Who Speaks For The Fish?

Recreational fishing

Photo by John McMurray

No one can deny the social and economic importance of recreational fishing, and sport fishing organizations used to be a significant voice for conservation and management of our marine resources. However, there is a disturbing trend in some corners of the sport fishing community. Where conservation and abundance were once the guiding principles, “flexibility” and “access” now dominate the messages.

One of the most vocal and aggressive of the private recreational angler groups warns on its website: “Anti-fishing groups and radical environmental interests are pushing an agenda on marine fisheries issues affecting America’s saltwater anglers. At the Recreational Fishing Alliance, we’re pushing back to protect your right to fish!” RFA is a political action organization, a self-proclaimed “watchdog.” It lobbies Congress in favor of legislation that purports to serve the interests of America’s private recreational anglers.

From our point of view, the message is jarring and clearly illustrates the extraction mindset of this wing of the private recreational angler groups. But, when the fish are gone, all the “access” or “right to fish” won’t be worth much. The Marine Fish Conservation Network has long advocated a balanced approach and has spoken out against a one-sided, single-sector favored solution. This shift toward extraction and away from abundance is a shortsighted view that will leave future generations wondering where their opportunities went.

The rise of the “access” mindset has been happening for years. For example, seizing upon the pending reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) as an opportunity, in 2014 the American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, helped to establish the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management.

This panel is often referred to as the Morris-Deal Commission, named for its chairs Johnny Morris, the CEO of Bass Pro Shops, and Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats. Its report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” concluded that recreational fishermen were being denied “access” to fisheries resources in federal waters and that an unfair amount of the catch was allocated to commercial fishermen.

The document soon became an action plan for the recreational fishing lobby, and in 2017 its goals found their way into various proposals for reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The most troubling of these MSA proposals is the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, H.R. 200. The bill has strong support from the American Sportfishing Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Recreational Fishing Alliance, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, and others.

Those elements of the sport fishing lobby claim current policies threaten their rights to enjoy a day of fishing, but we cannot ignore the enormous effect of recreational anglers on marine resources. Nor can we lose sight of our nation’s historical reliance on commercial fishing.

Now a non-partisan public policy group, the Center for American Progress (CAP), has released a report that supports a science- and conservation-based approach to fisheries management. CAP’s report, titled “The Rise of the Recreational Fishing Lobby,” reinforces the Network’s concern about the message from these recreational fishing interests in the debate over how best to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Fortunately, some in the sport fishing industry, most notably the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) and many of its members, have embraced a long-view, focusing on abundance rather than extraction. As noted in the CAP report, “There is a growing schism among recreational fishing groups over several key proposed policies—most notably, exemptions to annual catch limits and delays in rebuilding timelines. This difference in opinion has effectively created two camps of recreational fishing advocates: those more interested in promoting and preserving access to fisheries and those primarily concerned with preserving fisheries’ abundance, thus allowing access to increase sustainably.”

For centuries our marine resources have provided livelihoods for tens of thousands, fed countless millions and have been part of our family traditions. If some factions within the recreational fishing lobby continue their push for an extraction focus in the public debate on fisheries management, over 40 years of steady progress toward more abundant marine resources may be irrevocably lost.

About Rob Vandermark

Rob Vandermark is the executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

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