Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management: Not What You Might Think

Recreational fishing

Photo by John McMurray

For the past year and a half, anglers have been bombarded with press releases from various industry and anglers’ rights groups, urging them to support two bills, H.R. 2023 and S. 1520, which are both formally titled the “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act,” but are better known as the “Modern Fish Act.”

A third bill, H.R. 200, the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act, has also been referred to as a “Modern Fish Act” bill, but such claims are deceptive; although H.R. 200 and the Modern Fish Act legislation share a few common provisions, H.R. 200 is a much more comprehensive, and potentially much more harmful, piece of legislation.

The Modern Fish Act bills, as originally filed, differed in some details, but had similar goals. Both sought to change the current recreational and commercial harvest allocations. Both sought to create exceptions to the annual catch limit requirements and to the deadlines for rebuilding overfished stocks. Both sought to significantly impair fishery managers’ ability to create catch share programs that might effectively end overfishing.

And neither one sought to change the primary tools that managers use to control recreational harvest, bag limits size limits and seasons.

It’s difficult to understand how such legislation would be “modernizing recreational fishery management,” as they are deeply rooted in timeworn management policies and approaches. That’s too bad, because a recently released paper suggests that recreational fishery management could use some modernization.

The paper, titled “Status-quo management of marine recreational fisheries undermines angler welfare,” (Paper) appeared in the respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Its authors note that “Recreational fisheries have experienced little of the policy transformation seen in many commercial fisheries. Most operate under regimes of nominal license fees and season, size and retention constraints…As a result, they have done little to contain fishing mortality in popular sport fisheries. Instead, many recreational fisheries are caught in a spiral of shorter seasons and increasingly tight regulation…”

Such language actually echoes that of Modern Fish Act supporters. The American Sportfishing Association, which represents the fishing tackle industry, has justified its support for the Modern Fish Act by saying that “The current federal laws have never properly addressed the importance of recreational fishing. This has led to shortened or even cancelled seasons, reduced bag limits, and unnecessary regulations…”

But while the Paper’s authors and the Modern Fish Act supporters might agree on some of the problems that confront recreational anglers, they disagree on such problems’ solution. The Modern Fish Act would not introduce any new approaches to recreational fishery management. Instead, it strives to increase recreational landings by reallocating commercial quota to the recreational sector, eliminating some or all recreational catch limits, and delaying the recovery of overfished stocks.

Under such circumstances, as the Paper notes, “anglers secure their rights at the expense of future generations.”

The Paper, on the other hand, suggests a truly new approach to managing recreational fisheries. It concludes that a management approach that has already proven effective in the commercial fishery, the adoption of “rights-based management,” more commonly known as “catch shares,” would better maintain the long-term health of fish stocks while also maximizing the economic value of the recreational fishery.

Requiring anglers to fish under such a catch share system would completely change the management paradigm. It would certainly qualify as “modernizing recreational fisheries management.” Even so, such a cutting-edge management approach would be very tightly constrained, and perhaps completely frustrated by the so-called “Modern Fish Act.”

On the other hand, new ideas aren’t always good ones. Should recreational fisheries be managed with catch shares?

To answer that question, it’s probably best to go back and look at the fishery that gave birth to the Paper, the for-hire red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.

By 2014, that fishery faced a unique, and very threatening, situation. The recreational sector had chronically overfished its annual allocation, which led to increasingly restrictive federal regulations. The five Gulf States failed to conform their red snapper regulations to the federal standard, but instead instituted longer seasons that allowed private boat anglers to fish in state waters when the federal waters were closed.

For-hire vessels holding federal reef fish permits did not have that option. Instead, they had to comply with federal regulations even when fishing within state waters. Thus, when liberal state regulations led to continued recreational overfishing, which led, in turn, to shorter federal seasons, the for-hire boats, as well as their customers, found themselves in a bind.

Eventually, they convinced the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to split the recreational sector into private boat and for-hire components, and establish separate catch limits and regulations for each, in order to maintain a viable for-hire fishery.

Some for-hire vessels went even farther. A group of 17 vessels, that called itself the Gulf Headboat Collaborative (Collaborative), obtained an exempted fishing permit (EFP) from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), that allowed members of the Collaborative to catch red snapper and gag grouper whenever their customers chose to pursue such species, without regard to federal fishing seasons. Federal size and bag limits would still apply.

