So, Which Side Are You On?

Captain John McMurray with Bluefin Tuna

While we gear-up for another season, anglers are unaware that the cards are being stacked against them

A lot of us are de-winterizing and prepping boats, dusting off waders, changing out hooks on plugs, tying flies, making trips to West Marine and the local tackle shops, etc. All the while the question remains in the back of our minds: How will it be this year? Will we get a good striped bass run? Will the fluke come into the bays? Will the bluefish be tearing up our gear? Will we catch fish?

Perhaps more importantly, will our kids have a good experience this year? A critical uncertainty, as it will determine whether or not they want to spend the afternoon with Dad on the water, or will they instead want play video games.

All significant questions. Of course, the answers revolve around “abundance.” In other words will there be lots of fish in the water – not just in a few scattered areas, but widely distributed – which of course creates “opportunity” for us. I’m going use those two words, abundance and opportunity, a lot here, because they are critical to our future as anglers and, in some cases, as small business owners.

Let’s be honest, the average Joe-angler generally isn’t very good at fishing. He/she has the least range, the least knowledge, and the least efficient gear. So for Joe to have much success, it’s pretty simple. He/she NEEDS abundance.

Commercial fishermen, for the most part are, unsurprisingly, quite good. They use efficient gear (e.g. nets, longlines, etc.), their knowledge is usually better than ours, and they have a much greater range than we do. One could say the same, to a somewhat lesser degree, about the party/charter fleet. While they don’t use nets, certainly they have more range, more knowledge, etc., and can generally make a go of it even when fish stocks are depleted. Not so if you are simply Joe-angler, or run a small-boat and/or light-tackle business.

While a lot of us like to say we just want to spend a day on the water, for the most part, that’s just not true. As a fishing guide for the last decade and a half witnessing unhappy clients, I can say that with some authority. The reality is we all want to catch fish, and without abundance it simply isn’t worth it for us to go. And I don’t know if your kids have short attention spans like mine, but if we’re not catching fish, they want to go back and do something else (like play video games).

It only follows to reason that the more fish that are out there, the more people fish, and the more gear, fuel, etc., people buy.

I would also note here that, sure, keeping a fish every now and then is a good thing and certainly adds to the experience, but I would also argue that it’s far more important to just have the aforementioned opportunity to frequently encounter fish, even if all we can do is “torture and release” them. It’s really about the expectation of catching fish, and maybe keeping a few. THAT is what keeps us coming back, not a need to fill coolers. I mean if the latter were the case then it would make much more sense to just go to the darn fish market, right?

I think, at some level, most of us recognize all this, although there are still a surprising number of people who don’t. I think that’s at least partially due to the local press, which is often heavily influenced by a fishing industry (party/charter as well as commercial) that often whines about “low” quota and constraining size and bag limits, bending some of the facts as appropriate.

And so, when it comes to the politics of marine resource management, two definitive sides emerged long ago: Those that want to kill more fish and those who simply want keep more fish in the water so we have opportunity.

The latter certainly appears to be the majority, but it’s the former that seems to be the loudest, at least most of the time. That’s probably because recreational fishing is just that. Recreation. It’s supposed to be fun. The last thing anglers want to do is spend their off-time trying to understand complicated management documents, or talking to/lobbying know-it-all managers, legislators, and other decision-makers.

Over the last two decades, there were two very important revisions to federal fishery management law (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act), one in 1996 and one in 2006, both of which helped ensure that federally managed stocks would be rebuilt in a timeframe that was as “short as possible” and generally not to exceed 10 years. And, well, they’ve worked quite well. In fact particularly well for those of us who depend on abundance.

That’s because not only did the 2006 revisions require scientists to set the upper catch limits, but they also include significant precautionary provisions, including requirements for both management and scientific uncertainly buffers when setting quota.

Such precaution clearly helps to prevent overfishing. There’s always a great possibility of error when making management decisions, but because of such provisions any error is generally on the side of conservation now. And that is a really good thing for us! Because not only did such revisions ensure that most federally managed stocks are rebuilt (or are rebuilding), they are helping to create abundance and opportunity for all of us, and not just for the pros with 70 foot party boats!

