Folks tend to think of fishing as an innocent pastime, something that takes us back to a cane-pole childhood where cares were few and simple pleasures abundant. Unfortunately, today’s fisheries are as politicized as timber and oil production, with various interests each fighting for a share of the resource.
Anglers must play a role in that battle, for it will ultimately determine whether our fish stocks are managed for long-term abundance, or depleted for short-term gain.
Thus, as we enter the new year, we should be asking ourselves what can be done to assure that fish stocks remain healthy and sustainable well into the future.
It may be hard to believe, but the biggest challenge conservation-minded anglers face is just convincing policymakers that we exist. The typical angler shies away from the myriad of meetings, hearings and such that are part of the management process. However, it’s said that nature abhors a vacuum, so when anglers are silent, someone always presumes to speak on our behalf.
Right now, that “someone” is a small group of organizations affiliated with the recreational fishing and boating industries, which have joined together to form the Center for Coastal Conservation (Center). Operating in partnership with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), it is promoting a report entitled A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries, which TRCP published in 2014.
That report was produced by a handpicked “commission” headed by two prominent members of the angling and boatbuilding industries, and a number of organizations closely connected with the fishing and boating industries were recognized for having “contributed” to the report.
Thus, it was hardly surprising when such report favored policies that would increase recreational harvest and provide economic benefits to the recreational fishing industry.
It recommended that the annual catch limits of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), which have proved effective in restoring fish stocks, be abandoned in favor of the sort of “soft,” mortality-based targets that provide little protection against overharvest. The report would also replace Magnuson-Stevens’ fixed deadlines for rebuilding fish populations with longer, undefined recovery periods that would supposedly reduce “socioeconomic impacts,” but would certainly let managers drag out the rebuilding process for as long as they chose.
Neither the Center nor TRCP appear troubled by the fact that such changes to Magnuson-Stevens would deny anglers the abundance of fish that they need to fully enjoy their chosen pastime. And as last year’s debate over striped bass management demonstrated, a lot of anglers want fish stocks fully restored. Even so, both organizations are trying hard to convince policymakers that the entire angling community supports its report; TRCP has claimed that it represents “the first time the recreational fishing community united to present a precise list of recommended changes to federal laws and policies.”
For most of the past two years, the Center has made the same claim, as it tried to impose the views expressed by the TRCP report on the rest of the angling community. In reality, most recreational fishermen probably don’t even know that such report exists; thus, they can hardly be “united” behind it.
So as the new year dawns, the first thing that anglers ought to do is tell policymakers that neither the Center nor TRCP represents them, and that they want a strong Magnuson-Stevens that will best assure that they, their kids and their grandkids will be able to enjoy an abundance of fish in the sea.
Yet Magnuson-Stevens, as good as it is, isn’t perfect. It encourages management decisions based on the number of fish that may be safely removed from the ocean, rather than how many fish should be left in the ocean to assure that the larger species which feed upon them may also thrive. Thus, anglers should strive to make 2016 the year that forage fish are managed conservatively, to enable them to provide necessary ecosystem services.
For as a nation, we reap greater benefits if there are sufficient menhaden around to support populations of striped bass and king mackerel than we are if those menhaden are captured, processed and turned into fishmeal that’s sent off to China. And we probably reap even greater benefits when forage fish such as sand eels (more properly, “sand launce”), which are not currently harvested in any numbers, aren’t made the targets of new industrial fisheries. Needed work to protect forage fish has already begun, but it remains too far from completion.
There are also a number of species that do not support directed fisheries, but are caught incidentally by fishermen seeking something else. Some such fish are retained, to be sold or eaten with the rest of the catch; others are returned to the water, where many do not survive. Because fishermen don’t particularly value these fish, they are often not included in management plans, and even when they are, the health of such stocks are seldom, if ever, assessed.
Yet such fish are part of the ecosystem, and must serve some particular function. Even though biologists may not fully understand what that function is, it is folly to assume that any species is not important. For as pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold noted,
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’…If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Thus, any reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens should protect not only forage fish with clear ecological roles, but all members of marine ecosystems, whether or not they are considered commercially or recreationally valuable.
Yet Magnuson-Stevens doesn’t govern every fishery. Some are managed at the state level, where regulations are often a bigger product of local politics than of science. That’s not going to change.
On the other hand, Congress gave the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) authority to enforce its management plans within state waters; thus, it is not unreasonable for Congress to prescribe how ASMFC’s management plans are written.
Such prescription is badly needed. When compared to the successes of federal managers, ASMFC’s record is dismal. Over the past 20 years, it has not rebuilt a single species under its sole jurisdiction.
Of the nineteen stocks managed solely by ASMFC, only three are deemed to be at sustainable levels while two—both stocks of red drum—are thought to be rebuilding. Of the remaining fourteen stocks, six are deemed “depleted” and three to be of “concern,” while the status of the other five remains unknown (although one of them is considered to be “overfished”).
Requiring ASMFC management plans to comply with the conservation and rebuilding provisions of Magnuson-Stevens could only help that situation.
Making that happen won’t be easy, but it is not an impossible dream.
Letting policymakers know that there is a legion of anglers who believe in a vision of healthy, sustainable populations of fish, and not in the “vision” that the Center and TRCP would impose, is the first step in achieving that goal.