Thursday, July 21, 2022



There are a lot of saltwater anglers out there, although estimates of the actual number can be a little hard to find. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t try to estimate the number of fishermen, but instead counts trips, which are more relevant to the fishery management process.  It’s most recent annual report, Fisheries of the United States, reveals that in 2020, recreational saltwater fishermen made nearly 200,000,000 trips.  Close to 40% of those trips—more than 80,000,000—were taken in Florida, with North Carolina (16,400,000), New Jersey (16,000,000), New York (14,800,000) and South Carolina (8,700,000) rounding out the top five.

Those anglers catch a lot of fish—just about one billion—of which about one-third are kept, although the patterns of harvest and release vary from state to state.  In New Jersey, for example, nearly 84% of the fish caught by anglers were released, a fact that is probably largely attributable to size limits for popular species such as summer flounder and black sea bass.  States hosting a high percentage of anglers who primarily pursue “sport” fish, such as striped bass, bluefish, permit, and red drum, as opposed to “meat” fish like flounder, scup, snapper, and grouper, also see high release percentages.  On the other hand, Hawaii, with its tradition of subsistence fishing and relatively lax approach to regulations, lies at the other end of the spectrum, with releases comprising a mere 13% of the overall catch.

It’s clear from those numbers that anglers need to be managed in order to preserve the health of fish stocks, but it’s also clear that setting a national management policy can be difficult, as angler preferences and expectations can vary from state to state, and even among different constituencies within a single state.

Every four years, beginning in 2010, NMFS and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission hold a “Recreational Fishing Summit” in an effort to get some kind of handle on anglers’ thoughts, attitudes, and concerns.  I’ve attended them all, and have watched them evolve from what was largely a platform that the big industry associations used to spread their views into an event that reaches down into the grassroots and comes up with meaningful feedback—which doesn’t always conform to the industry line.

I wrote a little bit about the 2022 Summit right after it was held last spring, although those essays were certainly colored by my personal views.  However, NMFS and ASMFC have recently released the official National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit 2022, which provides a more comprehensive and more objective review of what went on.

It makes an interesting read. 

One of the first sections of the report noted that

“Across the four sessions, several cross-cutting themes emerged.  These underlying themes will be considered as NOAA Fisheries and ASMFC review the ideas and suggestions from the specific sessions.”

Those two sentences, as simple as they might be, underscore the worth of the Summit, because the “cross-cutting themes” described came from individual anglers, charter boat operators, and other people in the fishing community whose concerns aren’t necessarily represented by the big organizations with the staff and the lobbyists to get and hold managers’ ears; although those folks were present at the Summit, too.  But with everyone sitting in the same room, their voices couldn’t override those of the anglers they claim to represent.

The themes in question were described as “Human Dimensions,” “Shifting Data Needs,” “Tradeoffs in Management, Conservation, and Opportunity,” and “Community Engagement and Trust.”  All are important, and all four were given due consideration at the Summit and in the report; however, it was the Human Dimensions and Tradeoffs discussions that explored the most new and, at least for some of the managers present, unexpected ground.

As the report noted in the initial “Human Dimensions” section,

“There is broad recognition that climate change is affecting traditional angling opportunities, and in order to effectively adapt, more attention is needed to understand and regularly incorporate human dimension considerations into decision making.  This ranges from assessing the intrinsic values of fishing to better understand [optimum yield], to considering cultural practices associated with non-commercial fisheries in the Pacific Islands…”

Those considerations span a far wider gap than it may initially seem, as the “intrinsic values of fishing” discussed at the summit included the concept of managing for abundance and, depending on the fishery, for catch and release, while in the Pacific Islands, subsistence fishing, and sharing one’s catch with others in the community, have deep cultural roots; as one Pacific Islander said at the meeting, “We don’t play with our food.”

But Pacific cultures aside, the fact that managers are even considering a concept like “the intrinsic values of fishing” represents a big move forward.  At the end of one breakout group discussion, one of the professional managers present admitted that she never gave much thought to the concept of optimum yield before, and more-or-less associated it with landing as many fish as the law and science deemed prudent; the notion that optimum yield should be set at a lower level that provided greater opportunities to interact with the fish, even if it meant a lower harvest, was something completely new.

Yet it’s not a new issue.  As the report notes, the National Academy of Science panel that reviewed the Marine Recreational Information Program recommended that

“NOAA and the [regional fishery management] Councils should develop a process for engaging recreational fisheries stakeholders in a more in-depth discussion of [optimum yield] and how it can be used to identify and prioritize management objectives that are better suited to the cultural, economic and conservation goals of the angling community.”

That’s something that has yet to be done; so far, just about every fishery has been forced to fit into the Procrustean Bed of yield, a fact clearly exemplified by the most recent amendment to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s Bluefish Fishery Management Plan; even though the bluefish fishery is overwhelmingly recreational, and recreational fishermen release about two-thirds of all bluefish caught, that plan provides that if the recreational sector doesn’t kill its entire harvest limit, the uncaught portion (provided the stock is not overfished) will be transferred to the commercial fishery.  The concept of managing for an abundance of fish in the water, which provides greater recreational opportunities, was never seriously considered.

