Sunday, October 14, 2018


Those big poaching busts capture most of the headlines.  

They also serve to obscure the smaller, but far more common, incidents of illegal harvest that are going on all of the time, with much of that poaching committed by recreational fishermen.

“Officer Reilly of the DEC Law Enforcement stated that unclaimed coolers are a large part of the problem.  Once Enforcement agents are spotted, coolers are abandoned.  They can contain as many as 130 fish.  Another large problem is that the vessel trip report doesn’t always match up to the number of fish caught.”
But how do you make those problems go away?

One suggestion is to make the boat’s captain legally responsible for all fish caught by his or her passengers.  But that’s not a solution that’s very popular with the party boat fleet, even though it is one that is enforced on other parts of the coast.

The most serious objection to holding the captains responsible is the fact that some party boat patrons—and, perhaps, this is particularly true of the patrons who poach—are unpleasant people, who wouldn’t shy away from violence if told to open their coolers against their will.  Some crewmembers at the Advisory Council meeting related stories of being threatened by anglers who were asked to display their catch.  (Although there is a some irony to such stories, given that the Internet tough guys who threaten to beat someone “within a half-inch of his life” for supporting various conservation measures on a Facebook page apparently turn into meek little church mice when faced with the possibility of a real physical confrontation with a hardcase poacher on the decks of their own boats.)

On the other hand, many of the party boat captains present at the meeting were completely amenable to a regulation requiring each angler’s cooler to be tagged with a name and address, so that law enforcement could identify who owned coolers left behind with too many fish inside.  However, there was no discussion of how anyone could, as a practical matter, verify that the cooler tags contained accurate information, or of who would bear the penalty should law enforcement board a boat and find untagged coolers, filled with illegal fish, abandoned on board.

And then there’s the problem of the vessel trip reports.  

“hail weight in pounds (or count of individual fish, if a party or charter vessel), by species, of all species…landed or discarded”

Failing to timely fill out an accurate trip report places a vessel operator in legal jeopardy, and it’s hard to think of a way that such an operator could fill out an accurate trip report without knowing what was in his passengers’ coolers—which is why DEC enforcement folks are running into multiple problems when boarding certain boats.  

Thus, it seems that, one way or another, crews might have to start looking under the lids of everyone’s coolers if they want to stay on the right side of the law.

The vessel owners and operators aren’t going to like that fact, but it seems that, at some point in the future, they might not have much choice, as the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council appears serious about finding effective ways to reduce poaching in the party boat fleet.  On November 13 and 14, the Council will be holding a Law Enforcement/For-Hire Workshop in Philadelphia, where

“Operator versus angler (client) responsibility for fisheries violations that occur on for-hire vessels and law enforcement options for enforcing these”
will be one of two topics on the agenda.  

Any recommendations arising out of the workship will be forwarded on to the Council for discussion at its December meeting, and possible adoption if such is deemed warranted.

But private-boat anglers shouldn’t be breathing easy and thinking that they dodged a bullet this time, because their widespread poaching is on the Workshop’s agenda, too.

And in their case it’s not, for the most part, the small-boat inshore bottom fishermen that are at the core of the problem, but a group of anglers that includes the big-boat, high-roller crowd.  It’s the people who call themselves “recreational fishermen” but sell part or all of their catch, and are thus really a subset of the commercial sector.  However, they generally lack commercial fishing licenses and, even if they have them—particularly in the case of offshore anglers who hold General Category Atlantic Tunas permits—they lack the safety equipment that the Coast Guard requires all commercial boats to carry.

We’ve all seen it.  There’s a good run of bluefin offshore—even bluefin below the legal commercial size—and suddenly there’s a surge of boats running out of the inlet and putting the fish on ice.  Legal limits often go out the window.  Boats bring a dozen large school fish back to the dock, and when somebody raises the bag limit issue, they point to the tuna’s finlets and say “Look!  They’re yellow.  These aren’t bluefin, they’re yellowfin, and we can take three apiece.”  Whether they’re really that dumb, or just playing dumb, is open to question, but they’re breaking the law just the same.

And there’s little question that they know that they can’t sell the fish and still be in accord with the rules. 

