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February 25, 2014

Pheasants Forever hosts nation’s largest upland event

Larry and Brenda Potterfield, owners of MidwayUSA, made a significant donation to Pheasants Forever’s “Forever Shooting Sports Program.” Accepting the donation on behalf of Pheasants Forever is the organization’s National Youth Leadership Council.

Pheasants Forever and its quail division, Quail Forever, hosted more than 21,064 attendees at its National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic this February in Milwaukee. The annual event is the largest in the country for wildlife habitat conservationists, bird dog owners and upland hunters.

Highlights included:

  • $1 million for youth programs. At the organization’s Saturday evening national banquet, Larry and Brenda Potterfield, owners and founders of MidwayUSA, presented Pheasants Forever with a check for $950,000 to be used for the organization’s Forever Shooting Sports program. Pheasants Forever also accepted gracious checks throughout the weekend from SportDOG Brand and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for $25,000 each. All told, the $1 million in contributions will be used to further Pheasants Forever’s youth programs throughout the country.
  • Recognizing conservation leaders. Pheasants Forever welcomed Rep. Paul Ryan as the keynote speaker at its national banquet. Wisconsin’s first district congressman is a former co-chair of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, and he recognized eight outstanding Wisconsin conservationists for their efforts in protecting wildlife habitat in the state.
  • Bird dogs steal the show. More than 500 turned out for the unique show open: a “Bird Dog Parade” that featured nearly 40 different sporting dog breeds.
  • Wildlife habitat improvement. Nearly 140 landowners went through the process of obtaining a wildlife habitat management plan for their properties at the event’s “Landowner Habitat Help Room.” Nearly 30,000 acres stand to be improved for wildlife because of these plans, all of which are drawn up with a professional wildlife biologist.

We hope to see you at National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic next year. Stay tuned!

Paul Ryan

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February 24, 2014

Bringing Bristol Bay home

Alaska anglers. Photo by Pat Ford.
Successful Alaska anglers. Photo by Pat Ford.

We’re writing this from our recently purchased house on the rain-hammered winter coast of Oregon. Sheets of water are lashing against our windows, and the wind threatens to rip off the storm door.

It’s a far cry from the GTs we were catching on Christmas Island a few weeks back in the warm sun. Now we’re here for the steelhead. Each season we guide winter-run steelhead in the heart of Oregon’s north coast. As a part of our dream, we created Frigate Travel, an outfitting company servicing and expanding a host of fishing destinations around the world. When steelhead season ends, the Sea of Cortez will lure us back for another season chasing and guiding roosterfish.

After Mexico, we’ll head back up to Alaska, specifically the Naknek River in Bristol Bay. For six seasons we have guided these waters. Like countless other fishing guides around the Northwest, it is how we’ve made our living and gained experience, spending day after day with clients, fickle boat motors, huge tidal pushes, crazy weather and fish – so many fish. Bristol Bay has all five species of Pacific salmon, giant rainbow trout, fat char, grayling, lake trout and northern pike. This is just the game fish; Bristol Bay’s waterfowl and upland hunting is off the hook. And big game hunters travel from around the world to this region for brown bear, caribou and moose. This place offers so many “experiences of a lifetime.” The region has helped us afford to build a small outfitting company with a solid client base who will fish with us around the Pacific.

Alaska salmon stream and angler
Angler on Alaskan salmon stream. Photo courtesy of Kate Taylor and Justin Crump.

The effort to protect Bristol Bay is so important to the economics of the outdoor industry. More than $100 million are spent annually in Bristol Bay on hunting and fishing. This industry employs more than 1,000 people within the region to include float plane pilots, chefs, fishing guides and lodge support staff. Travel companies, tackle manufacturers, boat builders, food suppliers, restaurant workers, even taxi services reap the benefits from the economic engine of Bristol Bay’s outdoor industry. This place consistently draws writers, photographers and filmmakers to tell the story of an untouched wilderness with amazing fishing.

Bristol Bay creates in all of us a deep sense of nostalgia for how our home waters used to be. The effort to stop the Pebble Mine threatening the Bristol Bay fishery with massive metallic sulfide settling ponds at the headwaters is finally coming to a head.

The EPA has a chance to protect this fishery hailed as the largest sockeye salmon run left in the world. The EPA can stop the proposal to construct the largest open pit copper mine ever proposed in Alaska (and potentially North America), at the headwaters of one of the world’s largest king salmon runs on the Nushagak River and the largest sockeye salmon run on the Kvichak River. The EPA can protect a fishery that provides a living for thousands of families as well as a thousand-year-old culture of subsistence.

Alaska angler with king salmon
Alaska angler with king salmon. Photo courtesy of Kate Taylor and Justin Crump.

