Geoff Mullins

April 19, 2018

Restoring America’s Everglades Should Be a National Priority Right Now

Conservation champions from the “Fishing Capital of the World” will bring this urgent message to Washington, D.C., next week

The rich, diverse ecosystem and one-of-a-kind fishing opportunities in the Everglades have captured the imaginations of many Americans. And yet the response to South Florida’s decades-old conservation challenges has been drawn out and sporadic.

It’s time to prove that restoring the Everglades is a national priority. And there is a major opportunity coming up for Congress, especially, to show its support.

National Treasure

Not only is the Everglades home to hundreds of unique plant and animal species, it is the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America and serves as the water supply for more than 8 million Floridians.

Hunters lucky enough to experience this special place anticipate each new hunting season and with it the thrill of pursuing whitetails, waterfowl, or even feral hogs. And anglers know all too well why Florida is the “fishing capital of the world.” Thoughts of stalking snook in the Caloosahatchee, scanning for tailing redfish in the Everglades, and even drifting live bait for tarpon in Florida Bay is enough to get the heart and mind racing.

Along with these activities comes serious economic benefits: Recreational fishing in the Everglades region alone supports nearly $2.9 billion in total economic activity and more than 26,000 jobs.

 

Fly-In for Florida’s Fisheries

For all these reasons, restoring the Everglades and improving the flow of water south is vital to our economy, health, and way of life. But hasn’t been easy. In fact, it has been more like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube with some of the stickers missing.

Everglades restoration is about quantity, quality, location, and timing. We have to get the right amount and quality of water to the right places at the right time throughout South Florida—that’s a lot easier said than done. We’ve made progress over the decades thanks to some very dedicated partners, advocates, policy makers, and scientists. And in 2018, we could be on the verge of a significant step forward.

That’s why hundreds of advocates for Everglades restoration will come to Washington, D.C., next week to attend America’s Everglades Summit. Hosted by the Everglades Foundation, this two-day gathering will focus on the economic and environmental importance of a healthy Everglades ecosystem. Attendees will also ask lawmakers to prioritize policies and funding to keep restoration projects moving forward.

One of these projects is the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir that is a central component of the Central Everglades Project. Once completed, the reservoir is expected to reduce damaging algae-causing discharges of polluted water by 60 percent, alleviating inundated communities along the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. It will also send an additional 370,000 acre-feet of clean water south towards the Everglades and Florida Bay each year.

It is imperative that Congress seize this opportunity and authorize this important project in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act. Not doing so would mean another two years of unnecessary and costly delays for Florida’s celebrated fisheries.

Click here to tell members of Congress to seize this opportunity and prioritize the future of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

And read the letter from 176 hunting and fishing businesses urging Congress to authorize the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir in the upcoming 2018 Water Resources Development Act.

TAKE ACTION NOW

Top photo credit to Steve Davis

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Carl Erquiaga

April 17, 2018

Proposed Oil and Gas Leasing Threatens a Legendary Mule Deer Hunting Destination

Energy development in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains puts at risk the very qualities that make these public lands important to sportsmen and women

Often referred to as the Swiss Alps of Nevada, the Ruby Mountains in Elko County rise from 6,000-foot-elevation sagebrush steppe to alpine vegetation at over 11,300 feet on the summit of Ruby Dome. The rugged terrain is home to nearly every game animal in the state, including mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, and mountain lions, as well as Nevada’s largest mule deer herd. Resident game birds include Himalayan snowcock, blue grouse, chukars, and the greater sage grouse, while a host of eagles, hawks, and other birds are often seen soaring high above the peaks. Mountain streams contain healthy fish populations, among them the native Lahontan cutthroat trout. Hunters, anglers, backpackers, and recreationists of all types spend thousands of days and dollars each year camping and exploring this iconic mountain range.

Without a doubt, the Rubies are among Nevada’s most beloved landscapes and provide vital habitat for wildlife.

This past fall, the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest invited the public to comment on a proposal to lease approximately 54,000 acres in the Ruby Mountains for oil and gas exploration. Parcels under consideration for leasing extend in places from the foothills to the top of the range, and several directly abut the boundary of the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. Others lie within a mile of Ruby Dome and the scenic, high-alpine Griswold Lake. The proposed leases spread several miles on either side of Harrison Pass, a very popular area for campers and deer hunters, while the southernmost tracts encompass crucial winter range and migration corridors for big game.

During an initial 30-day comment period, the Forest Service received more than 8,000 responses from various agencies, individuals, and organizations. Tellingly, only a handful of comments supported the proposal. Sportsmen and women, especially, expressed concerns at the prospect of someday seeing roads, machinery, and oil wells scattered across the landscape. Besides the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, other sporting organizations voicing their objections include Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Coalition for Nevada’s Wildlife, and Nevada Muleys.

