheries resource. The more convoluted, the more people want to avert their eyes. What the Morris-Deal vision did was put it in straight talk.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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