Time to Update Fisheries Management

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Anglers are true conservationists who deserve better treatment by federal fishery managers

By Mike Leonard

For most sport fishermen most of the time, recreational fishing is about far more than harvesting fish; most anglers first and foremost want access – the opportunity to try to catch fish.
Courtesy American Sporrtfishing Association

In the United States, healthy fisheries have traditionally meant better fishing access for anglers. That’s one of the main reasons why anglers have always been at the forefront of conservation efforts: Beyond the clear understanding that conservation is vital for the health of the resource, it’s good for our fishing experiences, too.

However, something is clearly “off” with federal fisheries management when improving the health of fisheries resources doesn’t translate into improved access. In the worst case of this — that of Gulf of Mexico red snapper — healthier stocks have actually led to diminished access.

In recent years, at every turn there seems to be another example of a federal fisheries-management decision that has left anglers feeling bewildered. While Gulf red snapper gets most of the attention, similar management challenges have arisen with summer flounder, cobia, black sea bass, triggerfish, amberjack and others. Despite overfishing being at an all-time low, angler frustration with federal fisheries management has reached an all-time high.

This frustration stems from what seem to be overly restrictive regulations and abrupt season closures at odds with what anglers experience on the water. Anglers need reasonable access to enjoy our sport.

Fortunately, earlier this month, six U.S. senators led by Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act. This bill addresses the recreational-fishing community’s priorities for improving the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the primary law governing federal marine fisheries management. A similar bill was introduced in the House earlier this year by representatives Garret Graves (R-La.), Gene Green (D-Texas), Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.)

MSA has historically focused almost exclusively on commercial fishing; the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act would insert key changes in management strategies better suited to the nature of recreational fishing. Recreational fishing is fundamentally different than commercial fishing, and it’s time our federal fisheries-management system recognized the distinction. Otherwise, the recreational-fishing community will continue to experience frustrating management outcomes simply because the management system isn’t adapted to recreational fishing.

However, this bill is not without its detractors. Most of the opposition is based on a fundamental belief that if you give anglers an inch, they’ll take a mile. They like to promote the idea that any changes to insert flexibility into MSA to improve recreational fisheries management will somehow lead to rampant overfishing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anglers from East Coast states helped defeat a proposal to allow a 10-percent increase in striped bass harvest.

It’s important during this debate over the need for more reasonable access to federal fisheries that neither the public nor fishery administrators lose sight of anglers’ long-held commitment to conservation.

My recent participation in ICAST 2017, the four-day annual international fishing tackle trade show in Orlando, reinforced with crystal clarity that anglers and the recreational-fishing industry not only say they care about fisheries conservation, but prove it through their actions. At the beginning of the week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), meeting at ICAST, discussed regulations for three recreationally important coastal fisheries – cobia, sheepshead and tripletail. What motivated that discussion, even though data from FWC biologists indicated these species are not overfished? Anglers had urged the state to consider lowering bag limits and raising minimum size limits to ensure the continued sustainability of these species.

I saw sport fishermen offer similar precautionary recommendations a few months earlier at an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meeting, when anglers from East Coast states helped defeat a proposal to allow a 10-percent increase in striped bass harvest, even though fishery managers had said such an increase could be allowed within current scientific constraints.

Also at ICAST, I saw countless examples of the recreational-fishing industry taking action to support conservation. Some examples:
• Costa’s “Kick Plastic” campaign
• AFTCO donating to six fisheries-conservation organizations what it otherwise would have spent putting together an extra exhibit booth,
• Eagle Claw developing and donating thousands of packs of hooks to New Jersey Fish and Wildlife to help reduce discard mortality of summer flounder.

These conservation efforts continue to prove that anglers are at the forefront of ensuring sustainability of fisheries resources. The federal management system needs to recognize that anglers are partners in conservation, not adversaries, and that we deserve fair treatment.

I hope Congress and the Administration will ignore the false, paranoid assertions that anglers seeking changes to MSA don’t care about fisheries conservation. It’s been proven time and again that the influence of sport fishermen offers a great safeguard against overfishing.

To get across the finish line, the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act is going to need your help. Please visit Keep America Fishing to learn about the bill and how you can help ensure our community’s voice is heard.

About the Author

Mike Leonard is the conservation director for the American Sportfishing Association, where he advocates for policies that benefit fisheries management, conservation, and angler access.