Because of the intense public interest in the issue, the Forest Service has extended the comment period on the proposed leasing until April 23, 2018. Concerned sportsmen and women must make their voices heard. Energy exploration in the Ruby Mountains would jeopardize the quality of the region’s wildlife habitat and the celebrated opportunities it offers to hunters and anglers. This rich and storied landscape is no place for drilling and development.

Take action now. Please offer your comments on the proposed leasing and ask that the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest:

  • Defer the leasing of any important wildlife habitat in the Ruby Mountains, including big game seasonal range and migration corridors, until a full Forest Plan revision can be completed.
  • Undertake a comprehensive upfront assessment of the potential impact of energy development on fish and wildlife in this area.
  • Commit adequate funding to prevent, monitor, and mitigate any damage or degradation to habitat and populations.

Photos courtesy of USFS

Kim Jensen

April 11, 2018

This is the Difference Between Blocking Fish Passage and Creating Portals to Habitat Heaven

When it comes to infrastructure that works for flood-prone communities and fish, not all culverts are created equal

When fish run into man-made barriers, such as roads or bridges, carefully planned and executed infrastructure can mean the difference between disrupting their typical migration and allowing passage to spawning grounds or more available food sources. Often, to get from one side of a road or bridge to another, fish pass through culverts, which are often long metal tubes that allow water to pass under a roadway.

But not all culverts are created equal. Some can be easily overwhelmed by rain or other weather related events and become hazardous for fish. Culverts that are too small can create fast-moving water, harming juvenile fish that aren’t yet strong swimmers. As the stream bank around a culvert erodes away, it can become perched too far from the surface of the water for fish to access it safely.

The people who designed these crossings never intended them to hurt more than they help, but we understand much more now about how to make culverts fish-friendly. This is particularly an issue in the Southeast, an area with an abundance of fish species but also some of the highest rates of fish endangerment. This is due, in part, to poor-quality stream crossings. Luckily, the work of conservation groups and the Trump administration’s appetite for infrastructure funding could turn things around in the Southeast and across the country.

Increasing Fish Passage One Culvert at a Time

Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, and sportsmen’s organizations have taken the lead on replacing culverts to improve fish passage. From 2008 to 2015 alone, the Forest Service and other partners invested more than $105 million to replace or remove 1,049 culverts on Forest Service land across the country. In the Forest Service’s Southern region, this led to the removal or replacement of 77 culverts, which reconnected 256 miles of aquatic habitat.

This work continues today. Sportsmen’s organizations like Trout Unlimited continue to reconnect fish and wildlife habitat through innovative and nature-based solutions to infrastructure. One of these efforts in the Southeast was the Roaring Creek Project that removed an undersized 36-inch-diameter culvert and replaced it with a 40-foot-wide clear span bridge.

Roaring Creek project before and after, photo courtesy of Trout Unlimited.

The old culvert had repeatedly failed, causing downstream flooding and necessitating its repeated replacement. The pipe had also become perched, stopping fish from crossing from one side to the other. The replacement bridge is not only strong enough to allow a fire truck to drive over it, now it also allows trout to pass from the headwater streams of Upper Roaring Creek to North Toe River, which is meaningful because Roaring Creek is one of the most productive native trout streams in the state. More than 4 miles of high quality trout streams have been reconnected because of this project.

Fish-Friendly Culverts Benefit People, Too

Utilizing fish-friendly culverts doesn’t just help fish and wildlife, it is also more cost-effective for taxpayers. During heavy rains, many small culverts cannot handle the increased water flow, causing roads—like this one in Cherokee County, Ga.—to collapse. Every time a culvert under a road blows out due to poor design, taxpayers have to foot the bill. Roads have to be closed, as traffic is diverted, costing U.S. businesses valuable time as trucks are detoured or detained. Importantly, this also impacts the roads that emergency vehicles can take.

 

However, stream crossings with natural bottoms or culverts that are appropriately sized for fish passage can withstand heavier rainfalls. In Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley, 100 dated culverts were replaced with fish-friendly alternatives that still remain, even after a catastrophic flood in 2012.

Culvert Revival and Funds

The TRCP is actively seeking to ensure broader installation of fish-friendly culverts through our work with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish Passage Prevention Roundtable. We’ve also joined with other hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations to champion nature-based solutions to infrastructure challenges and advocate for federal funding to help replace old, ineffective culverts. By highlighting the public safety, financial, and fish habitat benefits provided by effective culverts, the TRCP is working to move the needle on an issue important to anglers nationwide.

 

Top and bottom photos courtesy of USFWS/Katrina Liebich. 

Kristyn Brady

April 2, 2018

Featured Podcast: Why Hunters Should Care About the Farm Bill

Whit Fosburgh talks to Mark Kenyon at Wired to Hunt about Farm Bill basics and what’s at stake for habitat conservation and hunting access on private lands

We’re so grateful that podcasters like Wired to Hunt‘s Mark Kenyon are willing to geek out with us about conservation policy when it really matters. Even though we’d all rather be talking about what was on the trail cam yesterday, complex legislation like the Farm Bill will chart a course for the habitat and access projects of tomorrow.

