Coho Salmon in Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest. Photo courtesy Wikipedia/Oregon Department of Forestry.
Anglers from across the nation converged in Washington DC recently, this angler included, for the National Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Summit to discuss gains and losses that the sportfleet has experienced in recent times. The take-away: recreational fishermen care about the future of this fragile resource.
Of course no “summit,” no matter how shiny, ever escapes scrutiny from anglers with an opinion. You can imagine what 120 anglers might say. That said, all praise and scrutiny comes from the passion we all have for our sport and our resource, and we’re grateful to have an outlet to discuss items of concern to the managers that guard this critical resource. To NOAA and NMFS, thank you!
Despite being one nation, different regions throughout the country have very different needs, wants and outcomes, as well as varying and complex sets of challenges. Despite the regional challenges, overall we’re coming off a 20-year win streak where scores of species have been rebuilt from severely depleted statuses. But now with all of the perceived abundance, and a growing sportfleet that’s becoming ever so more effective in extraction, we have to pay closer attention to our fisheries and not become the “fox watching the hen house.” It wasn’t that long ago (and of course it still applies today) that we were saying the same thing about commercial fisheries. Fisheries mismanagement is likely the major factor that put many species into a depleted state before the Magnuson-Stevens Act came to the rescue during the last decades.
With fisheries big and small, mismanagement has always been an issue. Back when the sportfleet didn’t have the boats, gear and knowledge needed to exploit offshore species, the charter boats, as well as the rest of us, were more focused on salmon, steelhead, halibut and sturgeon. Now look where we are with these species. Here’s a brief timeline:
- 1800 – 1950 – Commercial gillnets (then, the commercial troll fleet) exhaust the salmon populations from the Oregon Coast and Columbia River. Oh yeah, dams are a part of the problem too.
- 1950 – 1980 – Sportfishing gets traction and regulations start with a 3-fish bag limit on salmon in the ocean. When the populations show signs of stress, managers drop regulations to 2-fish bag limits.
- 1980 – 2008 – Both bottomfish and sturgeon become popular amongst sport anglers, because we can’t just stop fishing! During that period of time, bag limits on lingcod go down and then come back up, and rockfish bag limits are reduced as well. By 1990, when coho salmon get listed under ESA, dramatic restrictions are put in place to prevent a drive towards extinction.
- 2008 – present – As freshwater salmon fisheries diminish, rockfish and sturgeon seasons contract, and anglers get more equipped to travel offshore. Albacore becomes all the rage. Excitement around this fishery loses some momentum when we experience a few down years where tuna are too far offshore for anglers to access. Oregon and Washington (don’t) welcome a growing number of California sea lions, which begin to decimate salmon and steelhead, while the Stellar sea lions go to work on the over-size sturgeon population. The impact of the sea lions further restricts fisheries, which sparks an earnest rebuilding effort by citizens and agencies. And then there’s the warm water blob, the El Niño event of the mid-2010’s and a major drought event that cooked fish alive in 2015. No big deal, right? Well, we’re going to feel the full effects of it in this year’s Columbia River fisheries, as well as fisheries throughout the Pacific Northwest. By now (2018) we’re at a 5-fish bag limit for rockfish to prolong the season for anglers. Sturgeon fishing closes entirely below Bonneville Dam, where the largest population resides for three years, with a brief five-day opener experienced in 2017. Brace for some draconian measures, and hope for a quick rebound in ocean conditions.
So what’s the trend? We go from one fishery to another when we see a loss of opportunity and take like a school of locusts wiping out a wheat field. Sorry, that may be a bit dramatic, but really, that’s the trend. Although we have some great opportunity in our bottomfish fisheries now, how long will that opportunity last? When will salmon once again return to consistent abundance? And the biggest question: What factors lie ahead that could cause even more long-term damage to the natural resources that fuel our coastal economies and our recreational desires, which make up the very fabric of our humanity?
We have a lot to still figure out, even after decades of intense management and restriction.
One common denominator stands true however: anglers care, and the day that changes, there’s going to be some boats for sale, cheap.