Last year, I told the story of my wife and I going into aBay Shore restaurant, and the waiter trying to sell us a “special’ bluefindish.  When I asked how big the tuna was,he quickly said “110 pounds,” a weight that was far to small for any fish thatmade the 73-inch commercial minimum size.  The waiter said that the fish had come straight from Montauk, and maybe it was poached out there, but it was hard to ignore the fact that there were a lot of tuna in the same size range being caught south of Long Island just then, and that quite a few of the boats that caught them were moored only a mile or two from the restaurant in question.

That sort of thing needs to stop, but so does the general lawlessness that we see every time there’s a good tuna bite—whether bluefin, yellowfin or bigeye—when everyone from truck drivers to teachers to wealthy physicians and real estate folks load up on fish, then unload them on the market.  Some of the boats, particularly the large ones, do have commercial permits, but a lot of them don’t, and very few of them have all of the required commercial gear.

And that’s a bad thing, because all of those hobby-caught fish, when they’re brought to market—whether through the front door of a licensed dealer or the back door of a local shop or restaurant—are competing with legitimate commercial fishermen’s landings, driving down prices from folks who are properly licensed and trying to market their fish in the right way.

Which is why the enforcement folks at the Philadelphia Workshop, and later the Mid-Atlantic Council, want to look at the issue.

It’s a big ocean, and a long coastline.  And there’s a long maritime tradition of looking the other way when smugglers, and other miscreants, practice their trade.  There are very few law enforcement agents, and the deck is badly stacked against them.

But illegal harvest steals fish from everyone, and most particularly, it steals from the honest folks that go about their business, and their recreation, without breaking the law.

For that reason, we can only hope that when the Workshop, and then the Council, talk about the recreational poaching problem, they end up talking about some viable solutions, too.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


“In war, truth is the first casualty.”
Sometimes it seems that not much has changed since then. 

Certainly, when we look at the fisheries management wars of this decade, Aeschylus’ words ring all too true.

Consider the current debate over the so-called “Modern Fish Act.”  That’s the bill designated S. 1520 in the Senate, and H.R. 2023 in the House, both titled the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act.” 

With two Modern Fish Act bills introduced in Congress, and another being belatedly given the “Modern Fish Act” designation even though it is very different from the other two pieces of legislation, there are a lot of opportunities for the truth to become bent, and even broken, as various people try to fit it to whatever situation they find themselves in at the time.

The problem with bending the truth out of shape is that you can be certain that you can ever get it back into its original form the next time that  you need it.  Worse, when you’re out touting a position in the public arena, you might forget what the truth actually looked like the first time, and end up promoting a “truth” today that looks a lot different than the “truth” that you asserted a few days ago.

That’s how “alternate facts” are born.

Just a few days ago, it appeared that some of those “alternate facts” were spawned down in Louisiana.

 “There’s a Trojan horse outside the gates of the Senate.  Unfortunately, many of our Gulf Coast senators seem ready to swing open the doors…
“Supporters of S. 1520 seem unaware that its companion that already passed in the House (H.R. 200) is quite different from S. 1520.  H.R. 200 has many more provisions that weaken the science-based conservation measures of Magnuson-Stevens, the law that has benefitted commercial and recreational fishers alike.
“If both S. 1520 and H.R. 200 pass, Congress will meet behind closed doors to decide which provisions of each bill will make it into the final law.  We can’t take the risk of such important decisions being made outside public view…”
To anyone watching H.R. 200 and the Modern Fish Act bills move—or in the case of H.R. 2023, not move—through Congress, Dix’s comments would have made sense.  The only bills that both include Modern Fish Act provisions and have made it through their respective chambers’ committee processes are H.R. 200 and S. 1520, and given that both chambers need to approve a bill in order to have it signed into law, conferencing those two bills together is a logical thing to do.

With respect to conferencing the two bills together, Angers wrote

“While the House version of the Modern Fish Act, originally introduced by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves was included in a broader fisheries bill (H.R. 200) that passed the U.S. House in July, the Modern Fish Act in the Senate is independent and strictly focuses on improvements to the way recreational fisheries are managed.  This make-believe scenario of conferencing H.R. 200 and S. 1520 behind closed doors is nothing but a scare tactic.  The bills are different and moving through Congress separately.”
It’s one of those statements where the ultimate lie—that conferencing H.R. 200 with S. 1520 “is nothing but a scare tactic” and a “make-believe scenario—is concealed with just enough truth to make the lie believable.  