We just bought our first home on the Oregon Coast because of our ability to fish so many steelhead streams and introduce our guests to this part of our world. Like most Alaska fishermen, our time in Bristol Bay provides us with a chance to start new businesses, buy homes, purchase new boats, and give back to the economy where we live. That is what working ecosystems are supposed to do.

Please take a minute and tell EPA to use its power under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.

Kate Taylor and Justin Crump own Frigate Travel and guide for Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, Alaska. When not in Alaska, they live a block from a very cold beach on the north coast of Oregon or in a camper on the back of a Chevy somewhere on the Baja.

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February 20, 2014

What’s in a name

NERO is now GARFO
Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

Ever hear of a GARFO? I bet most folks have never heard of a NERO, and that was GARFO’s predecessor. These are both government acronyms for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries regional office. NERO stands for North East Regional Office and has been the name for a while. GARFO is the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. This name change was done to satisfy Congress, as the regional office does cover fisheries in New England and the Mid Atlantic.

I am reminded of Shakespeare’s line in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name ….” but let’s not go there. I doubt there will be a sea of change with a new “gummint” name, although GARFO will have an opportunity right out of the starting gate to show that the name change has helped to change the fisheries management philosophy.

It appears that $75 million of taxpayers’ money will go toward mitigating the impacts of the “groundfish disaster” declared a while back by the Secretary of Commerce. How much comes to the New England – or, should I say, “Greater Atlantic” – area is yet to be determined, as the funds are meant for Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast. There is also the question of whether NOAA Fisheries will take a cut of the funds to cover “administrative expenses.” Some members of Congress have warned against NOAA siphoning off any of the funds, but that is what government does so well. For every taxpayer dollar in, you’re lucky to get 50 cents out.

But I digress. In previous blogs, I have commented that I do not believe simply handing out the money is a good idea. Thoughtful programs that will have longer-term benefits are better in my mind, but I’m likely in the minority.

Atlantic cod
Photo courtesy of NERO/NOAA.gov.

The party/charter sector has put forward a request or plan to the regional administrator based on the number of trips taken for groundfish species averaged over a few years. In discussing this with recreational industry folks, I feel that a plan or request for funds should be based on demonstrated losses to party/charter participants due to the known decline of groundfish. This should be easily determined by the changes or declines in the number of trips taken to catch groundfish species. All the necessary information should have been submitted by the active party/charter vessels in the required vessel trip reports. On the commercial side, there has been discussion of distributing funding to those businesses impacted by the groundfish decline. Again, I think that should be the same with those in the recreational fishing industry. I suspect that determining what those losses are will be more complicated for both the commercial and recreational industries. I also suspect that widening the distribution will begin to make any mitigating support meaningless. At least here in the heart of the Greater Atlantic, John Bullard, the regional administrator of GARFO, has convened the Groundfish Economic Coordinating Committee, composed of members of both the recreational and commercial sectors, to give input on how the funds should be distributed. So at first blush, the recreational industry has a seat at the table. Whether they get a reasonable share, just scraps or nothing at all is yet to be determined. I am not a betting man, but I’d guess at the middle or end of that list.

NERO or GARFO – I don’t think it will make any difference. If it makes Congress happy, wonderful. I would just like to see any mitigating funds made available on an equitable basis to both sectors of the fishing industry.

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February 19, 2014

More striped bass catch-and-release a good idea?

Striped bass close-up.
Striped bass. Photo Courtesy of John McMurray.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will remember that two weeks ago, I wrote about a recent suggestion by some that we open up the exclusive economic zone, or “EEZ” to striped bass fishing so that anglers in Virginia and North Carolina could have access to the large bodies of big fish that have been found to winter offshore there. It may be a good idea to read that blog before continuing:  OF STRIPED BASS, THE EEZ AND THE SAME OLD (EXPLETIVE)

In short, the EEZ is that area of the ocean outside of 3 miles, or what our government considers federal waters. Everything outside of that, up to 200 miles, is off limits to striper fishing. It has been for 25 years. Such a closure was put in place to protect the spawning stock back when things got really bad for striped bass. Since then, it has served as a critical buffer for the species and really the only place the fish don’t get absolutely hammered – at least, not legally.

To understand how critical the EEZ closure is, consider that just last week, on a joint NCDMF/USFWS tagging survey, five people with hook and line gear tagged a total of 274 stripers fishing 24 miles off the North Carolina coast. Included was one 74-pound striper, reportedly 10 or so fish exceeding 50 pounds, and too many 30s and 40s to count. Such large concentrations of big adult fish do indeed occur offshore and currently are not accessible to fishermen. Given the striped bass’ decline, these are exactly the fish we should be protecting, and while there are some enforcement hiccups, we are indeed protecting them. That is unquestionably a good thing.

