After years of generating incremental awareness but little movement, the recreational saltwater fishing industry today is uniquely positioned to affect change in saltwater fisheries management.
“This is the first unified government we’ve had in a long time,” says Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfish Policy (formerly the Center for Coastal Conservation). “This is an opportunity unlike any we’ve ever been presented with — to move the ball in a unified fashion among unified stakeholders with a unified message being presented to the unified government.”
Longtime saltwater fishing advocates such as Angers, Martin Peters at Yamaha and Jim Donofrio at the Recreational Fishing Alliance say it has been gratifying to see the progress and momentum during the past several weeks, particularly in the new Trump administration and with consistent political majorities in the House and Senate.
“We are better prepared than we have ever been to position ourselves for success,” says Peters.
New proposals on the table ensure conservation and the rebuilding of fish stocks while also ensuring access, Donofrio says. “I think we’ll get it done. It seems this Congress and president don’t want things to be delayed. In the past, things were pretty slow — it was hard to get things done. All these companies [like Yamaha] have thousands of employees. The president is interested in their livelihoods. So I’m very confident.”
“Alternative management” is a concept brought forth by a coalition that includes the American Sportfishing Association, the Center for Sportfish Policy, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, the International Game Fish Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Billfish Foundation and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“They have all come together to work on the legislative language, or draft language that these organizations jointly believe is the correct way forward,” says Peters. “Meetings have been going on since the election. Now that stage is complete, and the individual organizations are taking that jointly drafted language to the Hill.”
New rules for a new era
Leading up to the November election, the groups issued a report recommending a government shift away from using the same tools to manage commercial fisheries as it does for recreational fishing. The vision is “an evolution” of the Morris-Deal Commission report — a document released in 2014 outlining what should be changed regarding the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the governing legislation on federal fisheries management.
This is the next step that builds on those two documents as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, heads to Congress for reauthorization. To date, the MSA has been focused on commercial fisheries management — which made sense until the past decade or so, Angers says. The MSA still works well in certain regions, such as the Northern Pacific, which is possibly the best-managed fishery in the world, he says, but it is not working well in other regions.
“When it was written, it was all about commercial fishing because that’s all there really was,” he says. “While 50 years ago, there were people who fished recreationally in salt water, it was not easy to get to the fishing grounds, given the gear that had been developed. We are 40 years after the initial passage of Magnuson, and you’ve heard me say before, 40 years ago at the Miami boat show the biggest center console might’ve been 17-foot, and the latest and the greatest innovation in motors was a 2-stroke, 150-hp engine.”
Things are different today, with boats, engines and other technologies that can get anglers to the fish. “There is much more interest and focus on the recreational pursuit, and the law has not kept up with the technology we are employing,” says Angers.
Nothing that is being considered today would take anything away from the management successes of the commercial fishing industry, all are quick to point out. “Rather, the focus is to get the federal government to recognize this fundamental truth — commercial and recreational fishing are entirely different pursuits, and they need to be managed differently. If the agencies need different tools, then we need to give them to them.”
Ensuring healthy stocks
President Obama acknowledged the fundamental differences between commercial and recreational fishing when he allowed recreational fishing to continue in national marine monuments — something the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has yet to recognize, Angers says. That was because the Obama administration understood that recreational and commercial fishing have about the same economic impact.
“You would think that the agency would be able to pay about the same attention to both industries because so much depends on proper management — the health of the resource and economic impact to local regions — but the reality is that’s not the case,” says Angers.
Saltwater advocates are quick to point out that they are in no way against the commercial fishing industry — in fact, they want different management to ensure healthy fish stocks so both industries can thrive, Donofrio says. “We clearly don’t want this to be couched as us against the commercial [fishermen] because it isn’t. It’s more against the environmental industry.”
“The trick is to make sure that folks on the Hill understand the impact of our industry without casting the commercial industry as the enemy,” Peters adds. “Any state that has significant impact from federal fisheries has both commercial and recreational industries contributing to that economy. If you’re going to pick sides, you’re putting legislators in a bad position. I think there’s a common ground we need to find.”
That thinking has led to the concept of “alternative management.” Tools in the existing fishery management arsenal are employed every day by state fishery managers across the country to successfully manage state-waters fisheries, Angers says.
“The only tools federal managers like to use are those appropriate for the management of commercial fishing, like hard quotas on tonnage of fish landed. Well, it’s mighty hard to count my fraction of a ton,” he says.