Yes, S. 1520 is a different bill from H.R. 200, and the bills are currently moving through Congress separately.

But what’s going to happen if S. 1520 is passed?

As noted earlier, both chambers of Congress have to approve a bill before it is signed into law.  And as Angers himself admits, the House version of the Modern Fish Act was included in H.R. 200.  Unless the House were to revive H.R. 2023, and get it through committee in the waning days of this Congress, there is no House bill to match with S. 1520—except for H.R. 200.

But there’s no need to look at this from a theoretical standpoint.  Instead, to find the truth of the matter, just look at what Angers’ organization, the Center for Sportfishing Policy, and its members have already said about the two bills.

“We applaud the U.S. House of Representatives for passing commonsense legislation modernizing the federal fisheries management system, which will provide America’s recreational anglers and boaters reasonable and responsible access to public marine resources.  The recreational boating industry calls on the U.S. Senate to pick up the baton, and immediately take up and pass S. 1520  [emphasis added]”
Such language clearly links H.R. 200 and S. 1520.  Angers may try to convince gullible readers that “the bills are different and moving through Congress separately,” but you don’t need to “pick up the baton” in order to run a separate race.  You only do so to advance your team in the same event; Dammrich’s words reveal a clear need to get S. 1520 passed in the Senate precisely because H.R. 200 had been passed in the House and required a companion.  

If that were not the intent, in the context of H.R. 200, there would have been no need to mention S. 1520 at all.

The closing paragraph of the joint press release further cements the linkage, saying

“Following today’s vote, the coalition encourages the Senate to quickly pass S. 1520.  Marine recreational anglers and boaters are eager to see these landmark reforms signed into law.”
For, once again, why does the Senate need to “quickly pass S. 1520” following passage of H.R. 200, if there was no intent to conference the two bills?  

If the bills were truly “moving through Congress separately,” and conferencing them together was really a “make-believe scenario,” S. 1520’s passage would be irrelevant to the question of whether H.R. 200 becomes law.

But, as the Modern Fish Act supporters’ own statements reveal, everyone knows that’s not the case.

Jeff Angers knows that’s not the case.  

“The Modern Fish Act (included in H.R. 200/S. 1520) will make critically important changes to federal fishing regulations…  [emphasis added]”
You just don’t use a parenthetical that says “included in H.R. 200/S. 1520” for bills that are “independent” and “moving through Congress separately.”  You use that sort of configuration for bills that are intimately linked and, very probably, counterparts moving through their respective chambers of Congress.  

To interpret the parenthetical any other way, well, we already mentioned “bending” the truth…

“The provisions of the Modern Fish Act contained in H.R. 200 will provide both for the continued conservation of our marine resources and for the ability of Texas’ saltwater anglers to access those healthy resources…[W]e now look forward to working with our senators to assure that the Modern Fish Act takes the next step and becomes law.  [emphasis added]”
Again, the linkage between H.R. 200 and the Modern Fish Act in the Senate—S. 1520—is impossible to ignore. 

When you talk about legislation that passed in the House taking “the next step” in the Senate, you can only be talking about bills that are closely connected, and which rely upon each other’s passage in order to become law. 

Such language makes no sense if used with reference to “independent” bills that are “moving separately through Congress.”

So the question is why Angers chose to reply to Dix in a way that denies a truth that he and his fellow Modern Fish Act supporters have acknowledged so many times in the past.

The obvious answer is that the consequences of conferencing H.R. 200 and S. 1520 could be so bad that he is afraid that admitting such intent would doom support for the Senate bill.

The other, and perhaps more accurate, answer could be desperation.  

Angers’ Center for Sportfishing Policy and its allied organizations have waged a very expensive, very sophisticated campaign for the past couple of years, in an effort to get the Modern Fish Act passed.  So far, that campaign has failed. 

Their House bill, H.R. 2023, never made it out of committee, and the only way they could keep its provisions intact was by including them in H.R. 200, a bill so bad that some conservation groups are calling it “Another ‘Empty Oceans Act.’”  And some of the worst—and, to the Center for Sportfishing Policy, most desirable—provisions of S. 1520 were removed during the Senate committee mark-up process. 

