Any discussion of the convoluted 1970s laws that regulate saltwater fishing seasons and catch limits tends to leave people glassy-eyed, wondering only, “Can I take my kids fishing?”
To understand what’s at stake in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s reauthorization, which dictates how many fish of a given species anglers may catch each year in federal waters (read: coastal areas and salt water), it’s important to understand the bill’s genesis as a tool for commercial fishing management.
In a nutshell, Magnuson-Stevens was designed to Americanize the commercial fishing fleet in domestic waters, and it has been modified over the years to help rebuild overfished stocks. But its focus has been on commercial fishing, and the law’s administrators have largely overlooked recreational angling by not altering their approach, says Jeff Gabriel, legislative counsel for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
“I don’t think that people [factored] the recreational fishery into the equation because they couldn’t see the effects as well,” Gabriel says. “With commercial fishing, they could see the money it brought in.”
In fact, though, more jobs spring from the relatively fewer fish caught by sport anglers than from the commercial haul, says Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association. Speaking at a 2014 Miami boat show discussion about a report by the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, Nussman said that in 2011 about 11 million Americans fished recreationally in salt water, spending $27 billion. That activity generated more than $70 billion in economic output and sustained 450,000 jobs, he said.
Recreational fishing also has changed dramatically over the decades, giving more people more access to the waters regulated by Magnuson-Stevens, Center for Coastal Conservation president Jeff Angers says.
The debate is not about whether to relax fish catches, Angers says, although in some fisheries — red snapper, for example — there have been assertions that the limits are overly stringent (see accompanying story). “Whether people catch fish for a living or for fun, most agree that there should be some controls over how many fish are caught and in what size range to ensure healthy stocks,” he says.
These are a few of the factors driving an effort to change how recreational fishing is handled under Magnuson-Stevens as it goes to Congress for reauthorization. The act expired in September, giving the boating industry an opportunity to outline its vision for the way it would like to see things evolve.
“We think if we allocate America’s public fishing resources based on the best interests of the nation — because many of these standards seem to be rusted shut today — that things will change, and they’ll change in favor of the recreational sector,” Angers says. “The value of a fish caught in the recreational sector is exponentially higher than one that’s sold dockside, and we know that. I’ve got lots of friends who struggle to hide from their wives how much they spend each year on fishing.”
The Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president and co-founder Scott Deal, spent 2013 meeting and debating strategies to improve recreational fisheries management. In February the commission issued what it called “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries. (Visit http://www.trcp.org/assets/pdf/Visioning-Report-fnl-web.pdf for the full report.)
The recommendations in the report focus on reauthorization in six key areas:
• Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing
• Adopting a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management
• Allocating marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation
• Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines
• Codifying a process for cooperative management
• Managing for the forage base
It’s ‘not working’
Although Congress made progress in advancing the interests of recreational fishing within the act, it still “clearly isn’t working,” says Mike Leonard, director of ocean resource policy at the American Sportfishing Association, who also serves with Angers on the steering committee for the Morris-Deal commission.
The commission maintains that Magnuson-Stevens should include a provision for the creation of a national saltwater recreational fishing policy that identifies goals and strategies for recreational fisheries management at the local, state and national levels.
“Future progress would be significantly advanced through the establishment of a comprehensive national policy defining and coordinating efforts throughout the federal government, focusing primarily on the National Marine Fisheries Service, to advance saltwater recreational fishing,” the report says.
“I’ve spoken to members of Congress who were on the floor when this was passed, and they told me that catch shares were never meant to apply to recreational anglers. I’ve heard that on the floor from members of both parties,” says Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who has struggled with the issue personally as a fisherman and legislatively.
“By applying catch shares to recreational anglers, the end result is that it’s pitted the commercial anglers against recreational anglers. Honestly, they should be on the same side. We have common goals and we all want access to natural resources, and we all have a vested interest in keeping fish species thriving.”
The result is often rules that “are restricting a big part of America’s family heritage,” Scott says. “The fact is, when you fish for grouper, you may very well catch a snapper. And when you pull it up 200 feet, it’s dead. A grouper may survive better than a snapper, but in many cases it’s dead, too. And because of limits you’re throwing a fish back that’s already dead.”
There are challenges to getting politicians on board in a time of sharply divided parties. But there are several who have been involved for a long time, says Martin Peters of the Yamaha Marine Group.
“We’ll make visits to members of our footprint — Yamaha has facilities in Missouri, Indiana, Texas and Georgia — and Congressman Scott is part of the Georgia delegation,” Peters says. “We visited him in our typical visits to members and were really excited to discover that he, as an angler and a boater who is very passionate about the sport, knew a great deal about the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and was probably a bigger advocate for change than we were.”
