SOLDOTNA, Alaska — The overall consensus among those who testified Wednesday at a U.S. Senate field hearing to discuss saltwater fish stock management was that there needs to be better data on saltwater fish populations and increased funding to gather those data.
However, panelists at the hearing — representing recreational boating and fishing, commercial fishing, processors, indigenous tribes, conservation and other sectors — had different perspectives about how or even whether the act governing saltwater fishery management should be updated.
The Alaska Field Hearing was held at Kenai Peninsula College by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and the Coast Guard. The panel is part of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Titled “Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act: Oversight of Fisheries Management Successes and Challenges in Alaska,” the hearing aimed to discuss major issues affecting the management of federal fisheries and access to federal waters.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act is the nation’s primary saltwater fishery management law.
Testifying on behalf of the recreational boating and fishing industries were Spud Woodward, director of the coastal resources division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Yamaha Marine Group President Ben Speciale; and Liz Ogilvie, director of Keep America Fishing, American Sportfishing Association.
“Five years of a red snapper harvest moratorium and a total of 17 days of allowable harvest since 2010 have left our citizens in the South Atlantic totally dismayed,” Woodward said. “The same can be said about thousands of Georgians who fish for snapper in the Gulf when they learned that federal waters were only going to be open for three days in 2017.”
Fortunately, state and federal authorities reached an agreement to extend the season, Woodward said. “However, as of today the South Atlantic remains closed to the harvest of red snapper despite a marked increase in abundance to the point that discards, and now, not harvests, is actually the management challenge.”
The estimates of dead discards, though imprecise, “actually exceeded the annual catch limit and perpetuated closures, leading to lost fishing opportunities,” Woodward said.
Adding to the frustration among Georgia residents was the restriction of cobia fishing in federal waters, Woodward said. North Carolina and Virginia weren’t subject to the restrictions because cobia are caught in state waters. In Georgia, they’re found in federally managed waterways.
“So our anglers lost a recreational fishing opportunity without there being a commensurate conservation benefit or need,” Woodward said.
Speciale focused on the economic impact of recreational saltwater fishing and thereby underscored the need for amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act to allow for increased management flexibility for recreational fisheries.
“We’d like to say a fairer allocation methodology, based off the economic output,” Speciale said. “The recreational industry is a big, big industry. It’s good for the economy of the United States, and that doesn’t take away from other sectors. It’s just way different.”
Consistency in fishing seasons is crucial to keep boaters and anglers engaged, Speciale said.
Here is a video of Speciale speaking at the hearing:
Some who offered testimony cautioned against revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
“I would certainly caution against allowing flexibility that would overshadow conservation,” said Linda Behnken, president of the Halibut Coalition and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “Far too often decisions are driven just by straight economics.”
“I would be very wary of lowering the bar of data collection to be more inclusive,” said Lori Swanson, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance.
Keep America Fishing’s Ogilvie said there are substantial economic opportunities for the recreational industry regarding offshore fishing, but “we are confronted with a management system that for years has been limiting that opportunity.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fishery management is viewed adversarially by the recreational fishing community, Ogilvie said.
“While efforts have been made in recent years to improve the dialogue between the agency and anglers and to better understand how to address concerns, anglers have seen little change in the agency’s actions and how they translate to fishing opportunities,” Ogilvie said. “Fairly or unfairly, the general perception among anglers is that NOAA Fisheries only understands and cares about commercial fishing.”
“The takeaway today was that federal regulators realized there was an issue with federal oversight and management of recreational fishing,” Phil Dyskow said after the event. He is the Yamaha Marine Group’s immediate past president and is active in recreational fishing advocacy.
“In order for any of this to happen, we need a champion in Congress to say, “I’m going to fix this’ or ‘I’m going to address this need.’ That’s what I see lacking right now. The real issue is we can’t fix this. This needs a congressional solution.”
The National Marine Manufacturers Association has provided access to the testimony from industry leaders. It is available here.
Sullivan told about 100 people who attended the standing-room-only event that he will accept public testimony on the issue.