From High Seas to Hill Pleas

Bob Rees

I recently got back from Washington, DC. I’ve gone there on many occasions, lobbying for change such as the Salmon Solutions Planning Act, addressing the depletion of Snake River salmon and how to remedy it, shoring up the Endangered Species Act so we have a critical regulatory backstop to prevent the extinction of species such as salmon, and advocating for the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Act, which reduced the number of sea lions in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, preventing the extinction of some salmon and steelhead runs. And in the case of this trip, making sure our Northwest members of Congress remain stalwart in protecting sound data-management strategies that ensure the sustainability of many of our marine fishes.

Given my fisherman’s affinity for color, brick and brown are my least favorite, but definitely a common color scheme for Washington, DC. I see these as symbols of stagnation, far from the vibrant colors we see in the Pacific Northwest and certainly our tackle boxes. DC has other unique offerings, however. As knuckle-dragger as I am, I thoroughly enjoy the different flavors of ethnic food that I’m able to sample in our nation’s capital. But I wasn’t there as a foodie, I was representing the Northwest sport fleet and the desire for future generations of fishermen to get to enjoy what I have been able to.

As I adequately explained in my piece The Future Face of Sportfishing, we are at a sport fishing crossroads on the West Coast. The 2024 spring and summer salmon predictions just came out, solidifying the troubling trends of salmon and steelhead to the Columbia basin. The trend continues downward.

Having lost two-thirds of my historical opportunity, I’m now headed south, down the I-5 corridor, in route to Newport where a once-prominent fishing guide is now a commercial crabber. I’ll join him and his crew this season, trying to make ends meet since salmon and steelhead are failing to fill my winter savings coffers for the first time in 27 years. It’s a rather sad state of affairs. But I digress….

When meeting with our members of Congress, I commonly have an easy task. Oregon’s members often support the science of fisheries management, and the importance of sound data collection to ensure we don’t see a repeat of commercial fleet buy-backs and extensive rockfish conservation area closures that have resulted in a juxtaposition of regulatory necessity that now has brought about opportunity we haven’t seen in two decades.

Simply put, we need Congress to strengthen law under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), not weaken it under the pressure of industry or sport for the short-term gains of a few.

I get to tell the story of fishing the deep reef for massive lingcod and abundant canary rockfish. Not that long ago, these two species, among many others, were in jeopardy of steep decline. Those buy-backs and conservation measures turned around the trajectory for many marine species, of which now we get to take more liberal advantage. We’ve touted this as a rare success in the recovery of West Coast groundfish species, clearly not cracking the code for salmonid recovery. Again, I digress….

So in those congressional offices, I talked about a 30-year career as a fishing guide, shifting gears and looking at other opportunities to support my family. Piecing together part time jobs, exploring the opportunity of purchasing a franchise, and becoming a deck hand on a commercial crab boat are all on the table.

Also worth looking at, pivoting to a new fishery, one that I am not so excited about. Make no mistake, bottom fishing is fun, but way more challenging than fishing for salmon or steelhead. Filleting five to seven rockfish per person, burning the fuel necessary to get to the bottom fishing grounds, and the gross loss of fishing gear are all attributes that prevent me from exploring this option. But if I want to remain a fishing guide, it needs to be an option during years of depressed salmon and steelhead returns, which are happening with greater frequency.

In these meetings, I talked to the staffers and occasionally, the members themselves, to plead with them to hold the line on sound fisheries management, including accurate and efficient data gathering to monitor our stocks. Again, Oregon is a shining star across the nation on fisheries policies, as the state performs an important role for anglers exiting definitive ports in pursuit of saltwater species.

Other regions of the country are more challenging. I have seen the bevy of personal watercraft moored to anglers’ residences along canals in Florida, and I’m sure the same is true in many of the Gulf states. These areas are too expansive and scattered to collect data on a consistent and reliable basis compared to the finite number of saltwater ports that exist on the Oregon coast. That presents a serious challenge for agencies trying to manage for opportunity.

A data-gathering program called the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) enables anglers to gather data for agencies to monitor the fishery. This can be an efficient tool if anglers participate and the data that is gathered is accurate and usable. There are certainly some challenges with these caveats, as unforeseen data input muddied effort statistics, skewing the data. These are issues that can be managed for, however, but of course additional resources will be needed.

The sad side of the issue is, however, some stakeholders would rather use this as an opportunity to access higher volumes of fish which could very easily compromise the integrity of the population and, of course, future opportunities to pursue these species.

Although we had no specific legislative asks for our members of Congress on this trip, we were good with adequate funding for stock assessments and stay the course on accurate and efficient data collection. We did not get any side-eyes from any staff on these issues; Oregon, Washington and California members of Congress know the value of sport fishing, representing one of the greatest transfers of wealth from urban to rural communities, especially during shoulder seasons for tourism.

And why should we care what happens in the Gulf States? Well, we really have plenty of problems of our own, but it is kind of like a lawsuit; set a precedent in one case, and it may come back to bite you in another. Any compromise to the landmark MSA legislation, no matter what region, can have a negative impact in ours. We are not ready now, and never should be, to roll back into draconian measures that strip us of what opportunity we have left.

In the face of declining salmon runs, I had sturgeon to fall back on. As a matter of fact, I built my business on the backs of the estuary sturgeon fishery nearly three decades ago. With salmon, steelhead and sturgeon now on the ropes, more guides and anglers are converting to saltwater fisheries, which must continue to be intensively managed, as it could be our last great sport fishing opportunity. It’s likely that the only thing that hasn’t led to the decline again of groundfish is the sheer lack of days we get to access this fishery in our relatively small vessels on the mighty Pacific. Can you imagine the pressure we would see on this fishery if we weren’t at the mercy of volatile ocean weather? I think you get my “drift.”

So, you can see my sense of urgency. Most anglers, rightfully so, would rather spend their days on the river, lake or ocean, rather than walk the halls of Congress. Call it a sickness, but I enjoy meeting with these members and their staff, and they enjoy hearing the stories to learn what it’s like outside the town of brick and brown.

Remind me never to run for office.

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.

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