The Modern Fish Act is Law — Now What?

Advocates want to be sure the framework is implemented correctly and are zeroing in on reauthorization of the industry’s trust fund
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Passage of the Modern Fish Act means that government agencies must now consider recreational anglers when managing the nation’s saltwater fisheries.

Passage of the Modern Fish Act means that government agencies must now consider recreational anglers when managing the nation’s saltwater fisheries.

National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich is often quoted as saying, “Boating and fishing go together like peanut butter and jelly.”

Seventy percent of boats are used for fishing, and half of all fishing is done from a boat. America’s 49 million anglers spend almost $50 billion every year in retail sales, and participation in the sport has grown 20 percent in the past decade, according to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

So it should come as no surprise that boating’s advocacy goals have grown increasingly intertwined with fishing advocacy. Recent lobbying efforts have included the Modern Fish Act, which takes recreational fishing into account when determining how to manage the nation’s saltwater fisheries. The law also allows for new approaches to stock assessment.

It was a long battle and advocates say it’s far from over.

“Once Congress says yes and the president blesses it with a signature, you really are not done because then the law needs to be implemented,” says Center for Sportfishing Policy president Jeff Angers. “To just pass a law and leave it to the bureaucrats to implement it is akin to buying a Porsche and parking it in a bad neighborhood. You have to actively be involved in the process, or you might find your Porsche up on blocks and stripped.”

Mike Leonard, government affairs vice president with the American Sportfishing Association, agrees. “As much of a tough lift as it was getting the bill passed, it’s an equally tough lift to make sure all regional councils are aware of it and start working toward improved recreational fisheries management data collection.”

For instance, until now, catches have been measured in metric tons — which makes sense for commercial fisheries. “How does the agency account for the fraction of a metric ton my three kids caught? It’s just not practical,” Angers says.

Updated tools for measuring and assessing recreational catches do exist, and now the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils have the statutory authority to use them, Angers says. “Now we can explain how they can use them,” he says. “It’s not a process that happens in a vacuum.”

The Modern Fish Act calls for studies to explore more accurate ways of assessing stocks, Leonard says. “Having that stability and predictability is really important from one year to the next.”

Yamaha, which lobbied heavily for the bill, plans to make sure council members monitor progress at council meetings. The company also plans to encourage dealer and boatbuilder involvement, says Martin Peters, government relations senior manager.

“You have to be engaged at that level,” Peters says. “It’s not just advocacy and engagement at the federal level when comes to the statute, but also when it comes to regulations. Councils really create the regulations at the grassroots levels in their regions.”

The Modern Fish Act calls for studies to explore more accurate ways of assessing stocks.

The Modern Fish Act calls for studies to explore more accurate ways of assessing stocks.

Billions of Conservation Dollars

Of course, implementation of the Modern Fish Act is not the only legislative issue on the table. Though it has been around for more than a half-century, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund requires vigilant attention each time it comes up for reauthorization, most likely in September 2020.

The bill dates to 1950, when U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, sent a stunned letter to President Truman, who had vetoed the Sport Fish Act. “This bill had the unanimous support of the millions of sportsmen throughout this country who love the out-of-doors and was supported by those in authority and charged with wildlife conservation in our government,” Dingell wrote. “There are 17 million sportsmen throughout this country, among whom no voice was raised against the bill, but many have since expressed bitter disappointment in its veto, which I assured them was only a temporary setback.”

Truman viewed the funds as earmarks, which he opposed, but Dingell worked on compromises and gained so much support that the president had no choice but to sign the legislation into law.

“Before this act passed in 1950, the government was using that money for buying schoolbooks and building roads,” says Andy Loftus, with FishSmart, an American Sportfishing Association conservation program.

The law created an excise tax on “reels, creels and other fishing paraphernalia” to devote to conservation. It also prohibited states from diverting the money to other areas. Today, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund collects and appropriates excise taxes from fishing equipment, powerboat and small-engine fuels, import duties, and interest.

Fishing license sales were up 6 percent in 2016, and those dollars go directly into conservation, says Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation president Frank Peterson, adding, “If that goes away, we go away.”

Part of RBFF’s “60 in 60” effort — a push to have 60 million anglers in 60 months — is to funnel an extra $100 million into conservation coffers, Peterson says. In 2016, the excise tax on fishing gear and powerboat fuel channeled more than $600 million to state fish and wildlife conservation and recreation programs, according to the ASA.

When he was still in office, Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana who helped draft the amendment that increased the act’s funding, used to say, “a year didn’t go by where somebody didn’t try to raid that fund,” Loftus says. “It has grown to become a pretty large size. People are always looking to tap into it for some other reason.”

Educating new members of Congress is an uphill battle, says BoatUS government affairs manager David Kennedy. “Somebody is always willing to eat your lunch if you’re not paying attention,” Kennedy says. “People don’t understand that wildlife conservation funding comes from the hunting and fishing community.”

It’s estimated that half of recreational fishing is done from a boat.

It’s estimated that half of recreational fishing is done from a boat.

Other Issues

Yamaha and the ASA are also heavily involved in limiting the use of drift gillnets, often called “walls of death.” Large-mesh drift gillnets catch species unintentionally, resulting in half the catch being discarded as unwanted, prohibited or protected species.

A bill in the U.S. Senate would bring commercial swordfish fishing in California in line with all other U.S. and international swordfish fisheries. The Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act would phase out the use of indiscriminate, mile-long drift gillnets off California by 2020.

“It is one of those bills where we should be able to find some common ground and do some good,” Peters says. “The entire industry needs to be engaged and involved in the formation of these statutes because the conservation of these resources is important to all of us.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.

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