The report captures this problem in its summary of the presentation made by Michael Leonard, Vice President of Government Affairs for the American Sportfishing Association.

“…Recreational fisheries sometimes focus on maximizing harvest and sometimes it is about maximizing abundance/encounters and fishing opportunities.

“[The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act] and the National Standards [for Fishery Conservation and Management included therein] specify that setting catch limits below [maximum sustainable yield] is allowable when other factors are considered.  However, Mr. Leonard believes this has not been put into practice by most councils.  A review and analysis of the use of [optimum yield] in U.S. fisheries found that current [annual catch limit] and [optimum yield] specification processes rarely account for social and economic factors, or ecosystem considerations, and if they do, it is on an ad-hoc, species-specific basis.

“Catch and release is being viewed as underutilizing the resource just because they are catching below the [annual catch limits].  This may drive a desire to transfer allocation.  However, there are different motivations within and across fisheries that should be considered…”

While all of that discussion seems promising, there has yet to be much evidence that fishery managers are willing to stop worshiping at the altar of the highest permissible yield, even if anglers ask them to take precisely that action.  Nonetheless, the first step in addressing a problem is admitting that it exists, so the Summit’s discussion of optimum yield represented some kind of step forward.

The discussions that fell within the “Tradeoffs in Management, Conservation, and Opportunity” theme sounded somewhat similar notes, with “flexibility” in management being one of the key issues.

For many years, “flexibility” has been a shibboleth in the fisheries arena, used by what I might politely term “conservation skeptics” to connote management measures that allow a greater harvest of fish than either the science or current law would allow.  Thus, in repeated sessions of Congress, we have seen the repeated, so-far unsuccessful introduction of a bill called the “Strengthening Coastal Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act,” which is essentially intended to cut the conservation provisions of Magnuson-Stevens off at the knees, and free fishermen from many of the current law’s science-based management requirements.

But many recreational fishermen now realize that such science-based management has helped to restore once-overfished stocks, understand the need for good conservation, and are leery of efforts to weaken the management system.  Thus, as the report notes,

“Management flexibility was viewed as a double-edged sword by various stakeholders in the recreational fishing community, where some were optimistic about its potential, and others expressed apprehension.  There was traction around the desire of anglers to maintain fishing opportunities (i.e, the experience) over catching certain amounts of target species.  However, there was also a shared concern around the ability of the management system to shift to new flexible management models.”

That’s a somewhat different perspective from the one often portrayed by groups such as the Center for Sportfishing Policy, or anglers’ rights groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association or the smaller, but similarly disposed Recreational Fishing Alliance, which frequently tout “flexibility” as a way to maximize anglers’ landings, their time on the water, and their contribution to coastal economies.

Thus, once again, the Summit demonstrated its worth by letting the anglers speak for themselves.

Some of anglers’ concerns about flexibility came out in the comments of Tony Friedrich, Vice President and Policy Director of the American Saltwater Guides Association, who, the report states,

“noted that abundance equals opportunity, and that is what drives fishing trips (i.e., people want to fish when fish are around)…

“One example of management reform is the development of the [Harvest Control Rules] by the [Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council] and ASMFC…

“…ASGA as a whole is risk-averse, but they are open to other flexible management approaches, as long as they do not jeopardize stock stability.”

That is an important qualification.  It came up again in a breakout group discussion, where

“One participant expressed concern that ASMFC conservation equivalency is a form of flexibility that is intended to address variability in states’ needs, but can liberalize measures more than appropriate and may lead to overages.  Some participants discussed how [the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council] is exploring flexibility, but has strong sideboards for how far that flexibility can go. Whereas other participants perceived the ASMFC as having more discretion.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that flexibility didn’t have strong supporters.  In another breakout session, someone reportedly suggested that

“the current system of overfishing limits, [acceptable biological catch], and [annual catch limits] does not always work.  These measures should be considered a starting place, although they may also be used in reverse.  For example, participants suggested defining the desired outcomes, and then calculating the [annual catch limit] to achieve those outcomes.”

I wasn’t in the room when that was said, so I’m unaware of the context.  However, if someone was suggesting that we first set size limits, bag limits and seasons acceptable to a particular constituency, then adopt an annual catch limit that would result from such measures, without reference to a species’ biology (as such biology is the basis for the current approach), any fishery so managed is likely to have a very rocky future.

But in the end, that wasn’t the critical point.  The point was that the Summit generated a lot of thought and a lot of angler input, and allowed individuals to provide that input without being filtered through some organization’s lens.  It gave NMFS and the ASMFC an opportunity to hear stakeholders’ views from the stakeholders themselves, which is always a good thing.

If you didn’t have the chance to attend, you ought to click on the link near the top of this page, and peruse the report for yourself.  Even if you decide not to read it all, it is likely to stimulate thought.

And thinking can never be bad.





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