Hope & Hype At The Recreational Summit

Fishing reel

On March 28 and 29, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), with the cooperation of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service (ASMFC), held the 2018 Recreational Fishing Summit in Alexandria, Virginia.

Such summits have been held every four years or so. I’ve attended the last few, and in previous years was underwhelmed, as the programs have too often been used by various organizations to coopt anglers’ voices, and to promote their own agendas.

That was a particular problem in 2014, when various organizations affiliated with what is now known as the Center for Sportfishing Policy (Center) used the Summit to spotlight their recently-issued manifesto, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” (Vision Report) to kick off their campaign to weaken the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens), and promote the legislation that they call the “Modern Fish Act.”

I’m happy to report that the 2018 summit was quite a bit different. Diverse viewpoints were represented, and no one agenda dominated the discussions.

At first, it didn’t look like that was going to happen. The agenda seemed freighted with Modern Fish Act talking points, and the keynote speaker was Bill Shedd, Vice Chairman of the Center, who immediately began urging anglers to support that legislation.

Fortunately, and contrary to at least one industry report that claimed otherwise, that was the last time that the Modern fish Act was mentioned by any of the presenters. Instead, attendees had the opportunity to hear from panels of experts that were drawn from everywhere between the Atlantic Coast and American Samoa, who brought a wide range of perspectives to all of the issues addressed.

We were scheduled to address four general topics over the four days; the first was “Innovative Management Alternatives and Approaches,” a concept seemingly similar to the “alternative management measures” that were extensively discussed in the Vision Report and are a regular talking point for Modern Fish Act supporters. However, when the conversation began, it was refreshingly objective.

Kenneth Haddad, an advisor to the American Sportfishing Association, clearly wanted to move fishery managers away from poundage-based annual catch limits, but failed to propose any clearly viable alternatives.

He admitted that two proposed approaches, using annual catch (removal) rates instead of hard-poundage limits, and restricting anglers to fishing inside a designated depth contour or distance from shore, were “not extensively researched,” and that the former would require managers to expend substantial resources to develop the annual recruitment indices and abundance estimates needed to make a rate-based management program work.

He mentioned other possible approaches, virtually all beset by problems, although one idea—setting optimum yield well below maximum sustainable yield to increase fish abundance and better support fisheries for species that are often released, such as king mackerel—seemed to be both a practical and a desirable management option.

However, Mr. Haddad clearly misspoke when he said that Magnuson-Stevens placed a “stifling pall” on such innovative management measures because of its “prescriptive nature,” and suggested that managers “needed to push the envelope or push change to test and allow new management approaches.” As made clear in the published guidelines to Magnuson-Stevens’ National Standard One, the law already allows the use of many so-called “alternative” management measures, specifically including managing by catch rate, and no changes to current law are needed to put such approaches in place.

That point was driven home by Alan Risenhoover, the Director of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service. He emphasized the considerable flexibility already allowed in the National Standard One guidelines, and also emphasized one point that, although obvious, often gets lost in the alternative management debate: “Preventing overfishing keeps everybody in business.”

Other speakers addressed issues such as the need to develop data that would allow fishery management decisions to be made more quickly, so that managers could make timely adjustments in response to changes in fish abundance, and developing innovative ways to purchase quota from the commercial fishing industry, in order to assure a sufficient supply of fish for the for-hire fleet and its customers.

After the initial panel discussion, we moved to a more general discussion of items that were particularly relevant to each section of coast. Not surprisingly, improving the timeliness and accuracy of fisheries data was an overarching concern; although it was not really an alternate management approach, everyone recognized that good data was the key to good fishery decisions. Attendees also generally recognized that obtaining good data required adequate funding of data-collection efforts.

Beyond that, anglers suggested a wide range of “alternative” management measures. Ecosystem-based fishery management and the preservation of forage fish populations were mentioned, as was the need to recognize catch-and-release as a legitimate use of recreational allocations, and not merely a reason to reallocate unharvested recreational quota to the commercial sector.

Eliminating annual catch limits from some or all recreational fisheries, as proposed in some versions of the Modern Fish Act, generated very little enthusiasm at all.

Anglers also seemed to have little enthusiasm for the second discussion topic, Socioeconomics in Recreational Fisheries Management. Only 60% of attendees responding to a pre-meeting survey thought that the topic deserved “high” or the “highest” priority, placing it last among the four topics discussed. Still, the panel presentation was comprehensive, and competently addressed a number of socioeconomic issues.

In the general discussion that followed the panel presentation, some of those present, who had served on regional fishery management councils, observed that biology, and the need to avoid overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks, drives most management decisions; socioeconomics, while considered, is rarely if ever a decisive factor. Thus, anglers pay socioeconomics relatively little heed.