What might, at first, have looked like a slam-dunk campaign to win the Modern Fish Act’s passage could very well crash and burn, if S. 1520 isn't passed very soon.  If that happens, a lot of companies, and members of the various pro-Modern Fish Act organizations, who helped to finance the PR campaign might start wondering whether they spent their money wisely, be a little upset with the outcome.

And there’s no question that the organizations involved will lose a lot of prestige.

When you find yourself in such a situation, it's very tempting to use whatever tools are available—including “alternative facts.”

And maybe that gambit will work.

But hopefully, it will not, because Magnuson-Stevens is already working—and working quite well. 

There is no need for hasty change.


Monday, October 8, 2018


As long-time readers of this blog know, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-New York) has been waging a war on striped bass, attempting to increase harvest for a handful of for-hire boats in his eastern Long Island district without regard to the impacts that would have on the striped bass population.

All of those efforts were unsuccessful.  Unfortunately, one of them, the pro-poaching funding ban, gave rise to a provision in the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to consider allowing striped bass harvest in the so-called “Transit Zone” between Block Island and the mainland.

Given the current Secretary of Commerce, who seems bent on wringing the most dead fish possible out of our ocean, regardless of its effect on fish stocks (remember what he did with New Jersey fluke and Gulf of Mexico red snapper), it’s probably not surprising that NMFS is moving forward quickly on a regulation that will achieve Zeldin’s goal of opening the “Transit Zone” to striped bass angling.

“…The Transit Zone is defined in NMFS regulations as the area of Federal waters within Block Island Sound, located in areas south of Montauk Point, New York, and Point Judith, Rhode Island.  The Transit Zone area is unique because it is a small area of Federal waters (Block Island Sound) substantially bounded by state waters (Long Island, New York on one side, Block Island, Rhode Island on another, and the mainland of Connecticut and Rhode Island on a third side).
“NMFS is considering revising current regulations to authorize recreational fishing in the Block Island Transit Zone.  This would allow recreational fishermen to harvest, retain, and transport striped bass within the Block Island Transit Zone…”
On its face, the proposal doesn’t look very bad.  It would merely open up a small piece of water to striped bass angling, while the rest of the EEZ remained closed.

However, as so often is the case, appearances can be deceiving.

The Montauk for-hire fleet has been pushing for this sort of regulation for years, because they know that the area within the Transit Zone is loaded with striped bass for much of the season.  Allowing fishing within the Transit Zone will allow the Montauk boats, along with boats from neighboring ports in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, to substantially increase their kill, particularly in the summer, when striped bass sometimes grow scarce in warm inshore waters.

Thus, there is no question that opening the Transit Zone will increase striped bass mortality, at a time when, according to an ASMFC staff memo that accompanied the last stock assessment update,

“[Spawning stock biomass] was estimated at 58,853 metric tons (129 million pounds) which is above the SSB threshold of 57,626 metric tons, but below the SSB target of 72,032 metric tons…
“Total abundance (age 1+) increased to 195 million fish by 2012 due primarily to the abundant 2011 year-class from the Chesapeake Bay.  Total abundance dropped in 2013 as the small 2012 year-class recruited to the population.  Abundance increased slightly in 2014 to 127 million fish, and in 2015 total abundance was estimated at 180 million fish.  Abundance of age 8+ fish has declined since 2012 and is expected to drop slightly in 2016.”
In other words, at the time of the update, the stock was a lot closer to being overfished than it was to being fully rebuilt, and the number of larger, fecund females was still dropping.

That doesn’t seem to be the right time to increase bass harvest, particularly given the fact that the Block Island area is known for large numbers of big female fish, and it is those fish, which are so important to the future of the population, which will be the primary target of anglers in the Transit Zone.

“…why would anyone consider opening up more real estate to fishing for striped bass when its pretty darn obvious that the stock is not as healthy as it could be?  While I am not suggesting it here today, the logical step in a scenario such as that is to actually limit where and when one could harvest striped bass, not to expand upon it…”
Yet the increased kill around Block Island will probably not be the worst result of the proposed regulation.

