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April 17, 2014

A national recreational fishing policy

Rod and reel courtesy NMFS/NOAA
Photo courtesy of NMFS/NOAA.gov.

Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.

NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.

During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.

The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.

Marine Visioning Report for America's Saltwater Recreational Fisheries
Image courtesy of Trcp.org.

This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.

I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!

Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”

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April 11, 2014

For us humans to digest, first we must swallow

Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.
Red snapper on ice. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dute/www.al.com.

For recreational fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing was a difficult task last week.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set out what is sure to be an unpalatable menu for recreational fishermen last Thursday at its meeting in Baton Rouge, La., when it voted a shortest-ever 11-day recreational red snapper season for 2014.

Just three hours later, the Louisiana Department of  Wildlife and Fisheries found the decision so distasteful the agency’s top man, Secretary Robert Barham, announced that come Monday, April 14, his state will open state waters to a year-round recreational red snapper take.

“After reviewing what our biologists expect Louisiana’s recreational red snapper landings to be this year, and the recent action taken by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to have a very short federal season, I have decided to support our anglers and the associated fishing industry by opening state waters 365 days until further notice,” Barham said in a prepared statement.

“The Gulf Council’s action is clear evidence that their process is broken and they give no consideration to the needs of individual states. For two years, I have been trying to persuade the Gulf Council to move forward with regional management, allowing the states flexibility in management by empowering our anglers and fishing industry to decide how they want red snapper managed. That hasn’t happened.”

The move aligns Louisiana with its neighbor Texas in having 365-day seasons in state waters. Louisiana will continue its two-fish-per day limit, while Texas allows a four-per- day take. Florida has elected to not comply with federal regulations in state waters as well, citing similar frustration and distrust of federal management.

It was clear the 17-member Gulf council was running in fear of an early April ruling by a Washington, D.C., district court that told the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf Council that its recreational red snapper management schemes allowed recreationals to exceed their sector’s quota during five of the six years between 2007 and 2012.

A group of commercial fishermen brought the lawsuit and used NMFS data to show the recreational overages, numbers some on the recreational side believe are drawn from the upper end of a built-in “fudge factor” in the federal formula. Numbers on the factor’s low side show recreationals are within, or very close to, their sector’s annual quota.

Louisiana’s reaction came after NOAA Southeast Region Administrator Roy Crabtree announced a 40-day recreational red snapper season late last year, a welcomed addition of nearly two weeks from 2013’s 27-day season.

Last year’s season came after Crabtree, (who has a Gulf Council vote) was forced to recommend a Gulf-wide 27-day season after he issued a directive for respective nine-day and 14-day seasons in federal waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. A Texas-based federal judge ruled the directive was punitive towards individual states, which is prohibited by federal fisheries-management law, and forced a more equitable number of season days across the five Gulf states last season.

Presumably, and only if 2014’s 11 days follows precedent, this year’s season will begin at 12:01 a.m. June 1 and run through 12:01 a.m. June 12.

A more complete picture of what ultimately happened began last Tuesday when the council’s Reef Fish Committee debated 14-day, five-day and no season. That’s right: NO DAYS for 2014 despite recent stock assessments showing the largest ever stock of red snapper recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s when the recreational fishing world got a primer on “buffers,” especially a 20-percent buffer, an addition to the formula to restrict a season to try to ensure red snapper harvest comes as close as the federal managers can estimate in keeping the recreational take under its current quota.

A 14-day season with a 20-percent buffer is an 11-day season when the buffer removes its 20 percent, or 2.8 days.

Another suggestion last week was for an eight-day season with a 30-percent buffer, but that proposal had so little traction it slid by with minimal debate.

The short explanation of it all is that the Gulf council will forward its decision to NMFS showing the council’s willingness to make sure recreational fishermen stay under their 5.39 million-pound allowable catch (49 percent of an 11-million-pound quota for 2014). Plugged into the formula, the 20-percent buffer produces a 4.312-million-pound “annual catch target” when the daily creel limit is two-per-angler per day.

There was more, much more, and without sharing the fatigue of listening to nearly 20 hours of the back-and-forth of the council meeting in Baton Rouge, here are other items of interest:

–The Gulf Council approved an exempted fishing permit for Alabama’s near 100-vessel charter boat fleet.