The EEZ should remain closed. There is absolutely no reason to open it. Certainly, I got some feedback from those who disagree, and while I understand the rationale I think it’s based on a false premise. Their argument is that so much illegal fishing occurs in the EEZ that reducing the bag limit from two to one fish and allowing folks to fish in the EEZ would actually reduce fishing mortality. In other words, instead of killing two fish illegally, they’d be killing one legally. I think that’s bullshit, though. For one, the Coast Guard has actually been really good on the enforcement stuff in the last couple of years. Sure, some illegal targeting of striped bass probably takes place, but from what I’m hearing, it’s not near as significant as it was a few years ago. Like I said in my last EEZ piece, an increasingly sophisticated Coast Guard and serious fines have made most realize that it just isn’t worth it. Frankly, I kinda think the guys using the reduced fishing mortality argument are really just throwing it out there, because they are simply interested in getting on those large concentrations of wintering fish.

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, the point of this week’s blog is to take a look at what opening up the EEZ to just catch-and-release fishing would mean. And I bring this up now, because at the last Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting the Striped Bass Board discussed the potential of such an opening, which confused me a little bit, because… well, because catch-and-release fishing already exists in the EEZ.

Technically, it’s not legal to fish for them. The language in the regulation is pretty clear on that point. But it really appears to be an unenforceable regulation, as the angler isn’t retaining the evidence. So, one could just claim he/she was targeting another species. That said, the scuttlebutt is that some perhaps overly ambitious boarding officers have been boarding vessels and writing tickets for people fishing in areas of the EEZ where there doesn’t appear to be anything but striped bass. Or maybe it was that they were just writing warnings. I don’t know. Either way, this is the first I’ve heard of any such enforcement action for catch-and-release fishing in the EEZ.

As I referenced in the last EEZ blog, there are lots of businesses in both Virginia and North Carolina that simply don’t have much business anymore, because, for one, there’s real enforcement of the EEZ closure now, but also because the stock has contracted to the point where the inshore/legal striper fishery in the winter is virtually non-existent. So, making it legal to go out and target some of these large wintering fish in the EEZ might indeed help these guys out. I mean, the point is that these guys could advertise such a fishery. Get guys to drive down from Jersey, etc. to get in on it. So from that perspective I do get it. And this is precisely why the subject was brought up at ASMFC.

Close big bass.
Big striped bass. Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

On the surface it sounds pretty harmless, right? What could be wrong with such a policy? And why wouldn’t we all want this? Seems like a win/win. But I think we have to be very careful. If this was 2006 and we were at peak abundance, I’d probably be inclined to think, yeah, this a good idea – and probably harmless. But we aren’t there anymore. In fact we’re in the midst of a pretty precipitous decline, and it’s very possible that we’ll be over the fishing mortality threshold (read overfishing) and the stock will have fallen below the spawning stock biomass threshold (read overfished) by the end of this year.

With that in mind, we have to understand that even with an all-release fishery, there will be some release/discard mortality. I’m pretty sure 8 percent is the number the assessment uses. That may not sound significant, but extrapolated over all those fish that are caught and released (remember the 274 stripers caught in the tagging survey by one boat with only five anglers on board) you’ve definitely got an increase in fishing mortality. And we’ve also got to remember that these are pretty much all old, large fish – the ones where the real release mortality rate is generally much higher than 8 percent.

The other thing that concerns me about making such a catch-and-release fishery “legal” is that I suspect it will invite non-compliance. The big fleets of boats outside of the 3 mile limit used to send up red flags. That won’t be the case if there’s a “legal” fishery out there, which is fine, assuming everyone is in compliance, prosecuting a strictly catch-and-release fishery… I doubt that will be the case. There will likely be a significant number of knuckleheads hiding fish in compartments.

Yeah, I don’t really know where I’m at on this right now. Really, I don’t think this stock needs any increase in fishing mortality right now, even if it’s incremental. On the other hand, I intuitively think, “So what, it’s catch-and-release… there won’t be that much mortality, and people are doing it anyway” (of course it will be on a much larger scale now though). But that’s just a gut feeling, and my gut is often wrong. The logical part of me thinks this is a bad idea, at least right now. I guess for me to really make up my mind, I’d have to see a full analysis by the Striped Bass Technical Committee, but I suspect such an analysis would be less than comprehensive. Often such analyses don’t take into account noncompliance, not to mention all the boneheads who don’t know how to – or simply don’t take the time or expend the energy to – properly release a big fish. In other words, I suspect the Technical Committee would just apply the 8 percent release mortality rate across the board. And I believe, particularly with the large fish we’re talking about here, that it is much higher.

Striped bass with angler.
Photo courtesy of John McMurray.