Block Island isn’t the only place that anglers want to catch striped bass in the EEZ, and anglers aren’t the only fishermen who want to catch them.  To again quote Tony Lapinski,

“If anglers are complaining about where the current line is drawn, then it is likely that somewhere down the line a group of anglers will come forward about the new line and we’ll be back at square one.”

But there is another area which, if opened up, could have far more dire implications for the future of the striped bass population, and that is the EEZ off Virginia and North Carolina, where a large proportion of the Chesapeake Bay spawning stock spends the winter.  There is a lot of sentiment for opening the EEZ down there, so that the local charter boat fleet can get a crack at all of the big, pre-spawn females.  As an article in the Carteret County [North Carolina] News-Times noted,

“In 2009 North Carolina asked President Barak Obama to address the prohibition of fishing for striped bass in federal waters, emphasizing that striped bass do not know where the three-mile boundary is and that warmer winters push the fish offshore beyond three miles.  Large stripers migrate south during fall and winter from their summer habitat in the northeast, where they often live within three miles.  The main harvest opportunity for oceanic striped bass fishermen from Virginia and North Carolina is during these ‘cold months.’  Even though North Carolina helped restore the population, its fishermen were losing access to this well-managed resource.”
It’s not hard to believe that, should the Block Island Transit Zone be opened to striped bass angling, fishermen down in Virginia and North Carolina will be seeking to have access to their section of the EEZ, too.

Such EEZ opening might not matter too much if striped bass were a federally-managed species, governed by hard-poundage annual catch limits.  But striped bass are managed by ASMFC, with “soft” fishing mortality rate targets for anglers, and such mortality rates aren’t even calculated from one year to the next.  Thus, the stock could experience serious overfishing, or even become overfished, for years before the problem is even detected.  And once it is, there is no legal mechanism that might be used to force ASMFC to act.  Tautog, for example, were overfished for nearly two decades before ASMFC decided to take meaningful action, and even then, it decided to allow overfishing to continue in Long Island Sound until 2029.

“…regardless of the current population status of the striped bass, [opening the Block Island Transit Zone to striped bass fishing] offers very little conservation.  It is likely that there will be economic benefits and navigational clarity from opening these waters, but it is also important to ensure that these benefits can be sustained overtime.  Thus, perhaps if [each state] created a yearly quota for recreational fishing, as it has in commercial fishing, this could ensure that the striped bass would be protected, while still allowing fishermen more jurisdictional opportunities to fish for the species.”
But don’t hold your breath waiting for ASMFC to adopt hard-poundage quotas for recreational fishermen.

And don’t be foolish to believe that only anglers will want in on the action if the EEZ opens up.  

Any opportunity to further exploit natural resources, including striped bass, is likely to meet with the administration’s approval.

It’s not hard to believe that the proposed opening of the Block Island Transit Zone to anglers will soon lead to the opening of the entire EEZ to all striped bass fishermen.  It’s not even hard to believe that’s where the current advanced notice of proposed rulemaking will eventually lead.

Thus, Zeldin’s goal of opening the EEZ inshore of Block Island to striped bass harvest will result in a serious assault on the striped bass population.  That assault may be nearly impossible to stop, but we at least need to try.

It’s very possible that, in their resistance to allow striped bass fishing in the EEZ, anglers will be fighting alone.  

The last time such an opening was suggested, groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and American Sportfishing Association opposed it.  Today, given their mantra of increased “access” for anglers, there is no guarantee that they won’t support the opening—or remain completely silent—this time around.  Opening the EEZ to striped bass angling would be very much in accord with the goals of increased recreational harvest, and increased sales of boats and fishing supplies, that they have constantly repeated in their efforts to pass the so-called “Modern Fish Act.”

But I don’t want to put words in their mouth.  While they have been silent on the issue so far, they still have a chance to come down on the side of the striped bass and striped bass anglers, and voice opposition to the opening.

Let’s hope that  they do.

But until that happens, if it happens, we’re on our own.

NOAA will only be accepting written comments on the issue.  Unlike previous times the issue was raised, they aren’t holding public hearings anywhere on the coast, which may say a lot about where this is headed.

