Sunday, May 1, 2016
WHAT SALTWATER FISHERMEN NEED
Ever since the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership published its paper, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” in early 2014, and since the National Marine Fisheries Service held its Recreational Saltwater Fishing Summit, where TRCP’s vision was widely discussed, a couple months later, the question of a saltwater recreational fishing policy has remained in the news.
Much of the discussion has centered around the allegation, raised in the TRCP report, that federal fisheries managers concentrate on optimizing commercial fisheries, and ignore recreational fishing needs.
That charge was taken seriously enough that NMFS has since spent substantial time and effort to produce a specific recreational fishing policy, which was released a few months ago.
The policy states, in broad terms, concerns that had been expressed to NMFS by some representatives of the recreational fishing community over the years. It probably represents a helpful base from which to proceed when dealing with recreational fishing issues, but it doesn’t really address the core question:
What do saltwater recreational anglers need?
The TRCP report actually lays those needs out quite nicely when it says that
“Recreational fishing is founded on conservation, sustainability and opportunity…
”What recreational anglers want and need is wide-ranging, dependable access to healthy and abundant fish stocks.”
Unfortunately, a lot of the people who claim to speak on behalf of recreational anglers, including the majority of the organizations that contributed to the TRCP report, haven’t heeded those wise words too closely, subordinating “conservation, sustainability and…access to healthy and abundant fish stocks” to increased harvest in the short term.
Now, federal fisheries managers are getting their chance to address saltwater anglers needs. Last week, in furtherance of its recreational fishing policy, NMFS issued a series of Regional Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Policy Implementation Plans.
At first glance, they look pretty good, and seem to recognize what the recreational saltwater fishery needs if it is to thrive.
It needs fish.
Yes, there are other things that have to be considered, too, but of all of the fishery’s needs, fish stand at the head of the list. Nothing else comes close. Without fish, in some abundance, everything else is just the confetti that blows through the streets after the parade has gone by.
NMFS seems to get that.
I didn’t read through all of the regional plans. Instead, I only read the two that encompass my typical fishing activities, the plans for Atlantic Highly Migratory Species and for the Greater Atlantic Region. I also read the plan for the Southeast Region, as I find myself chasing fish down in Florida and in various places in the Gulf of Mexico on a semi-regular basis.
In all three of those plans, the need to
“Promote public access to quality recreational fishing opportunities”
is clearly spelled out.
The means of doing that differs a bit from plan to plan, but the cornerstone remains conserving, rebuilding and maintaining fish stocks. The exact approach differs from place to place. In the Greater Atlantic Region, where the long-term depletion of New England’s groundfish stocks remains a seemingly intractable problem, NMFS is intent on developing
“management measures that are consistent with scientifically sound limits that are designed to maximize recreational opportunity within catch limits.”
“Maximizing” recreational opportunity is still going to mean that, for a while, a lot of folks in New England are going to be disappointed in the amount of fish they bring home, because rebuilding stocks of cod and winter flounder is going to be a long, painful and difficult process. Success is not assured. Yet, unless appropriate, science-based measures are put in place, recovery will never happen, and the recreational fishery will, for most persons, become merely a memory.
The Mid-Atlantic, which also falls within the Greater Atlantic Region, is in far better shape, but there are still species such as black sea bass that will cause managers heartburn as they try to maximize the recreational opportunities within the limits of what good science allows. That’s why
“Support development of a benchmark black sea bass stock assessment”
is also a stated goal (although in a different section of the report which deals with fisheries science).
In the Southeast Region, fish are in better shape than they are in New England, but the problems typical of managing recovered stocks—most particularly recreational landings that increase at a rate faster than the population can grow—trouble a number of fisheries, most particularly Gulf of Mexico red snapper.
Thus, the Southeast Region’s goals are worded a little differently, with NMFS seeking to
“Collect and employ sound data to support management decisions which may allow for increased public access by anglers. [emphasis added]”
To accomplish that goal, the agency hopes to
“Continue to conduct and support stock assessments for federally managed species, including red snapper, gag grouper, black sea bass, and other recreational target species in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean,”
“Use the best available science to create consistent and predictable open seasons, while preventing catch limit overages, to allow recreational anglers to plan and pursue various species of fish throughout the year.”
Highly Migratory Species present a very different set of problems, as both the stock assessments and the management measures are conducted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a body that actually does emphasize commercial exploitation and frequently ignores the wants and needs of the recreational sector.
So in that case, NMFS’ priority shifts, and it must
“Seek to expand U.S. recreational fishing opportunities on internationally managed fish stocks, where feasible and appropriate, and promote the legitimacy and recognition of the economic importance of recreational fisheries within international fishery management bodies.”
Of course, human nature being what it is, there are plenty of anglers who won’t be happy waiting for NMFS to restore depleted fish stocks, or to be limited to scientifically-justified seasons and catch limits. They want to catch their fish now, regardless of what science or ICCAT may say about the matter, and they find NMFS a convenient whipping boy when they want to demonstrate their discontent.
Thus, part of NMFS regional plans must include outreach to the greater angling community, something that can be particularly difficult to do when fishing organizations that should be exercising responsible leadership and educating their members instead find it easier and perhaps more profitable to feed red meat to those members by publicly and repeatedly excoriating federal fisheries managers.
That sort of outreach is important on every coast, but is particularly necessary where such regional fishing organizations, in an attempt to achieve their own ends, seek to turn angler opinion against the federal fishery management process.
The plan for the Southeast Region sets forth additional efforts needed to set that situation to rights. Among other things, it intends to
“Work with interested shareholder groups to host regular roundtable discussions to strengthen relationships and share information,
“Work with and encourage fishermen and others to participate productively in the fisheries management process, to improve cooperation and trust among fishermen, scientists, and fishery managers [emphasis added],
“Communicate the scientific rationale for management actions to stakeholders by explaining the scientific methods and findings that support the resulting management decisions,
“Communicate legal obligations and process limitations to establish accurate expectations about potential agency action.”
Hopefully, those efforts will bear some fruit, despite the people and organizations that will do their best to throw sand in the gears and try to sabotage such initiatives.
But even if some success does accrue, we can be certain that there will be discontent. People will always be people, and although anglers need healthy fish stocks if their sport is to thrive, they will also want to take more fish today than prudence allows.
If that wasn’t true, we wouldn’t need regulations.
Thus, as NMFS begins to develop concrete measures designed to implement each regional plan, perhaps anglers unhappy with the pace of NMFS' progress or the steps that it takes should seek some modicum of solace in the words of an old song, popular back when I was in my teens.
“You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want,
You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometime you just might find
You get what you need…”