Thursday, March 5, 2015


Last Tuesday morning,. I received the unwelcome news that the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council had voted 5-3 to to limit surfcasters' and private-boat anglers’ striped bass harvest to just one fish, no less than 28 inches long, per day, while allowing those fishing from party and charter boats to kill two bass each day in exchange for a slightly higher, 32-inch minimum size.

The news was not unexpected.

Although Rhode Island’s striped bass anglers, like striped bass anglers up and down the Atlantic coast, were overwhelmingly in favor of a one-fish bag limit for everyone, and although they had the emphatic support of many tackle shops and even a portion of the for-hire community, the one-fish bag was adamantly opposed by the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association and its president, Captain Rick Bellevance, who campaigned relentlessly within and without Rhode Island, seeking special harvest privileges for his customers and for the customers of other for-hire boats.

Thus, it was no surprise that when the Council vote was tallied, both anglers' representatives voted for one fish, but the for-hire representative voted for two, and carried most of the commercial and other reps with him.

That Council vote wasn’t the final step in the process.  The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management can reject Council advice and adopt different rules.  Some optimists think that may happen, but those on the ground in Rhode Island who have been at the heart of the fight disagree.  They say it’s a done—if ill-conceived—deal.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Rhode Island’s for-hire bass landings are low, estimated by NMFS at 4,974 fish in 2013 and 10,348 fish in 2014, about 1% and 3%, respectively, of coastwide for-hire striped bass landings.  So looking at the situation objectively, it wouldn’t seem that Rhode Island going to two fish would have very much of an impact on the population.

However, looking at Rhode Island alone doesn’t tell the whole story.  Fisheries managers in the northeast, and more importantly, the politicians who are those fisheries managers’ bosses, are trying to put uniform regulations in place, so that one area’s anglers and for-hire fisheries are not “disadvantaged” (read that “must kill fewer fish”) than their counterparts in neighboring states.

Massachusetts has adopted regulations allowing everyone to keep just one 28-inch fish.  Up until this week, it looked as if Connecticut would do the same, and there was real hope that New York would go the same way.  However, if Rhode Island adopts “split mode” regulations that favor the for-hire industry, there is a very good chance that at least New York, and perhaps Connecticut, too, will fall in line under the regional equality theory.

If that happens, Rhode Island’s decision could lead to real adverse impacts, as New York’s for-hires landed 234,650 fish in 2013 and 125,558 fish, last year, 49% and 32% of the overall for-hire landings.

Thus, the planting of one bad seed—a few for-hire captains up in Rhode Island who put their bank accounts ahead of the bass—could well result in anglers all along the striper coast reaping bitter fruit in upcoming seasons.  

It only takes the actions of a few insistent folks to ruin the fishing for all.

The striped bass situation is unfortunate, but at least it has the dubious virtue of being limited to only one species along one section of coast.  But earlier this week, we saw another bad seed take root, and that one has the potential to sow wild weeds throughout our national fisheries management system.

That story begins sometime in the mid- to late-1990s, when an organization called the Recreational Fishing Alliance was born down in southern New Jersey. 

I wasn’t around for that birth, but because it was roughly coincident with the creation of the Coastal Conservation Association’s New York state chapter—something I was intimately involved in—I watched the then-nascent organization grow through its bratty childhood and petulant adolescent years to mature into the bully of the recreational fisheries management community.

In other circumstances, the organization could have been grist for a sitcom, with an Executive Director who was involved—simultaneously—with two sexual harassment suits (in fairness, I can’t say whether such suits were—or were not—groundless, as I neither saw the evidence nor spoke to the parties), a “research scientist” and “chief of policy” who had convicted on federal charges after faking 59 reports of observations he was paid to make as a federal fisheries observer and a deputy director of legislative affairs who allegedly threatened an environmental lobbyist at a legislative meeting in Delaware (my own experience with that worthy individual came when, as a representative of CCA, I tried to call the RFA office to speak with the Executive Director, but never got through because said individual, who had answered the phone, kept screaming “F*** YOU!” “F*** YOU!!!” at me until I finally hung up in disgust…)

Or maybe, rather than a sitcom, it was more like the tawdry morality plays perfected by the World Wrestling Federation, where a black-hat character who represents everything bad—in this case, killing more fish than biologists believe to be prudent, and attacking anyone who disagrees with that effort in press releases and Internet rants—is pitted against a purported model of virtue; a role long played by the Coastal Conservation Association, which was regularly assaulted by RFA for its policy of “putting the fish first.”