But if attendees were generally indifferent to socioeconomics, they were deeply interested in helping NMFS improve its data collection. Fully 80% of the attendees listed it among their top priorities; no other topic got a higher rating. Even when the other topics were being discussed, data issues always managed to wriggle into the conversations, and rise to the top of anglers’ concerns.

We were asked to consider how anglers could contribute to the data-gathering process; it’s not as simple a question as it might seem, since the key is getting a statistically-valid sample. Anglers seem loath to report their catches; even in the case of Atlantic bluefin tuna, where reporting is required by law, only about 20% of the anglers comply. In Alabama, where anglers are required to report their red snapper catch, overall compliance has never climbed much above 30%, and for some periods, was as low as 7%.

Managers also realize that a universal, mandatory reporting requirement is impractical. Not only would the data from millions of anglers overwhelm the processing system, but requiring anglers to report every family fishing trip, no matter how casual, would take a lot of fun out of the fishing experience just when NMFS and the states are trying to get more people out on the water.

Yet if angler reporting is voluntary, how will managers be able to keep bias out of the system? Bias can come from a lot of sources. Will all anglers, of all experience and interest levels, choose to report at the same rate? Or will some very engaged anglers report on all of their trips, others report only those trips where they were very successful, and others not report at all, because they don’t want fishery managers to know what they’re catching? Or will some of those mistrustful anglers actually make false reports, hoping to manipulate the management process, and produce a result they desire?

It quickly became clear that the data-gathering process was a lot more complicated than anyone believed, yet at the same time everyone offered suggestions ranging from smart-phone apps, to government-sponsored “brag boards” where anglers could show off their catch to the creation of rewards-based reporting systems, trying to make things better.

Like data, using conservation measures to improve angling was a high-priority issue, at the top of 75% of the attendees’ lists. And like data, it engendered a wide-ranging conversation that revealed how complicated the topic really is. Some of the issues, such as ecosystem and forage fish management, that were discussed in the initial, innovative management section, arose again. The related need for stable, intact habitats was also mentioned, coupled with the need for government agencies to cross jurisdictional boundaries and address such things as clean water issues that arise inland, but can have a marked effect on the coast.

Other suggestions were also made, such as crafting fishing seasons to minimize barotrauma problems, keeping them closed during those times of the year when fish reside in deep waters. But the most important thing probably wasn’t the suggestions themselves, although NMFS will hopefully find some of them useful. It was the fact that anglers from every coast, with different opinions and outlooks, were willing to come together to spend two days poking and prodding the management process, putting their egos and their special interests aside in the hope of making that process work better for everyone.

The only discordant notes, when they came, came not from the anglers, but from what was said, and not said, by some high-level government officials.

Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was clearly proud of his agency’s record of repealing what he called “burdensome fishing regulations”; he bragged that NOAA’s 50 deregulatory actions “were an order of magnitude larger than at other agencies.” He didn’t mention conservation at all.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross struck a similar tone when he addressed the assembled anglers and fishery managers. He assured us that “The Trump Administration is working hard to support your right to fish,” and that he “intends to cut billions of dollars in burdensome regulations” affecting our fisheries. He said that he was committed to “maximizing sustainable yield.”

He proudly listed what he viewed as his list of accomplishments for recreational fishermen: Allowing New Jersey to remain out of compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management plan (which injected turmoil and uncertainty into what had been a successful interstate management system), reopening the private boat red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico (despite knowing that it would lead to overfishing, and was contrary to explicit provisions of Magnuson-Stevens) and opening a short “emergency” red snapper season in the South Atlantic (even though the Science and Statistical Committee of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council didn’t have a sufficient opportunity to evaluate the impacts of such action).

As was the case with Rear Admiral Gallaudet’s talk, the need to maintain the health and abundance of U.S. fish stocks was not mentioned in his presentation.

Despite that, we left on a good note. The last non-agency speaker to address the event was New York charter boat captain John McMurray, whose closing statement offered a stirring counterpoint to Bill Shedd’s opening statement.

Where Shedd aggressively promoted industry and anglers’ rights organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association, holding them out as catalysts of change, Capt. McMurray talked about the legion of conservation-minded anglers who had no public representation at all, since the big national organizations have abandoned their conservation heritage, and now seek to weaken federal fisheries laws.

Where Shedd called for open-ocean aquaculture, and was willing to accept whatever risks that entails, to “grow the marine resource pie,” Capt. McMurray talked about growing the pie the old-fashioned way, through conservative management measures that create the sort of abundant fish stocks that anglers, and charter fishing businesses like his, need to survive.

Some of the fishermen present clearly agreed; others most likely did not. But speaking to anglers after the meeting, I got the impression that many took Capt. McMurray’s message to heart.

That’s good. We can only hope that NMFS took his message to heart as well.

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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