I’ve just returned from the 2022 Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit, an event that’s hosted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and National Marine Fisheries Service. It provides an opportunity to sit in a big room, talk to members of the angling community from all over the country, and listen to a lot of very bright folks discuss issues facing marine fisheries managers.
The summits are held every four years; there have been four since 2010, and I’ve attended every one. The first couple were largely propaganda sessions for what might be termed the “angling establishment,” the trade organizations for those who make their money off salt water fishermen, along with one or two industry-aligned “anglers’ rights” groups, who used the events to help convince fishery managers to sign on to the industry’s political agenda.
Beginning in 2018, the summits changed in important ways. Non-establishment voices were given some prominent roles, and the conversations began to exhibit a lot more diversity of opinion with respecet to important issues. People started taking positions that weren’t necessarily designed to increase the sales of outboard engines and fishing gear.
That trend accelerated this year. There were quite a few new, and also younger, faces in attendance, and a lot of new ideas being shared. There was the sort of positive tension that you get when competing ideas are put on the table, and the conversation isn’t controlled by folks intent on promoting a particular socioeconomic agenda.
Of course, the old guard, who pretty much believe that they own the fish and should be the sole arbiters of their disposition, isn’t particularly happy about being challenged by new people and new ideas. There was a steady stream of grumbling from such folks throughout the event. The most remarkable comments were made on the second day of the Summit, when we were listening to a panel discussing the collection and use of recreational fishing data.
As was typical for such panels, each speaker introduced themselves by name and affiliation, then made a brief presentation; after the presentations were done, Summit attendees would have a chance to direct comments and questions to the panel of speakers. Things were flowing well until Kenneth Haddad, who was introduced as the Marine Fisheries Advisor for the American Sportfishing Association, the trade association for the fishing tackle industry, began to speak.
I admit that I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been. When I attend these events, I typically sit, rapt, making notes on any paper that I have at hand, both because I’m trying to learn from the speakers and because I’m always looking for inspiration for the next blog, magazine article, or newspaper item that I might write. But just then, I was searching for some language in a legal decision germane to the following panel discussion; at first, it didn’t sink in when Haddad told all of the fishermen in the room to think about golf.
But then the talk continued for just a bit, and that little voice in the back of my mind said that, just maybe. I ought to stop searching for the key paragraph in Natural Resources Defense Council v. Daley, and start paying more attention to what was going on at the front of the room.
Haddad, it turned out, wanted to talk less about golf than about golfers, as he mused about why fishermen and golfers ought to be more alike. Many fishermen, he noted, got personally involved in the management process, and actively engaged with regulators on the details of management issues; golfers, on the other hand, didn’t worry about things like how much fertilizer might be applied to a particular putting green, they just went out on the course and played.
Thus, Haddad suggested, anglers should join a fishing club or other organization, and let such organization worry about the nitty-gritty of fishery management. Fishermen need just get out and fish.
As he noted,
“We probably need to rethink how we engage”
with fishery regulators.
“It’s sport versus making a living off it.”
Or, to put things another way, fishermen—those seeking sport—ought to just shut up and spend their hard-earned wages on fishing tackle, and let the fishing industry and its supporters manage things in a way that is best for business.
That suggestion didn’t go over too well with many of those in the room.
Haddad pointed out that fishermen differ from other outdoor recreationists. He observed that individual mountain bikers, to provide an example, didn’t each conduct their own efforts to establish trails or gain access to public land, but instead relied on biking organizations to do so.
He wasn’t particularly convincing.
Capt. Peter Fallon, a charter boat captain from Maine and a member of the American Saltwater Guides Association, one of the groups attending the Summit for the first time (Full disclosure: ASGA is one of my clients), noted that as a hunter, he had more interactions with regulators than he did as an angler and guide.
Haddad speculated that might be the case because there was better interaction between the state and federal authorities who managed hunting activities than there was between state and federal fishery regulators. He noted that hunters were generally managed at the state level and, in doing so, alluded to the constant, if dubious, refrain of the American Sportfishing Association, along with fellow travelers Coastal Conservation Association and Center for Sportfishing Policy, that state fishery managers do a better job than their federal counterparts.
That brought a quick response form Capt. Scott Hickman, who not only runs a charter boat out of Galveston, Texas, but also operates one of the largest waterfowl hunting operations in the Lone Star State. He suggested that the better relationship between hunters and their regulators might be due to the fact that Ducks Unlimited, a hunter advocacy group, doesn’t constantly
“put out press releases complaining about what a lousy job the Unites States Fish and Wildlife Service is doing,”
which stands in stark contrast to the many recreational fishing advocacy groups that criticize NMFS on a regular basis.
Capt. Hickman, who was named the 2016 Volunteer of the Year by the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, where he represented recreational fishermen on the sanctuary’s advisory council, said that things might work out better if the national recreational fishing groups engaged in a little cooperation rather than their current unrelenting criticism of the agency.
Such comments reportedly led to considerable grumbling on the part of the old guard groups, who were displeased about Capt. Hickman's observation, and equallyn unhappy that they no longer controlled the debate.
In their effort to be the dominant voice at the table, they miss a key point:
I know anglers who walk the rocky shorelines of Montauk, New York in the middle of moonless October nights. They climb onto barnacle-covered rocks, where they fish for striped bass as swells generated by offshore storms try to knock them off their tenuous perch. They get washed off the rocks, climb back on, get knocked off again and, soaked despite dry top and waders, cast for hours toward an unseen horizon, relentlessly pursuing their sport.
Folks who do that aren’t born with sheep's genes. No one is going to get very far by patting them on the head and telling them not to worry about the striped bass, because ASA—or CCA, or the Center—will take care of the management issues.
The folks who I usually fish with like to run small boats far beyond the horizon, hoping to pick a fight with an animal that, if they’re lucky, weighs far more than they do. They understand that fishing’s not really fun unless you’re three hours into a fight—stand-up of course, none of us use a chair—and the blisters on your hands start to break, leaving shiny pink streaks of gore running down the your rod’s foregrip. Another hour in, after your back starts to cramp, and you start getting uncontrollable muscle spasms in one of your legs, you keep hanging on because, as I said to a friend long ago, when he began having second thoughts after hooking up to what proved to be a prize-winning tuna, that “something on one end of that line or the other is going to die, and it’s up to you which one it is.”
Tell us we can’t fight our own battles, and our next fight is going to be with you.
Toward the end of yesterday’s meeting, Capt. Hickman revived the “golf” debate, noting that one of the big differences between fishing and golf was that “I don’t eat golf balls.” For unlike golf, which is played on private grounds or public courses set aside just for that use, fishing involves living, public trust resources, that must be managed sustainably for the overall benefit of every resident of the United States; they should never be managed to benefit narrow economic interests of any kind.
And that is the Summit's most important purpose. It brings together fishermen, charter boat captains, and other stakeholders from all over the country, and provides a platform where everyone can both learn and voice their concerns. NMFS and the ASMFC do their best to assure that all points of view can be heard, and that no one’s voice is muffled by the handful of organizations who pretend to represent every angler, but in the end only care for themselves.
Institutional arrogance will always be with us. There will always be those industry voices who believe that the fish, and fishery managers, belong to only them. But the Summit helps to ensure that everyone present has a chance to speak, have their views included in the record of the meeting, and influence management policy over the next four years.
For that I thank NMFS and the ASMFC.