Where are we now with all of this? As mentioned, the initial, albeit abbreviated discussion has taken place at ASMFC. If I understood that conversation correctly, commissioners need more info/analysis from the Technical Committee, and they also wanted to hear from the Advisory Panel (I look forward to weighing in here!). I should note here though that that ASMFC in itself cannot reopen the EEZ. It can recommend only that the feds (NOAA Fisheries) open the area again. Of course, given the processes for making such public decisions, the feds would have to offer significant justification to reopen the EEZ, there would have to be scoping, public hearings, etc. So I certainly don’t think that this is something that’s right around the corner. That said, I do know that the Coast Guard already has had some preliminary discussions on how they might enforce such an all-release fishery.

Moving forward, I guess we’ll see how this all shakes out. Stay tuned! I’ll be sure to be reporting on this as we get more information.

 

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February 18, 2014

A fair shake for saltwater recreational anglers

Mike Nussman of the American Sportfishing Association With Gumballs.
Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Association, demonstrates the allocation of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen in his right hand and recreational anglers in his left hand. Photo by Richard Gibson/Hi-Seas Photography.

The problem with federal fisheries management in coastal waters is that nearly everything is based on commercial fishing. How much of a particular species can be caught, when they can be caught and who can catch them leans heavily toward commercial fishermen. Recreational saltwater anglers get left holding the chum bag.

Mike Nussman, the president of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), explained the problem during a news conference last week at the Miami International Boat Show using gumballs. In one hand, he held a glass pitcher filled with gumballs, which represented the total amount of saltwater fish caught by commercial fishermen. In the other hand, he held a pitcher with two gumballs. That represented the total number of saltwater fish caught by recreational anglers.

Mike Nussman catch value
Mike Nussman illustrates the economic value of recreational fishing in the U.S. with the gumballs in the pitcher in his left hand compared to the value of commercial fishing in the pitcher in his right hand. Photo by Steve Waters.

Then he poured gumballs from the first pitcher into the second pitcher to represent the economic value of those catches. The second, recreational pitcher had more gumballs than the first, which illustrated just how much more valuable recreational fishing is to the U.S. economy than commercial fishing.

Nussman is one of many who believes it is time that federal fishery managers take into account the value of recreational fishing when managing saltwater fisheries. “Why does the National Marine Fisheries Service pay so little attention to recreational fishing?” Nussman asked during the news conference on the findings of the Commission for Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management.

As the commission’s report, “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries,” noted, the nation’s 11 million recreational saltwater anglers spent $27 billion in 2011 on fishing tackle, equipment and trip-related goods such as bait, ice, gas, meals and lodging. That generated more than $70 billion in economic output and supported 455,000 jobs. Commercial fishing supported 381,000 jobs. But there were 210 jobs for every 100,000 pounds of fish landed by recreational anglers, compared with only 4.5 jobs in the commercial fishing industry for that amount of fish.

Those are impressive numbers, but they are ignored by federal fishery managers and congressmen, who tend to think only of the bottom lines of commercial fishermen. The goal of the commission, which was chaired by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats, and organizations such as the ASA, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Coastal Conservation Association, the Center for Coastal Conservation and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, is to have those numbers count when managing saltwater fisheries.

Specifically, “The commission envisions a marine fisheries management system that conserves fishery resources, provides consistency in regulations, and produces the full range of saltwater recreational fishing’s economic, social and conservation benefits for the nation.” To achieve that, the commission came up with six key elements that should be included when the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act is reauthorized by Congress:

  • Establishing a national policy for recreational fishing, much like individual states, such as Florida, which has effective size limits, bag limits and, in some cases, seasons to protect gamefish. Magnuson-Stevens currently only focuses on catch-and-release practices for recreational anglers.
  • Adopting a revised approach to recreational saltwater fisheries management that promotes conservation and access. Instead of managing recreational fisheries for maximum sustainable yield like commercial fisheries, manage them by harvest rate instead, which is how recreational fishing for striped bass is managed.
  • Allocation of marine fisheries for the greatest benefit to the nation. Species targeted by both commercial and recreational anglers, such as red snapper, need to be managed based on accurate data, conservation and socioeconomic value.
  • Creating reasonable latitude in stock rebuilding timelines. Magnuson-Stevens says the time to rebuild stocks should be no more than 10 years, which for some species, is not realistic. Flexibility is needed, such as low harvest rates so stocks can grow and anglers still can fish.
  • Establishing a process for cooperative management, which means the feds should work closely with states to best manage specific fisheries.
  • Managing for the forage base. The feds seldom manage the bottom of the food chain, which is essential for healthy fisheries.

“Magnuson-Stevens hasn’t changed since 1976,” when it was enacted, said Jeff Angers, the president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “Every amendment and reauthorization has focused on commercial fishing.”

Now it’s up to conservation and fishing organizations and individuals to get the message out to Congress that the value of recreational fishing must be considered when reauthorizing Magnuson-Stevens.

“It’s a time for all of us to unite,” Morris said, “and speak to our policy makers.”

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