The proposal came from Alabama charter boat operators who want to extract what was outlined as an 8-percent total catch by charter operators from Alabama’s historic recreational red snapper catch. That 8 percent would be doled out to charter operators with a 10-per-day take for “six-pack” charters and 20 per day for larger charter boats, effectively making charter boat operators, who are taking recreational anglers fishing, exempt from following the same rules and regulations private recreational anglers have to follow. Six-pack boats are those vessels on which the captain is only licensed to take six customers.

What happened this week in Baton Rouge certainly will give us more to chew on in the coming weeks and months. Whether recreational fishermen can or should swallow any or all of it is another story.

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posted in: General

March 31, 2014

Red snapper battle lines in the “Sportsman’s Paradise”

Louisiana-Sportsmans-Paradise
Photo courtesy of rongcheek.com.

You’d think that somebody living in Louisiana, the self-proclaimed “‘Sportsman’s Paradise,” would learn through the years that the word “sportsman” didn’t arrive in a dictionary because man was spearing fish or entrapping them with any ancient or modern device.

Yet, every time there’s a chance to comment publicly about the ongoing battle between recreational and commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, especially when it comes to red snapper, the Louisiana Restaurant Association lines up squarely against recreational fishermen – the sportsmen living, working and spending money, sometimes in the restaurants that open their doors daily in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

The LRA is a powerful organization in Louisiana. It should be. Some of Louisiana’s restaurants are renowned worldwide: Chefs working in them produce culinary masterpieces mostly because of the rich blending that brought together so many unique ethnic cultures in one place – and also because our waters yield such a variety of marine creatures those ethnic groups could adapt for their tables.

How odd that, given Louisiana’s freshwater, brackish-water and saltwater bounty, battle lines have been drawn over one species – red snapper.

Yet that’s where the lines are drawn today.

Louisiana Sportsman Logo
Photo courtesy of shopsportsmanstore.com.

And it’s why I, someone who has for more than 60 years breathed our humid air, lived through dozens of hurricanes, watched millions of gallons of oil gush from an underwater well, and witnessed the greatest wetlands loss in our nation’s history, despise the more than 20-year fight over this one species, the red snapper.

I grew up during the years when recreational and commercial fishermen drew on our bountiful waters with a certain respect for each other.

That’s not the case today – not with the recent attacks on the allocation and re-allocation of Gulf of Mexico red snapper.

Most years the annual Gulf red snapper quota is 9.12 million pounds, divided 51 percent for commercial anglers and 49 percent for the tens of thousands of recreational anglers living in the five Gulf states.

For the last five or six years, the commercials and the LRA decried data that show the recreational take has exceeded its 49 percent.

But the question today is “How factual is that data?” The question arises because, by its own admission, National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, cannot accurately count the recreational take.

You don’t have to be a theoretical mathematician to look at the statistical model used to quantify the recreational take to know it’s flawed.

For instance, Louisiana’s estimated annual recreational catch is somewhere in the 600,000-pound neighborhood, according to the NMFS, but the model used to produce that number has a wide variation – one that would result in the recreational estimate being as low as 300,000 pounds or closer to 900,000 pounds.

You see the problem. This is why recreationals here, especially with more and more red snapper showing up off the Louisiana coast, don’t understand why the LRA’s comments in Gulf Council hearings call for more recreational restrictions, that any increase in recreational catch puts severe limitations on members’ ability to make money in their establishments.

In those meetings, I’ve heard on three occasions that as much as 80 percent of the commercial red snapper harvest is shipped out of the country. Those comments, too, leave the recreational side scratching its head over the LRA claim that more fish would help their bottom line and provide fish to Midwest markets.

Sportsman Paradise Sign
Photo courtesy of John L.H./Yelp.com.

There is some truth in the LRA protest: Red snapper is a wonderful fish to eat, but in Louisiana there’s so much more than red snapper, and because there is so much more, we don’t have to worry about the downward spiral of blue crabs closing the doors of diners in Maryland or the collapse of the cod stocks shutting down Northeast fish-n-chips shops.

Our state’s epicurean history has drawn on so much more that we don’t need to fight about one species, not when it’s selling in our local fish markets for more than $20 a pound, a price that’s too rich for my blood.

Chris Macaluso

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posted in: General

March 25, 2014

As marine fisheries legislation heats up, it’s time to revamp the federal management system

Congress is moving forward quickly to revise the federal act that governs our nation’s marine resources. The sportfishing and boating industries, along with recreational saltwater anglers, are stepping up efforts to ensure that their economic, social and conservation priorities are well represented.

