Don’t ruin sportfishing with commercial fishing standards

Don’t ruin sportfishing with commercial fishing standards
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The Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is a tale of two cities. Talk to the commercial fishermen in Alaska and they will say it is working. Talk to the recreational boat tied to the dock while black sea bass is at an all time high level of biomass and the answer is clear. The act has created winners and losers in the U.S. fishing industry. Unfortunately, what works in Alaska does not always work in other parts of the country or particularly, the recreational sector.

Magnuson has had successes in rebuilding fish stocks but it has failed in bringing the same socioeconomic benefits experienced by the Alaska commercial fishing industry to recreational anglers and the recreational fishing industry. This point was exhaustively discussed at six hearings held in the House and the Senate over the past nine months.

 

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The act’s intent was to seek a balance of conservation and utilization, and in doing so, having healthy, sustainable fishing stocks and productive commercial and recreational fisheries. Working to realize this objective is what the members of Congress and the sportfishing community are hoping to achieve with the passage of Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Acts.

 

The numbers bear out how Magnuson is not working for recreational anglers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released their 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation the findings that over a five-year period from 2011 to 2016, the number of recreational saltwater fishing participants decreased by 6 percent. This decline was also bore out in U.S. Treasury numbers which found total gross receipts to the Sport Fish Restoration Program, a 10 percent excise tax on fishing equipment and gas sold on the dock, decreased from $630 million in 2011 to $617 million in 2016. Clearly, all indications point toward declining recreational saltwater fishing.

Many recreational saltwater fisheries have increased during this same five-year period. For example, Gulf of Mexico red snapper spawning potential increased 183 percent, Atlantic Coast black sea bass spawning stock biomass (SSB) increased from 9.3 million pounds to 48.9 million pounds (425 percent increase). Similarly, Gulf of Maine Haddock spawning stock biomass increased from 18.1 million pounds to 104 million pounds (474percent increase), while scup increased from 309 million pounds to 447 million pounds (44 percent increase).

It’s interesting to note that during this same period, average gas and diesel prices decreased from $3.57 per gallon in 2011 to $2.27 per gallon in 2016 (a 39 percent reduction). While the biomass of these important recreational fisheries increased and fuel prices decreased, recreational saltwater fishing participation decreased. Recreational fishing regulations have a direct impact on participation and so it is a fair assumption that the regulatory framework and resulting measures are partially to blame for this measureable decline.

Assessment numbers support the claim that Magnuson has increased fish stocks, but they also demonstrate how the federal law fails to provide equal consideration and benefits to the recreational sector. This imbalance is what the sportfishing community hopes to change.

The recreational fishing community hopes to amend Magnuson and improve recreational management by amending the law such that it recognizes that recreational fisheries cannot be effectively managed with the same approach as the commercial sector. The sportfishing community believes improvements need to be made in the form of limited flexibility with regard to rebuilding and the application of annual catch limits when managing healthy fish stocks.

Catch limits are a commercial-style management approach that simply cannot be implemented in the recreational sector in a reasonable and fair manner primarily because a data collection program to monitor recreational harvest and enforce recreational catch limits does not exist. This point was made by the National Academy of Sciences in a report released on recreational data collection programs.

So while a catch limit can and should be enforced in the commercial fishery given that every fish is weighed at the dock — it’s an impossibility in the recreational sector. The catch limit language in the act that prevents the recreational sector from utilizing other management methods more suited to recreational fishing. This point was articulated extremely well by members of the recreational fishing industry at previous congressional hearings.

Flexibility from annual catch limits is not a “shortsighted” approach as some claim that would cause disastrous consequences. We cite the Atlantic Coastal striped bass fishery, one of the most important recreational fisheries and regarded as a fisheries management success. This fishery utilizes a commercial quota in the form of a catch limit and a recreational fishing mortality target. Under this approach the stock was rebuilt from commercial collapse to meeting and then exceeding conservation goals set for the fishery. Current language in Magnuson prevents the regional councils from adopting a similar management approach.

The goal of the Modern Fish Acts in Congress is to amend the law with regards to catch limits to allow alternative management measures to be used in the recreational sector. The recreational sector seeks these changes not to gain an advantage over the commercial sector but acknowledge that the recreational fisheries must be managed differently. Status quo management is creating industry instability and foreshadows a dim future for the recreational industry while ignoring the needs of the tackle manufacturing facility, or the boat building operation, the charter boat or the outboard engine factory.

The business model of these recreational fishing businesses is not compatible with forgoing conservation for short-term gain. Just because a company or a worker is building a recreational fishing boat as opposed to offloading a commercial fishing boat does not mean that their economic output or that job provides any less value to the country.

The current narrow view of fisheries management aims to benefit commercial fishermen and commercial fishing business — and ostensibly Alaska’s commercial fishing business exclusively — that quite frankly is an un-American perspective, especially regarding a fisheries law designated for an entire nation.

The Modern Fish Act endeavors to maintain the rebuilding success experienced since the 2007 Magnuson reauthorization but allow for a management regime that benefits both commercial and recreational fishermen and their businesses. Our country does not need a narrow “Alaska Model” but a national model that allows us to maximize the value and potential of our domestic U.S. marine resources.

Jim Donofrio is executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national, grassroots political action organization focused on the interests of America’s coastal anglers.