Who Will “Access” Salt Water Fisheries?

Recreational anglers. Photo by John McMurray.

Top Photo by John McMurray.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens) has been a success. Even its critics admit that. In 2000, 72 fish stocks were subject to overfishing; today, that number is down to 30. During the same period, the number of overfished stocks was reduced from 92 to 38. Since 2000, 41 once-overfished stocks have been completely rebuilt.

Magnuson-Stevens is a lengthy and complex law that touches on many different issues. However, most of its success can be attributed to two core principles: Fishery managers must prevent overfishing and must promptly rebuild overfished stocks, within a clearly defined time period.

Those principles, effective as they have proven to be, have been heavily criticized, for the only way to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks is to reduce harvest to a level that is sustainable over the long term. Such harvest reductions have cut into the short-term profits of various commercial fisheries, and have led to substantial discontent. They also restrict anglers’ harvests, leading to complaints from the recreational fishing industry and anglers’ rights organizations.

For a number of years, the recreational complaints were couched in terms of needing to add “flexibility” to Magnuson-Stevens. “Flexibility” is a pleasant, reasonable-sounding word, at least until you sit down for a moment and think about what that means in a fishery management context.

Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t dictate the measures used to manage recreational fisheries, and in practice, a wide array of approaches may be employed. While the Atlantic pollock fishery is managed with a single set of regulations that applies throughout federal waters, the recreational summer flounder fishery sees no consistent regulations at all. Instead, after managers establish an annual catch limit, the various states, acting cooperatively through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, are free to set their own regulations, which apply to such states’ anglers even when they are fishing in the federal sea.

It’s hard to imagine a law being more “flexible” than that. The only thing that Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t let anglers do is overfish, or prevent the timely rebuilding of overfished stocks. But those are exactly the things that Magnuson-Stevens’ critics want the “flexibility” to do.

That was made clear in a press release issued by the Center for Sportfishing Policy (formerly known as the Center for Coastal Conservation), in support of legislation that would weaken Magnuson-Stevens by “providing limited exceptions for annual catch limits” and keep fisheries open even though overfishing would occur as a result. It was also manifest in an industry-backed report issued in 2014, titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” which argued that Magnuson-Stevens’ strict stock rebuilding requirements should be amended “to provide the regional councils and fisheries managers greater latitude to rebuild fish stocks.”

Over the years, calls for adding “flexibility” to Magnuson-Stevens have not led to changes in the law, and so have become somewhat stale. Thus, recreational interests who seek the freedom to overfish and delay the rebuilding of overfished stocks have adopted a new buzzword.

Instead of trying to make Magnuson-Stevens more “flexible,” the claim to be seeking more “access” for recreational fishermen.

But when you take a good look at their arguments, you quickly realize that nothing has changed. “Access” has merely become the new “flexibility,” a euphemism for weakening Magnuson-Stevens so that fishermen can overfish and allow overfished stocks to languish.

Nothing illustrates that better than the reaction of the angling industry and anglers’ rights community last June, after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decided to reopen the red snapper season for private boat anglers in the Gulf of Mexico.

When it issued the regulation reopening the red snapper season, NMFS admitted that such reopening “will necessarily mean that the private recreational sector will substantially exceed its annual catch limit, which was designed to prevent overfishing the stock.” NMFS also admitted that its action “may delay the ultimate rebuilding of the stock by as many as 6 years.”

Despite those serious problems, the reopening was praised by angling and boatbuilding industry organizations, and by the anglers’ rights community.

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, wrote that “Anglers commend the Trump Administration and Members of Congress for hearing our calls for more access to federal waters.”

The Fishing Rights Alliance declared, “The anglers and the Gulf States will benefit greatly from the restoration of our rightful access,” while the Coastal Conservation Association said that “anglers are right to be encouraged by the willingness of the Administration and the Department of Commerce to improve recreational access to a historically robust Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery.”

On the industry side, Michael Leonard, speaking for the American Sportfishing Association, a fishing tackle industry trade group, announced that “providing additional Gulf red snapper fishing days is a welcome relief for the thousands of tackle shops, marinas, equipment manufacturers and other businesses who have suffered from decreasing public access to Gulf red snapper in recent years.”

Thus, it is clear that increased angler “access” has become synonymous with anglers’ ability to overharvest fish stocks, and that the various advocacy groups see that as a good thing, even if, as in this case, NMFS admits that “The stock is still overfished.”

The use of “access” as a synonym for “overfishing” isn’t limited to red snapper.

Earlier this year in New Jersey, a party boat operator argued that tightened summer flounder regulations, put in place to prevent the further decline of a shrinking stock, would “deny the public access to what we know is a healthy fishery.” In North Carolina, after NMFS decided to significantly shorten the cobia fishery due to excessive recreational harvest in the previous year, two individuals who helped to convince the state to go out of compliance with the federal action and keep the state season open were praised for “the dedicated research, lobbying and hard work…done to keep our access open to this public resource.”

Thus, when a spokesman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association praised a bill currently pending in Congress, called the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017,” because such act would “modernize the federal regulations governing access to the public’s natural resources by boaters and anglers,” it’s not hard to guess how such bill would amend Magnuson-Stevens if it were passed.

So the next question is, if Magnuson-Stevens was weakened, who would it improve “access” for?

Certainly, today’s anglers would get to keep a few more fish, at least for a while, and the businesses that currently serve those anglers would probably sell a little more bait, a few more rods, reels and such, and maybe even a few more boats and related gear.

But how long would that last, before fish stocks declined? And what kind of fishing will the children, grandchildren and even more distant descendants of today’s anglers enjoy?

In 1916, Theodore Roosevelt addressed just that issue in his work, A Book Lover’s Holidays in the Open.

“Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob out country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying ‘the game belongs to the people.’ So it does, and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.”

The similarity between those who opposed conservation measures in Roosevelt’s time, because “the game belongs to the people,” and those who would overfish and delay the recovery of marine fish stocks today, so that regulations no longer “[limit] the public’s ability to enjoy saltwater recreational fishing” is remarkable.

It may be even more remarkable that so many people have learned so little over the past hundred years, and still promote such outdated notions.

Allowing anglers to overfish, and to delay rebuilding overfished stocks, in the name of “access” may make some people happy today. But that current happiness will be paid for with the next generation’s sorrow, as they try to undo the harm that their forebears have wrought.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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