But still, if we don’t fight at all, we’re certain to lose.  Our only slim hope is to comment against the proposed regulation, and convince everyone that we know to do the same thing.

You may send in your comments electronically, to!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2018-0106.  Once at that address, click on the “Comment now!” icon, complete the required fields, and type or attach your comments.

You may also send in your comments by mail.  Address them to Kelly Denit, Division Chief, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, SSMC3, Silver Spring, MD  20910.  Identify the issue by including the heading “NOAA-NMFS-2018-0106” in a line just above the comments themselves.  Such comments can also be faxed to Kelly Denit at 301-713-1193.

It is essential that we flood NMFS with our remarks.

For, to quote Toby Lapinski one final time,

“Regardless of which side of the fence on this subject you fall, now is the time to make your voice heard.  I can say with absolute certainty that those who have a monetary stake in this game will get involved, let’s make sure that an even voice is heard and that all sides of the argument are considered…When this shakes out in a few months, for better or for worse, the last thing I want to hear is masses of people complaining that things didn’t go the way they wanted, and then come to find out that they simply sat on their collective hands when there was an opportunity to be heard.”
That pretty much says it all. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018


Ever since April 2017, when the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act — the so-called “Modern Fish Act” — was introduced in the House of Representatives, anglers have been urged to support the bill, its Senate companion, S. 1520, and the much more dangerous Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, H.R. 200. The latter bill includes some Modern Fish Act provisions among its many other proposed changes that would weaken key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens).

Modern Fish Act supporters have gone so far as to claim that anglers, through their license fees and excise taxes paid on fishing-related equipment, pay for fisheries conservation, and so by encouraging anglers to fish more often, the Modern Fish Act is effectively a conservation bill (even though it would also lead to more overfishing and the delayed rebuilding of overfished stocks).
Chris Horton, Fisheries Program Director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said that “From 1951 to 2017, our license fees and the excise taxes we’ve paid on things like fishing tackle, rods, reels, marine electronics, trolling motors and motorboat fuels have resulted in more than $28 billion for fisheries management across the country—both for marine and freshwater fisheries.”

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), took that argument a step further, claiming that “A sizeable portion of the funding for conservation efforts in the U.S. is generated by recreational fishing and boating…This makes anglers’ lack of access [due to science-based annual catch limits intended to prevent overfishing] particularly problematic. Without these anglers—who contribute $1.5 billion annually to fisheries and conservation through excise taxes, donations and fees—our natural resources would be decimated.”

Reading such comments, you begin to wonder whether our fisheries are caught in a Catch-22.
Should they be managed prudently, for long-term sustainability, despite the possibility that the stock could be “decimated” because some fish-hungry anglers abandon the sport and cause excise tax and license revenues to decline?
Or should they be managed under the sort of regime put in place by H.R. 200 and/or the Modern Fish Act, a regime that, according to Dammrich, would replace “harmful overregulation and unnecessary restrictions with practical management approaches” that “would boost thousands of businesses that are supported by saltwater recreational fishing” and keep excise taxes flowing, but would also increase the probability that stocks would be overfished and delay the recovery of overfished stocks?

The fish seem to lose either way. But before anyone despairs, they should be ask another question: How much of the annual $1.5 billion attributed to excise taxes, donations and license fees come from salt water anglers, and how much of those saltwater anglers’ contributions are actually used to promote conservation, rather than for other purposes?
Two recently-released documents might be able to provide some answers.
The first of them is a promotional report issued by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the fishing tackle industry’s largest trade organization. Titled Sportfishing in America, An Economic Force for Conservation, it made the assertion that “just by fishing, anglers are investing in their sport to assure that there will always be opportunities to fish.”

