Thursday, April 10, 2014


A little over a week ago, I attended the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 2014 Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit.

It was an interesting experience.

As always, there was a heavy industry presence, represented by both the manufacturers themselves and big trade organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers’ Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation, and by individual retailers and members of the for-hire industry.  Their presence overlapped with that of various anglers’ rights groups, including the Coastal Conservation Association and Jersey Coast Anglers Association.  There was some press, a big government presence—largely federal fishery managers of various sorts—and, probably the smallest component, a few folks like myself who are just plain anglers, unaffiliated with anyone.

The meeting was intended to bring anglers together with federal fisheries managers, so that NMFS can get some kind of feel for the issues that concern us.  Such meetings have some serious implications for federal policy, and always have some kind of theme running through them.  At the last such “summit,” held four years ago, that theme was the lack of effective communication between NMFS and the recreational fishing community. 

This year, many things were discussed, but whatever the topic, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” ( always ran in the background.  The folks who orchestrated the report were very active throughout the meeting, making sure that folks who could capably articulate their positions were present and actively shaping each relevant discussion.

They argued for a “national recreational fishing policy,” which probably couldn’t hurt (and NMFS has agreed to implement), and periodic reviews of how fish are allocated between the commercial and recreational sectors, which sounds like a good idea in theory, but could be a two-edged sword when put into practice.  

They talked about managing stocks with fishing mortality rates instead of hard quotas, which makes sense if you have a restored stock and plenty of data, and of implementing more “flexible” (meaning stretched-out and delayed) rebuilding deadlines, which only makes sense if you’re planning to move to Kansas in ten or so years and don’t plan to fish in the (by then largely empty) ocean again.

Different speakers spoke about different things.  But what I found particularly striking was that, whatever the topic, a single point was made again and again, in various forms and in various ways:  Conservation is critically important to both recreational fishermen and the industries that they support.

Folks didn’t often phrase it that way, and some tried to say things that weren’t quite compatible with that idea, but no one even tried to deny that undeniable truth.

It was usually expressed in terms of “managing for abundance,” rather than for maximum sustainable yield.  That is something that managers should certainly do.  But, as I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, the only way to have “abundance,” which translates to having more and bigger fish available to anglers, is to go beyond the current “sustainability” mandates of the Magnuson Act.  

To achieve true abundance, managers have to keep fishing mortality,  and thus keep more fish in the water to grow, breed and hopefully be caught.  The current effort to enact “Magnuson reform”—a euphemism for extending rebuilding deadlines and perpetuating overfishing—isn’t going to get us there.  In fact, it will do the opposite, creating relatively small stocks made up of almost entirely of small fish—and it will force some of those stocks into precipitous decline.

I’ve written at length criticizing the TRCP “Vision”, and its emphasis on maximizing economic gain, particularly in the short term, at the expense of the resource and the greater public interest.  Yet, when one of the chairmen of the commission which authored that “Vision” spoke from the floor early on the first day, his comments shaded into very different territory.  I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with much that he said; he was certainly right on target when he noted that when the data is poor and uncertain, managers have to proceed with greater caution than they would if managing data-rich stocks.

That runs contrary to a lot of the rhetoric emanating from the various anglers’ rights outlets that gave shape to the “Vision,” which rail against “unnecessary” restrictions based on “bad” or “outdated” science, etc.  Such folks often suggest that anglers should be able to (over)fish unless and until clear and convincing evidence demonstrates that harvest cuts are required.

Why the disconnect?

It’s not hard to explain.  If you let a stock of fish get really low—I’m talking about a New England winter flounder/South Atlantic red snapper kind of low—conservation measures can be pretty painful in the short term.  The kind of regulations that lead to fewer people fishing until they’re relaxed (that might not be true if we’re dealing with “gamefish” such as striped bass—even during the moratorium years back in the ‘80s, a lot of us fished in a strictly catch-and-release fishery—but when you’re dealing with a “meat” fish such as snapper or flounder, people want to bring home some fillets). Those fishermen who quit won’t be happy.

And when fewer fishermen fish, fishing-related businesses are stressed, and a some will go out of business.  (But then, if there aren’t any fish, folks go out of business, too…)

So the folks who are offended, for whatever reason, by the new rules have a knee-jerk reaction to call for “flexibility” or other measures that will keep harvest high until the fish disappear.

At the same time, most people in the angling industry are anglers themselves.  So even while some of them call for “flexibility,” they know from bitter experience how overfishing fishing has damaged our stocks.  They have seen the many collapses and the fewer recoveries; they have seen the benefits gained from strict conservation measures and have enjoyed those benefits first-hand.

They have seen how good management has benefited their businesses in the long run.

Someone far wiser than you or I once noted that “No man can serve two masters,” yet that’s just what some try to do. 
And, in the end, they fail, betrayed by what they know deep inside to be true:

We don’t need “flexibility,” delayed recoveries or overfished stocks.

Without strong laws that conserve and rebuild our fisheries, eventually they will die, and our sport and the businesses that we support will die with them.

That is an inescapable truth. 

And it should be embraced.

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