Pursuant to the EFP, the Collaborative was allocated an annual harvest of 148,089 pounds of red snapper and 42,114 pounds of gag grouper, which it allocated among its member vessels. When any vessel caught its share of the quota for either species, it could not harvest any more such fish unless it acquired more quota from the Collaborative or from another vessel. Each member vessel was also required to install vessel monitoring systems, notify NMFS before going fishing, and call in to NMFS at least one hour before returning to the dock, so that NMFS could inspect its catch if it so chose.

The EFP remained in force for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Once it expired, the Paper’s authors began their research on the economic value of catch share programs in recreational fisheries. They found that such programs would increase the value of recreational fisheries by approximately $139 per angler, at least in the case of Gulf of Mexico red snapper and gag grouper. They admitted that such estimate is “undoubtedly crude,” but nevertheless maintained that “our analysis shows that the status-quo policies used in most recreational fisheries may fall well short of maximizing the net [economic] benefit of anglers.”

And in the case of the fisheries examined, that is probably true. It is not clear that similar benefits would accrue in other fisheries.

The fisheries discussed in the Paper are tightly regulated; thus, the ability to catch red snapper or gag grouper outside of the current, short fishing season has a very real value that doesn’t exist in fisheries that enjoy much longer seasons or, in some cases, no closed season at all. Recreational catch share systems would probably only add value in fisheries where the annual catch limit is too small to satisfy angler demand.

There is also the question of whether a catch share system would have to be limited to for-hire boats. The Paper’s authors admit that “extending these approaches beyond the for-hire sector to encompass anglers fishing from their own vessels faces significant practical and political challenges.”

However, private-boat fisheries for very highly regulated species could benefit from a catch share system, too. It is not hard to imagine such a system being adopted for red snapper in the South Atlantic, where the 2018 federal fishing season lasted for only six days in August, with tags issued in an automated lottery at the time anglers purchase their fishing licenses.

Clearly, catch share programs aren’t appropriate for every recreational fishery.

Still, they remain a valuable tool that belongs in the tool box of any truly modern recreational fishery manager.

Please note: the editors of this blog have deleted several of the comments left on this post. We welcome criticism, but these comments included personal attacks that have no place in civil discourse.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and award-winning blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

4 comments on “Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management: Not What You Might Think

  1. Sector management is putting tighter restrictions on the average private boat and shore angler to the benefit of the “for hire” commercial sector. A very good example is how Rhode Island recreational shore and private boat anglers, with strong support of party and charter boat sector captains faced severe restrictions on Black Sea Bass in the spring and through the summer ( late opening, 3 fish limit) so the season could be extended and the bag limit increased as of Sept. 1. This was a a slap in the face for every RI angler who can’t afford or chooses not pay to fish on a P and C boat. If we place sector economics above recreational fishing, we will all lose.

    • What you have in Rhode Island isn’t true sector separation.

      The right way to do it would be to provide the for-hire fleet with their own quota, based on their historic share of the catch. Then you let them catch those fish whenever they want, under whatever bag limit they deem appropriate–but when they catch their ful quota, they can’t fish for sea bass any more.

      Then the private boat/shore anglers can fish under regulations that suit their own fishery, and not have to deal with regulations that are designed for the for-hires. And under that sort of regulation, the private boats would come out very well, because the recent NMFS revisions of recreational catch and effort data show that the private boats catch most of the fish, and so would be given the largest share of the catch. In 2017, private boat and shore anglers in Rhode Island landed around 290,000 black sea bass, while for-hires landed about 36,000, so a sector separation arrangement that memorialized that sort of split would not be a bad thing.

  2. Then we will have the same as they do in the Gulf
    Guys selling their allocations and sitting on their asses getting rich off of other guys sweat,without even lifting a finger much less sailing a boat

  3. Charles,

    I don’t doubt that catch shares will end overfishing as it limits entry to a bountiful resource only to those with a documented history and allows them to commoditize that histery. That alone should be reason to not expand catch shares into new regions and fiaheries. What makes it even more perverse is that as allocations are cut, individual shares shrink, impacting the potential economic gains for the holders causing them to sell to the few with deep enough pockets allowing fewer and fewer participants and essentially creating government sponsored monopolies and putting many multi-generarional fishing familes out of business while a few select individuals sit back laughing.

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