The climax of that morality play seemed to occur in 2006, when RFA squared off against CCA and its allies (the most prominent of which was the American Sportfishing Association) over reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.  RFA, in its traditional black-hat role, was fighting to weaken conservation and management measures to allow more fish to be killed, while CCA stood tall and proud, fighting for conservation and virtue and, in the best WWF tradition, prevailed.

But the RFA folks, like wrestling-ring baddies, were not giving in.  They kept hammering away at the other “good” organizations for their conservation ethic, attacking them in the Mid-Atlantic for saying that killing fish was necessary to enjoy the angling experience, in the Gulf of Mexico for exploring new ways to manage red snapper and anywhere else opportunities happened to arise.  

Compared to CCA and allied organizations, RFA had few members and little money (copies of all of the organizations’ IRS Form 990s, which report membership dues, overall assets, cash flows, etc. may be found on the website, but they fought like pit bulls, always on the attack.

And RFA started to win.

That didn't happen because they were better funded, or because they had better people or even because their ideas had more worth.  They started to win because, in their constant, harrying message, they made their opponents tired and scared, and reluctant to fight any more.

The "good guys" suffered a crisis of faith, no longer seeming to believe in themselves, and seemed to worry more about losing members and membership dollars than maintaining their former conservation ideals.

And slowly, very slowly, those erstwhile "good guys" started putting out press releases and making statements that sounded more and more as if they came from RFA.

That crisis of faith finally culminated in what is being informally called the “Morris-Deal report,” but is formally entitled A Vision for Managing America’s Salt Water Recreational Fisheries.  In that document, a coalition of groups, including CCA and the American Sportfishing Association, effectively repudiated the very things that they fought for in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson Act.

This week, RFA formally acknowledged its success in capturing the hearts and minds of the  national organizations who purport to represent America’s salt water fishermen when it proclaimed

“The RFA is pleased to support the tenets developed by the Morris-Deal vision.”

Which wasn’t much of a surprise, since the “Vision” pretty much supported the fishery management approach that RFA had been seeking for years.

“For the first time in many years, the industry and angler groups are united behind a common-sense framework that addresses many of the policy issues that remain after the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2007.”

RFA always called weakening the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson a “common-sense issue," although, in the long run, it makes no sense at all.

And now the folks who had fought RFA for so long were suddenly embracing the group with open arms, with Jeff Angers, who I had known and worked with for years at CCA (when he was not a big fan of RFA), now saying in his relatively new role as President of the Center for Coastal Conservation

“Everyone welcomes RFA’s formal embrace of the Morris-Deal vision.  Morris-Deal continues to gain momentum, and we look forward to additional endorsements of the Vision as it works its way through the Congress.”

More bad seeds had borne fruit, and another minor organization had won a victory that will end up hurting us all, just because it was more stubborn and more determined to win than those it had always opposed.

And this is a tragedy, for management of our marine resources is far too important to be usurped by small numbers of people who are less concerned with the long-term health of our fisheries than in the short-term health of their wallets, simply because no one seems to have the courage, the time or the will to stand in their way.

But at the same time, it gives reason for hope, because it demonstrates that a small group of people, if they fight hard enough, really can effect change.  That means that if anglers can pull together, and use our numbers and passion to put things to rights, we can stamp out the fruits of the bad seeds before they begin to grow.  

It will never be an easy job, for the fruits of those bad seeds have thorns.

But it is a necessary and worthwhile fight, and something that we must do if we are to pass down healthy fisheries to the folks who are yet unborn, but deserve healthy fisheries at least as much as we do.

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