Sport anglers turn to Senate

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A House saltwater fishing reform bill ignores key provisions of the industry-backed Morris/Deal "Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries."

A House saltwater fishing reform bill ignores key provisions of the industry-backed Morris/Deal "Vision for Managing America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries."

The recreational fishing and boating community is expressing collective disappointment after a saltwater fishing bill in the U.S. House of Representatives failed to address the community’s top priorities.

A reauthorization bill for the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — the primary law governing U.S. marine fisheries management — did not include many of the top priorities of the recreational saltwater fishing industry. Key stakeholders had hoped that more of the language in the Morris-Deal Commission report, A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, would be included in a bill.

“Let me note the single thing I’m most disappointed about in the House draft of the bill that moved,” says Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “One of the main recommendations of the Morris Deal Commission was the allocation of marine fisheries for the greatest benefit of the nation. The reality is that the allocation of fisheries resources is probably the most contentious issue out there. Who gets the fish?”

The fact that the issues championed by Bass Pro Shops founder and CEO Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats president Scott Deal were not addressed in the House draft of the bill “is particularly disappointing,” Angers says. “The allocations in many fisheries in the country are based on historical catch that goes back many decades.”

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For example, the Gulf of Mexico region’s red snapper season closed this year just nine days after it got under way in June, Angers says. “So the 4 million Gulf Coast recreational fishermen have had nine days to go fish. And [in early June] we had 6-foot seas.”

In the Gulf, nearly 4 million saltwater anglers compete with fewer than 400 saltwater commercial fishermen for the annual catch of red snapper, the “filet mignon of the sea,” Angers says. “Is it in the best interest of the nation to marginalize recreational fishermen who buy groceries, and stay at hotels by the coast, and buy boats and motors and trailers and tackle, and invest in real estate, coastal real estate, or in small coastal communities? Is it in the best interest to marginalize those people and for the government to pick winners?”

“The current situation with Gulf red snapper is truly disheartening,” says Yamaha Marine president Ben Speciale. “Having experienced this season being shortened from 40 days to 11 and now just nine days, shows the extent to which the current management system is broken.

“Anglers everywhere should take note of the red snapper issue and see why advocacy efforts are so crucial to our industry’s success,” Speciale says. “It may be true that the red snapper issue disproportionately affects anglers in the Gulf region, but this issue may very well serve as a precursor for the federal management strategy for fisheries across the country.”

Speciale says he hopes the red snapper issue and others like it will be resolved in the upcoming reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens. “However, we must, as an industry, keep the pressure on Congress regarding this issue. Dealers and boatbuilders everywhere need to advocate for the red snapper legislation,” from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

Looking at giving recreational anglers specific boundaries on allocation “is something we see in the Senate draft of Magnuson-Stevens, but I was particularly disappointed to see it omitted from the House draft,” Angers says. “I’m hopeful we can work with our Congress to get it back in. No one disagrees that we should be allocating America’s resources to the best of our ability for the nation. We just disagree about how we get there.”

House setback

The bill brought out by the House Natural Resources Committee in early June — the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act (H.R. 4742) — disappointed many in the recreational fishing and boating community. The committee is chaired by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

“While we appreciate chairman Doc Hastings’ interest and efforts in Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, we would like to have seen more done in this bill to address the needs of the recreational fishing community,” American Sportfishing Association president and CEO Mike Nussman says in a statement. “This bill includes several provisions that we support, such as easing the strict implementation of annual catch limits and improving stock assessments for data-poor fisheries, but unfortunately our top priorities are not meaningfully addressed.”

“We were all disappointed, especially here, because we were hopeful this would get pushed a little bit further,” says Mercury Marine spokesman Lee Gordon. “Unfortunately, it seems like [some of the needs of the recreational fishing industry] got put on the back burner. We were cautiously optimistic that the election year wouldn’t factor in, but we’re hearing that played a huge role.”

Since its inception, the Magnuson-Stevens Act has focused primarily on saltwater commercial fishing, according to those supporting the interests of the recreational fishing industry. “In addition to overlooking the priorities of the Morris-Deal Commission, we are also disappointed that the federal management failure with red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is not resolved in H.R. 4742,” Coastal Conservation Association president Patrick Murray says. “A comprehensive overhaul of red snapper management is the only way to get us out of this mess. It’s vital that Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization addresses this management train wreck by transferring Gulf red snapper management over to the states, which are much better equipped to successfully manage this important fishery.”

There was “hope for everyone that more would be done” to “push forward and that more would be put forth from the Morris-Deal vision,” Gordon says.

Brunswick Corp. president and chief operating officer Mark Schwabero praised the efforts by Morris and Deal. “Some of the leadership within the industry has really gotten involved on the next generation of legislation,” says. “The two principals, Johnny Morris and Scott Deal, have done a yeoman’s job of bringing the industry’s position forward to Congress. Next up will be continued activity from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Center for Coastal Conservation and other groups to keep trying to push this forward and make something happen. Whether it gets through the cycle this year or during the next cycle of elections is always a question. But as an industry I think the Morris-Deal activity is a move northward.”

Senate bill anticipated

H.R. 4742 has cleared the House committee and awaits a floor vote. The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to unveil its Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill in the near future. With limited floor time before the November election, many experts believe that full Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization might not occur until the next session of Congress.

“We understand that Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization likely has a long road ahead before a final bill gets signed into law, so we are hopeful that working with our friends in Congress we can get the recreational fishing and boating community’s priorities addressed,” Angers says in a statement.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to bring focus toward improving saltwater recreational fisheries management, and there’s too much at stake to let this reauthorization pass without making the necessary changes that will establish a management system that works for, not against, recreational fishermen.”

The Senate will have a crack at the bill before convening afterward to discuss how to move ahead, Angers says. “This is a major reauthorization over a major and normally bipartisan bill. Last year’s markup in committee was one step in a long journey. But the recent House committee markup was another event on a long journey. Passing any piece of legislation doesn’t happen overnight, especially one as big as this,” Angers says. “It’s going to be a journey, and that was one step. And it didn’t work out like recreational fishing and boating hoped, but we have number of other steps along the way to make it better. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue.

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