ASA tried to justify that assertion by writing
“Anglers’ support for conservation work comes in many forms. Most obviously is through license sales…Funds raised through these license sales support the efforts of the fish and wildlife agencies tasked with managing rivers, lakes and coastal waters, including stocking programs and resource management.
“Through the 1950 Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (also known as the Dingell-Johnson Act), manufacturers pay a federal excise tax on all fishing tackle. In addition, a portion of motorboat fuel taxes also go to fisheries conservation and other programs such as new boat ramps.
“By law, these funds can only be spent on fisheries and habitat conservation and restoration and are distributed to states for that very purposes…”
That statement isn’t entirely true.
While excise tax revenues do support many fishery conservation efforts, they also support many activities that are of far more benefit to the fishing tackle and boatbuilding industries than they are to marine conservation efforts. Regulations issued pursuant to the Federal Aid to Sport Fish Restoration Act (Sport Fish Act) explicitly state that such revenues can be used to, among other things, acquire property for sportfishing access, build structures that provide sportfishing access (e.g. fishing piers), build, buy or improve boating facilities (whether or not used by anglers), and fund outreach programs that “improve communications with anglers, boaters, and the general public on sport fishing and boating opportunities,” and “increase participation in sport fishing and boating.”

It’s easy to understand why industry associations such as ASA and the NMMA might support such expenditures, but it’s not really honest to say that they have any bearing on “fisheries and habitat conservation and restoration.” They merely encourage people to get out on the water, and so benefit business, while not helping the fish or their habitat at all.
Sport Fish Act regulations also allow excise tax revenues to be used to “stock fish for recreational purposes,” which is also far better for the fishing business than it is for the fish themselves. That’s particularly true in salt water, where hatcheries are used as a tool that allows anglers to chronically overfish a stock, and avoid the sort of harvest restrictions that would be needed if fish populations had to be maintained through natural reproduction.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which aggressively stocks red drum, spotted seatrout and southern flounder in state waters, has embraced such use of hatcheries, saying, “Stock enhancement [from salt water hatcheries]…serves as a tool used by [that agency] to manage the marine fishery along the Texas coast to ensure that harvest levels are sustained and stocks are replenished. [emphasis added]”

Some anglers may like the result, and hatcheries may be good for the fishing business. But they are a tool for increased exploitation, not enhanced conservation.

Still, it is easy to see why spending Sport Fish Act funds on hatcheries might be attractive to the sort of people who are trying to weaken Magnuson-Stevens by means of H.R. 200 and the Modern Fish Act, since the bills they support certainly won’t do natural fish populations much good.
The other document that casts some light on the Modern Fish Act proponents’ arguments is the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (Survey), which was just released by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The information that It contains undercuts the proposition that the Modern Fish Act, or H.R. 200, would be good for marine fish conservation.

The Survey reveals, for example, that salt water fishermen make up a relatively small part of the angling community. In 2016, they comprised about 23% of all anglers, made about 16% of all fishing trips and made about 24% of all angling-related purchases. Thus, when Dammrich states that anglers “contribute about $1.5 billion annually to fisheries and conservation,” policymakers need to understand that he’s talking about all fishermen, and that saltwater fishermen, standing alone, contribute far less.
Saltwater anglers purchased about $2.7 billion worth of fishing tackle in 2016. Since that’s the retail price of such tackle, and the 10% excise tax created by the Sport Fish Act is imposed on the highest wholesale price of each item, the taxable value of such purchases would be substantially less, and the revenues from excises taxes commensurately low.
Similarly, the Survey states that anglers spend about $565 million on licenses; saltwater anglers’ proportional share of that would come out to about $130 million. But that, too, probably overstates the actual figure.
While anglers in all 50 states have long been required to buy fishing licenses, that’s not the case in salt water, where licenses have been called “an unnecessary new tax and an infringement on liberties.” In New York, which hosts more saltwater anglers than any other state apart from Florida, some anglers’ outrage over “not one but five new or increased taxes targeting fishermen, boaters, and the $1 billion New York recreational fishing industry,” led the state to abandon its saltwater fishing license in favor of a free registry. New Jersey and Maine also have no saltwater fishing license. Thus, unlike freshwater anglers, many of those who fish in salt water are not necessarily paying their share of the conservation burden.

Given the relatively small revenue streams attributable to license fees and excise taxes paid by saltwater anglers, it is difficult to give any credence to arguments made by anyone who suggests that the conservation benefits that could accrue from H.R. 200 or the Modern Fish Act would overcome the harm done by the overfishing and delayed stock rebuilding that would inevitably result from such bills.
Any claims to the contrary should be viewed for what they are: public relations gambits by industry trade groups who are seeking to maximize revenues not for conservation, but for themselves.
This essay first appeared in “From the Waterfront,” the blog of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which can be found at