In my region this is pretty darn obvious. The summer flounder (a.k.a. fluke) stock has increased five-fold in the last 10 years and greatly expanded its range. Its abundance makes it widely available to anglers fishing from shore and in the bays.

According to NOAA, from 1989 – when the summer flounder stock was badly depleted due to lax laws that allowed overfishing – to now, there’s been a 700 percent increase in the number of fluke landed by anglers.

Recreational trips over the last decade are up 41 percent. By NOAA’s estimate in the Mid-Atlantic alone, that brought in an additional $1.4 billion in economic activity and supported 18,660 jobs!

That’s crazy! And a pretty darn good example of what I was saying… If there’s a reasonable expectation of success, people will fish, and of course spend money on fishing tackle, bait, travel, hotels, meals, etc., creating all kinds of jobs. And it isn’t just recreational fishing that’s benefiting. On the commercial side, revenues for summer flounder are up more than 60 percent since 2000 when the rebuilding plan was put in place.

I mean, come on, man… Federal fisheries management law has gone through a metamorphosis over the last two decades, but it seems like we’ve gotten to a place where it’s actually working! Sure in some regions we’re still not in a very good place (ehem, New England for example). But a whopping 37 depleted populations have been rebuilt since 2000. The number of populations subject to overfishing has declined by nearly two-thirds over the same period. The point is that we’re not fishing down most of the stocks the way that we were in the 80s and 90s. And overall the evidence is pretty clear that we’re benefiting. U.S. commercial fishing revenues rose 43 percent overall since 2006!

But of course there’s still that constituency who ignores those facts, and still complains that they can’t kill enough fish. They could care less about abundance and opportunity for the other 95 percent of the public.

And now that the Magnuson-Stevens Act is again up for reauthorization, such people have launched a big effort to roll back, and in some cases remove, the very provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that have allowed stocks to rebuild. If they’re successful, it would effectively pull us back into the dark ages of marine resource management.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the usual cast of characters. Some of the organizations that I always considered to be the “good guys” seem to have ditched their traditional constituency in favor of industry calls for game-changing loopholes.

As we’re all getting ready for this year’s fishing season, and wondering what we might expect as far as abundance and what sort of opportunity we might have, Alaska Representative Don Young introduced a pretty bad piece of legislation containing all of those loopholes that the kill-more folks have been asking for. It’s not a good start, and already the cards are stacked against us.

So I ask you, which side are you on? The kill-more side or the keep-more-in-the-water side? If you are a striped bass angler, I ask you to remember how all that went down. Are you gonna buy into the lies that reasonable size, bag, and season limits are too constraining, or that quotas aren’t high enough, that they are putting everyone out of business, when that is clearly not the case? Are we gonna just stand by and let special interests dictate how our marine resources are managed?

Conservative management ensures that there are more fish in the water, and thus provides greater opportunity for more people, creating more jobs in the end. Understand and be clear that fish ARE a PUBLIC resource. As the Young bill goes to full committee markup this month, it’s important we let our Representatives in DC understand that it will make fish less abundant, provide fewer opportunities, and therefore should not become law.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is a full-time charter boat captain and president of ONE MORE CAST CHARTERS in Oceanside, NY. McMurray spent nine years on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and six years as a legislative proxy on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and is a founder and past president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.

2 comments on “So, Which Side Are You On?

  1. I agree with Capt. John that we cannot go backwards in fish conservation for the benefit of a few commercial interests. The ASMFC is on the right track with striped bass management in 2015. We,collectively recreational, commercial, charter will benefit in the long run from fish conservation and forage fish conservation. Let’s go forward into the future and not go backwards with the Magnuson-Stevens management plan revision. Alaska representative Don Young would benefit from a forward thinking agenda instead of thinking as if our fisheries’ overall abundance is where it was forty years ago. Now’s the time to conserve.
    Capt. Pete Farrell

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