Scott does not think the catch limits set in Magnuson-Stevens should apply to recreational anglers because that’s not what they were written to do. “I think most anglers like myself want to protect the species for the next generation, but there needs to be specific language in the act for recreational fishing,” he says.
“I understand the value of commercial industry, and we want to make sure their interests are protected, as well,” he says. “I think that can be accomplished in the same piece of legislation, and one of the ways is to give states more authority — to take it away from the federal government and deliver it back to the states. That’s where you’re going to have people, I believe, who have a better picture of the fishery as a whole [and] are able to come up with rules and regulations that make sense.”
Local versus federal
Many states manage their freshwater catches and do a “really good job of working with anglers all across the country,” Angers says. It’s easier to do regionally, Scott says, because regions are better focused on the economic impact of their tax base.
“They have to pay attention to what it does to the retail side of the equation,” he says. “I think hopefully we’re going to be able to transfer more of the authority to the states.”
States are equipped to know and understand local species better than a federal bureaucrat who is managing from afar, Scott says. “They know more about the species, more about seasons, the anglers and are better able to draft and support laws that better protect the species, the recreational angler and the commercial angler.”
Gabriel says the historical reason behind a national fishing policy for saltwater species is the same reason there’s a federal water policy. “Fish are not withheld to borders,” Gabriel says. “That is the main reason for the argument overall for why you want a federal fisheries policy. These are national resources. I suppose, on some level, you can make the argument that some fish stay in different places. We have federal fisheries laws that by and large look at that big picture. It does a pretty good job of building stocks. A lot of little tweaking can go on, but I don’t know if the answer is scrap this federal system and go from scratch. That said, when agencies do stupid things, I get why people want to get rid of the whole thing.”
It’s important for the rules to stay federally based even if they are more localized in the future because a fish that breeds in the Chesapeake Bay, such as striped bass, can travel up to Maine and get caught, Gabriel points out.
The commission’s suggestions create something of a balanced approach by keeping the authority in federal hands, but they ask that Magnuson-Stevens specifically address recreational fishing instead of spreading commercial fishing rules to that industry.
At a time when Congress can’t agree on much, it seemed unlikely in late 2013 that movement on the issue would occur during the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens. It expired in September, which means the former rule applies for now, but there was encouraging news in March, Angers says.
Visits with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, chairman of the subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and the Coast Guard, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., ranking member of that subcommittee, went extremely favorably, Angers says.
“Both offices wanted to include the type of language that was important to recreational fishing,” Angers says. “Both asked us in the same way, with the same words and with the same tone of bipartisanship, how we could include language that would apply to recreational fishing. It demonstrates how hard we’ve worked to build those relationships in those two states. Those offices couldn’t be farther apart and they couldn’t be more different politically, but they’re on the same page.”
On Feb. 27 there was a final subcommittee hearing to get various perspectives on Magnuson-Stevens, Angers says. “Sen. Begich said himself at the hearing that his desire was to have his exploratory draft of the reauthorization out by late March. So late this month we might see something. I think we’re going to see consensus from both the Democratic and Republican staffs to put good stuff in the bill, and I’m really pleased to see that because we really want to avoid any partisanship.”
Angers and Leonard likened the reauthorization to large packages such as the 2014 farm bill, which passed early this year, or WRDA, the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. Both bills were dense, somewhat controversial and sought to placate people who had many opposing points of view. In this case, commercial fishing industry advocates might not be happy about some of the added language.
“As we said, Magnuson-Stevens and all its various reauthorizations since it was first passed in the 1970s have always been about commercial fisheries,” Angers says. “All the major re-enactments and reauthorizations have focused on the commercial fishing industry. It’s time to focus on recreational fishing. Many on the commercial side are happy with the status quo. I think a lot of folks on the commercial side also recognize the shortcomings of managing the recreational industry with the same tools used to manage the commercial industry. So I think some of this could be embraced by the commercial side by some. Others, not so much.”
Despite some opposition, several political operatives are prepared to dig in on behalf of change. “There are a number of us who are sportsmen in Congress, and we’re going to make sure the interests of the recreational angler are protected,” Scott says. “I believe that can be done without being at the expense of commercial anglers. That’s what we’re going to work toward.”
“It’s encouraging to be part of the bipartisan process on an issue that has to be bipartisan,” Angers says. “Fish don’t understand when they cross from state waters into federal waters, and the politics on regulating catching them has to be bipartisan. With our chairman and ranking member, we find ourselves in a good place there.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.