As the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act reauthorization advances on Capitol Hill, Bass Pro Shops Founder Johnny Morris and Maverick Boats President Scott Deal, leaders in the recreational angling industry and co-chairmen of the Commission on Saltwater Recreational Fisheries Management, will present A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries at the National Press Club on March 26, 2014, from 9:30–10:30 a.m.

The report, introduced to fishing and boating industry stakeholders on Feb. 13, 2014, at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show, is receiving critical acclaim as an important step toward commonsense saltwater fisheries management. Now, with strong support from the boating and fishing community, the commission is taking the report to the Hill to work with Congress as the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proceeds.

The Morris-Deal Commission assembled an expert panel of state and federal agency administrators, researchers, industry representatives and economists to promote a proactive vision for saltwater fisheries management. The current Magnuson-Stevens Act does not sufficiently address this important use of our nation’s public fishery resources. The commission’s report addresses recreational fishing specifically and differentiates the economic, social and conservation needs from those of commercial fishing.

According to NOAA Fisheries, 11 million Americans recreationally fish in saltwater each year. These sportsmen and -women contribute more than $70 billion to the nation’s economy and $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation of aquatic resources and habitats.

Who:     Johnny Morris, founder and CEO, Bass Pro Shops
Scott Deal, president, Maverick Boats

When:   Wednesday, March 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m. EDT

Where:  Fourth Estate Room, The National Press Club
529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045

RSVP to Lauren Dunn, National Marine Manufacturers Association, at ldunn@nmma.org; or Mary Jane Williamson, American Sportfishing Association, at mjwilliamson@asafishing.org.

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March 18, 2014

Toxin talk

Mercury in seafood food chain
Mercury in seafood food chain. Image courtesy of Bretwood Higman, Ground Truth Trekking/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday morning, I happened to be talking with another avid recreational fisherman about the presence of toxic elements and chemicals in some of the fish that anglers like to catch and a lot of people like to eat. The discussion centered on striped bass and the health warning posted in just about every Atlantic coastal state, with the exception of Massachusetts, where migratory striped bass and bluefish are caught.

Then, out of the blue, comes an email press release that the Food & Drug Administration is being sued because it has failed to respond to a petition filed in 2011 that requested (1) informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the joint recommendations of the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency in their online advisory; (2) consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, presented in a user friendly format; and (3) informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate or high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory. 

Bingo! So the two of us having the discussion are not the only ones wondering why there is not more public awareness of this problem and why there are not more comprehensive requirements for making the public aware.

In my case, it is probably too late to worry about this problem. But I have four grandchildren, and they are likely to be impacted by their consumption of some fish. My children should be given the information that will allow them to make the right decisions for their children. Studies have shown that methylmercury, which occurs when airborne mercury is saturated in water, is a neurotoxin that leads to learning disabilities, lowered IQ, and impaired cognitive and nervous system functioning. Studies also have shown that PCBs have a known neuropsychological effect in children and can cause an elevated risk of cancer. Both of these contaminants bio-accumulate, primarily in fatty tissue. A copy of the study can be found here and Maine’s recommendations for stripped bass and bluefish consumption from the Atlantic coastal states are found below.

Striped bass and bluefish consumption advisory, Atlantic states
Figure from the Interstate Workgroup report indicating recommendations for striped bass and bluefish consumption. Figure courtesy of Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, here we have a fairly comprehensive study of contaminants in fish and the potential hazards to the sensitive group, which consists of women of child-bearing age as well as young women and children. That group is advised by this study to consume from one meal a month to zero consumption. Others are advised to consume no more than one meal a month – not exactly an endorsement for eating seafood.

Virtually every state from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine has posted these warnings except for the state of Massachusetts. Why, I cannot find out. It may have to do as much with the workings of state bureaucracy as any other possibility. Some think that this has been done to protect the commercial striped bass fishery. I don’t know, but I do know is that it is not protecting the general public. There may be some reasoning by state health officials that they do not post the health warning. That has to do with the testing methodology. Methylmercury bio-accumulates in the fatty tissue. In some testing methods the entire fish is ground up, and the testing is done on that. This gives a lower reading of the toxic contaminants than if the test had been done solely on the part of the fish normally consumed.

It still seems strange to me that almost all the coastal Atlantic states have some level of warning about consumption of bluefish and striped bass. Most of the states in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took part in the study workgroup, in which Massachusetts had three participants. All of the New England states except Massachusetts since have posted health warnings about consumption of these fish. It seems odd to me that when fish cross the imaginary state line into Massachusetts waters they somehow become cleansed. Could be, ya know! There have been other Massachusetts Miracles. And if you believe that…!

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