In early March, the drafts were still under wraps, but already there has been some positive response from members of Congress, Donofrio says. “We have some unprecedented changes. We speak of alternative management and some other things that are going to be very interesting for the public to digest.”
Alternative management techniques work in other jurisdictions, Angers says. “These concepts are alternatives in the frame of some federal fisheries management approaches, especially those where councils are required to manage recreational fishing to a hard quota,” he says. “They are not ideas that we have grasped out of thin air, but are rooted in management currently being used by state fisheries managers on inland and coastal fisheries.
“Alternative management approaches can provide options … to allow federal management to be tailored to specific fisheries and can be practical and reflective of the nature of recreational fishing. They are approaches that emphasize conservation while helping managers provide more consistent access to economically and culturally vital fisheries stocks.”
It’s important to alter the approach because “the current approach just isn’t working all that well for many important fisheries,” Angers says. “In trying to squeeze recreational fishing into a management model not designed for recreational fishing, federal managers are being forced to do a lot of guessing.” They are guessing how many anglers are targeting certain species, and how many fish will be caught using data collection methods that weren’t intended to determine that, he says.
“They are using data that are supposed to show long-term trends in fisheries harvests to manage seasons that are just days in length,” Angers says. “Right now, the federal management approach focuses a lot more on managing and restricting the access of the fishermen rather than looking at how fishing access is affecting the stock.”
The challenge of fisheries management and a gauge of success is achieving the appropriate balance among conservation goals, angler satisfaction and the needs of the recreational fishing industry, he says.
“In many fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not achieve this balance and recreational anglers are deprived of access and opportunity and our industry does not perform to its potential,” Angers says. “This has both negative social and economic impacts. Alternative measures in the recreational sector aim to better strike that balance. The country is replete with effective tools in its toolbox that the federal government refuses to use to manage marine recreational fishing.”
Industry pulls together
One of the most important developments has been the unprecedented unification of all facets of the saltwater angling community.
“During the last reauthorization — actually the last two — the industry was fractioned,” Donofrio points out. “The RFA was on a different page, and in total disagreement on a lot of policy things going on. I would hear from members of Congress on the committee, and they used to say, ‘Well, you’ve got this position, but others [in the same industry] have this other position.’ What that amounted to is, we never got the bill we needed because there was so much division.”
In March 2015 the RFA joined forces with other advocacy groups. “Since we’ve come together, it’s great — it’s been ironed out and discussed in detail,” Donofrio says. “This is hard stuff to get everyone to agree on, but we’ve got to do it for the greater good here. I think we’ve achieved that.”
The environmental industry is very well funded, and has been effective in talking about overfishing threats, even if they are unfounded, Donofrio says. “They put language into the Magnuson-Stevens Act at that time that would trigger artificial overfishing definitions when stocks reached their abundance. The average lay person who’s going to hear the word overfishing will say, ‘That’s horrible.’ Most Americans are conservationists at heart, so when they hear that word, it triggers a reaction.”
“We realized we’ve got to fix this artificial overfishing definition and still achieve conservation, rebuilding and access,” Donofrio says. “All three goals can be achieved by working together like we are now. Martin’s company is a leader in marine outboards — they would not be in business if they were interested in catching the last fish. We depend on sound, sustainable fisheries for the long term.”
It’s all about jobs
Sitting down during the past year, it became clear that Magnuson is clearly a jobs issue in addition to being a quality-of-life issue for anglers, Donofrio says. Almost 500,000 jobs depend on recreational fishing — which means there have to be healthy fish stocks for that industry to thrive, Peters says. America’s 11 million recreational saltwater anglers make a combined economic contribution of $70 billion annually and create 455,000 jobs every year, according to the NMMA.
Conversations among the coalition have resulted in a joint document to leave behind on the Hill, Peters says. (It can be found at https://www.nmma.org/assets/cabinets/Cabinet462/NMMA_PolicyBrochure_FINAL.pdf.)
“This is about jobs, and there is a significant piece of the material that speaks specifically to the number of jobs, the amount of economic activity generated by recreational angling,” Peters says. “The NMMA has led the effort to develop material, drawing from all the organizations.
“From our perspective at Yamaha, this coalition and the way it’s prepared itself is valuable for boatbuilders and dealers. I find it gratifying to see the progress that’s being made.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.