Thursday, November 19, 2015


It has become a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true:  Worthwhile things rarely come easily.

Good fisheries management is no exception.

Consider the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management andConservation Act.  Signed into law in 1976, it achieved its goal of pushing foreign fleets far off American shores, but at first failed badly when it came to conserving and rebuilding depleted fish stocks. 

It took twenty years, and the enactment of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, before Magnuson-Stevens was given the teeth that it needed to make a real difference.  And even then, it took five years more, and the court’s decision in Natural ResourcesDefense Counsel v. Daley, before fisheries managers felt compelled to take the law’s mandates seriously.

Even then, fishing industry representatives on the regional fishery management councils, particularly up in New England, found creative ways to evade the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.  Adopting management plans that eschewed hard catch limits in favor of alternative measures that looked good on paper but bad on the water, they prolonged overfishing until the 2006 reauthorization required mandatory catch limits for all managed stocks and—to many fishermen’s horror—imposed accountability measures on those who landed more fish than those limits allowed.

It was a good result, but even today, nearly forty years later, the fight is not done.  The law still lacks clear language to adequately protect forage fish stocks and the integrity of marine habitats.  And voices from the commercial and recreational fishing industries still call out for a weakened law that elevates short-term profits above the long-term health of fish stocks.

I wish I could say that was an exception, and that most fisheries issues are more easily solved  Unfortunately, that is not true.

Many of us first got involved in fisheries issues when the striped bass stock began to collapse in the mid-1970s.  Today, when issues arise, we're still in the fight.

When I joined the Coastal Conservation Association in 1996, that organization had already started the fight for better menhaden management.  When I resigned from my CCA posts in 2013, they were still in the thick of it and, along with the many other organizations that were on the same side, making slow progress in their effort to give that important forage fish the protection that it needs to thrive.

The point of the story is that fisheries reforms don’t take place overnight.  They take money and sweat, a little bit of courage and a whole lot of patience to see the fights through to their end.

Thus, it is gratifying to see that one fight down in Florida seems to be reaching its proper end.

For the past few years, a grassroots group of anglers calling themselves “Save the Tarpon” has been fighting to better protect the tarpon and tarpon fishery of Florida’s Boca Grande Pass.  

For those unfamiliar with the fishery, it is one of the oldest—perhaps the oldest—recreational tarpon fishery on Florida’s west coast.  Since the days of boxy wooden boats, propelled slowly by small gas-powered inboards, anglers have drifted live baits through the pass in late spring, hoping to hook up with one of the big tarpon that travel through the area at that time of year.

A number of years ago, that fishery was disrupted by boats competing in a glitzy, televised tournament that was reportedly characterized as “controlled chaos” by one of its promoters, who described the scene by saying

“Picture 50 boats of varying styles jockeying for position without wrecking each other, around pods of tarpon…Oh, yeah, don’t forget the non-tournament weekend warrior trying for his shot at a huge silver king, right in the middle of it all.”
Save the Tarpon felt that the tournament boats’ behavior was dangerous, placing non-tournament vessels at risk and destroying the pleasure that “weekend warriors”—meaning anyone who was not participating in the tournament—once took from the fishery.

Save the Tarpon also accused the tournament boats of using unethical tactics, claiming that the a jig that they was designed to foul-hook tarpon.  Save the Tarpon also claimed that many of the tarpon caught during the tournament where handled roughly during the weigh-in, and did not survive the experience.

But Save the Tarpon did more than complain.  It embarked on an all-out effort to protect the tarpon and Boca Grande's traditional tarpon fishery.

Organization was the first step; the next was getting the message out and attracting donors and members.  Once membership achieved critical mass, Save the Tarpon began a publicity campaign to convince tournament sponsors to end their support of the event.  It was very effective.

The organization also launched a political effort aimed at outlawing the use of the “Boca Grande jig” that, they claimed, was used to snag tarpon.  They also asked the State of Florida to adopt new rules that would help to prevent tarpon—particularly those caught and dragged to the scale in the Boca Grande tournament—from being stressed to the point that they died.

Tournament organizers reportedly threatened the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, saying that it would be sued if it adopted the proposed regulations.  They did sue Save the Tarpon for $500,000, claiming that the organization’s effort to influence tournament sponsors caused them economic harm.  

On the political front, it did little good, as Florida proclaimed tarpon a strict catch-and-release species (except for a 1-fish-per-year bag limit for anglers seeking an IGFA record, who must buy a costly permit) and prohibited anglers from removing a tarpon more than 40 inches long from the water.  Such regulations ended the practice of weighing in fish, although the tournament continued, with fish being measured while still in the water.

Save the Tarpon was on a roll, but it still had the lawsuit to worry about.  Although it had labeled the action a “SLAPP” suit—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation—the suit nonetheless had to be defended, and that cost money.  (Which, after all, is what SLAPP suits are all about—making it too expensive for the public to take on well-heeled corporations by dragging out litigation long enough to bankrupt the public advocates.)  But once again, the organization dug in and managed to find the cash it needed to go on.

There were a series of preliminary legal arguments that whittled away at the tournament promoters’ claims.  Finally, earlier this week—just one day before the matter was scheduled to go to trial—the plaintiff asked that the case be dismissed.

Save the Tarpon had been completely vindicated. 

The three-year lawsuit was over, marking an end to the even longer—and equally successful—fight to protect the tarpon fishery of Boca Grande.

It was a win that clearly illustrated how, with enough dedication, resiliency—and yes, cash resources, too—anglers can make a big difference.

It wasn’t easy.  But then again, important victories rarely are.

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