Are we losing our conservation ethic in fisheries management?
Many years ago, I made a promise to my friend and mentor Lefty Kreh. Lefty is a hero of mine since childhood. My friend, Kent Tidy, was kind enough to introduce us in the 90’s. One of the first times we met, we were upstairs in an old fly shop long since out of business. I was busy cleaning up after an event. Lefty was looking for the bathroom. Not exactly a storybook beginning to something that would shape my life.
Lefty walked up to me and said, “Tony, I’m glad kids like you will be around to take care of things after I’m gone.” Stunned doesn’t quantify my emotions. I stood, alone in the universe, with five bucktails and some krystal flash in my hands. Praying for something eloquent to come out, I said, “Huh?” He went on to say that he would always be there to help me however he could. The only thing Lefty asked in return was that I pass on his lessons and help conserve our fisheries. A decade later, I learned that this was the exact same promise that Lefty made to Joe Brooks. Many of the biggest names in recreational fishing have the same story to tell. A simple promise to Lefty to pass it on and try your damnedest to leave things better than you found them.
For the last dozen years, some of the biggest battles in marine fisheries conservation have been waged in the Mid-Atlantic. Striped bass, menhaden, summer flounder, and several other species have been a flashpoint for conservation. The battle lines were clear. There was a pro-harvest side and a science-backed, pro-conservation side. Conservation won and it was lead by recreational anglers. Many of those conservationists were keeping that same promise that I made so many years ago. After each victory, there would always be an email or letter of encouragement from Lefty. After one particularly ugly meeting over striped bass, he told me, “Tony, you got more balls than a bowling alley.” I instantly responded by asking if he would mind if I put that on my tombstone. He chuckled and said, “Go ahead.” You can bet that’s what it will say.
Fast forward a few years, and you have to ask the question, “What is happening to us?” The narrative is changing folks. You’ve probably seen the articles and PR statements about red snapper in the Gulf and summer flounder in New Jersey. The message is clear and simple. Science is the enemy, and we want more fish. The narrative is thinly veiled under the guise of state’s rights and economic hardship. The part that scares the heck out of me is the federal level effort to strip management from Magnuson-Stevens.
We can all agree that Teddy Roosevelt did a hell of a lot for conservation when he protected 230 million acres of public lands. These public lands make our country the greatest in the world. Because of Teddy’s foresight, we can still enjoy these resources over a hundred years later. The Magnuson-Stevens Act holds the same values and principles that he stood for by ensuring our oceans will be healthy and productive for the future.
In the early 1990’s fish stocks were collapsing across the country. Red snapper, summer flounder, New England groundfish, and scores of other species were disappearing. By 1996, 86 separate species were declared overfished. Within a year of New England groundfish being declared a disaster, Congress met to amend Magnuson-Stevens. This was a bi-partisan effort to end overfishing and allow the stocks to recover. Scientists were tasked with assembling fisheries management plans and assigning annual catch limits to each stock in distress.
Fast forward twenty years and what do you get? Well, only 29 species of fish are classified as overfished. 89 percent of fisheries with annual catch limits in place have halted overfishing. With results like this, it is hard for me to understand how recreational anglers could attack Magnuson-Stevens.
There is a strong push to amend the law by stripping Magnuson-Stevens of key management tools. This is being pushed by a desire to harvest more red snapper and other species. Heck, one bill actually intends to remove summer flounder from Magnuson-Stevens for two years. Red snapper are recovering and recreational fishermen want more. Flounder haven’t had a good spawn in six years and New Jersey doesn’t want to take any cuts. It’s just that simple. It’s ironic on one level and insanity on another. H.R. 2023 and H.R. 1411 are the manifestations of these shortsighted efforts that don’t represent conservation on any level. So here we are at yet another crossroads. This time it is different. Science is being attacked and discredited by our own ranks and at the highest level. These two bills will undermine decades of marine conservation.
So, I ask, “What is happening to us?” Are we going to let our history of marine conservation be rewritten? These bills don’t represent the fishermen I know. The fishermen I know came out in mass to demand cuts in striped bass harvest. The fishermen I know took days off work and filled buses just to be a body in a room at the many menhaden hearings. The fishermen I know want one thing and that’s for their children and grandchildren to be able to fish. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. Do H.R 2023 and H.R. 1411 accomplish that goal? Nope, not even close. Collectively, our motivation is the same. We want to protect our marine resources and ensure their future viability. The course of action is simple. We must defend Magnuson-Stevens and reject these efforts. Personally, I made a promise to a friend a very long time ago, and it’s one I plan to keep.