Here are the basics on why it matters and what you need to know as lawmakers write and debate this bill.

 

Listen for more conservation news and deer hunting stories over at Wired to Hunt.

There’s an Access Payoff for Reporting What Fish You Catch and Throw Back

Anglers who report catch data using the latest apps help fisheries managers adjust seasons in real-time, so why are some still resistant to sharing?

Recreational angler self-reported data has come a long way. As it has suddenly dominated many of the recreational fishery management discussions over the past year, one might think the concept has come out of nowhere. But the Snook and Gamefish Foundation (SGF) has been working on refining the process for almost a decade, and our work has provided some valuable results. The Angler Action Program (AKA iAngler), a service project of SGF, was born in 2010 after an historic cold event severely damaged a host of tropical Florida wildlife, including snook—a native and highly prized gamefish.

In response to the possible crisis, we partnered with Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to design and build a voluntary self-reporting database that would start to get a handle on just how hard the fishery was whacked by the extreme cold weather. Snook anglers—who range from passionate to completely obsessed—were an easy target for soliciting help.

There were many successes over the following years, most of them ‘firsts’ in the world of fishery management at the state level. After helping with the design of the database and angler survey, FWC left us to run and manage iAngler and its data. Participation was fairly high, with thousands of hours of snook-directed fishing trips reported within months of program initiation. FWC found data useful almost immediately in a few areas, particularly regarding data on the fish we let go, called ‘discards’ by researchers.

Within five years, iAngler was expanded to include all species of fish on a global range, and it was used directly in five different Florida stock assessments for snook, spotted seatrout, and red drum. This is the first time that data collected and managed by anglers was used in a state-level stock assessment.

Around that same time, a lab at the University of Florida began running some analysis of iAngler data and comparing it to numbers from the Marine Resources Information Program, which currently collects data for all federally managed fish species. Despite having some design flaws, especially where the program forces commercial models on recreational fisheries, MRIP is responsible for what has long been considered to be the “best available data” for use by federal agencies.

The UF studies focused on how many fish anglers are catching and how big the fish are. This is especially important with discards, as this is an area of fishery information where many species are ‘data poor,’ meaning whatever the best available data is, it ain’t enough.

In general terms, the UF study found that iAngler data in Florida did have some limitations, or biases, however for areas where enough anglers participated the data lined up nicely with MRIP.

Right around the time these very positive results of iAngler data analyses started rolling in, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) reached out to SGF to see if we could partner up with the goal of getting a better handle on the Atlantic Red Snapper situation. Similar to the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers have been reporting anecdotally that they are experiencing an explosion in the population of this prized fish, yet the season had been closed since 2014 in the South Atlantic because the current data and modeling suggest that the population is still in trouble. Managers understood that there is a problem, but until data collection was improved or at least changed, their hands were mostly tied.

This new partnership led to a reporting tool called MyFishCount, which will allow anglers in the South Atlantic to report their catches – keepers and discards, along with a host of other data points – by this coming summer.

A pilot program was launched during the 2017 Atlantic Red Snapper season, and the results were again very positive. Anglers were able to report a variety of aspects of their planned snapper fishing trips through the system, researchers were able to see the data in real-time, and managers reacted to the data nearly as fast.

For example, the 2017 red snapper season was originally set for six days over two three-day weekends. Through MyFishCount, biologists and managers were able to see that the vast majority of planned fishing trips never took place, because the weather was not favorable for offshore fishing on those dates. Using this information, SAFMC was able to open a third long weekend of fishing.

The point is that anglers were asked to contribute, and because they did, their data was put to immediate good use. In this case, it led to more fishing access.

Not for nothing, the weather on that third weekend was pretty horrible, too. But this is ok for anglers: It means that the estimated harvest over the full nine-day fishing season is unlikely to overestimate the fishing effort, which could have led to less access in years to come.

“This is one of the few instances where you have technology, industry, fishermen, and scientists all agreeing on one thing—that we need better data in the recreational fishery—and most of us are seeing a similar approach to reaching that goal,” says Dr. Chip Collier, an SAFMC fisheries biologist who has been involved with the MyFishCount project since its inception.

He and his staff are very excited to have a new and improved version of MyFishCount up and running before summer 2018, and it will be functional for a wide variety of fish species, not just red snapper. “One of the great things about having it ready before the summer is that will be able to show anglers what self-reporting actually looks like,” says Collier. “The ‘fear of the unknown’ can make a lot of people hesitant to take the first step towards getting involved, and this will help.”

“The amount of positive comments we’ve received from anglers who participated has been great, and it feels like it really gives a voice to management,” says Kelsey Dick, SAFMC’s fishery outreach specialist. “I have been very grateful to see people coming together and being supportive of this project.”

The benefits of self-reporting are many. Through this kind of reporting, managers and biologists will get a better understanding of angler behavior on the water.

“We don’t have enough time to interview a lot of recreational anglers, so we don’t really know if people are using descending devices, or circle hooks, or other behaviors.” Dick said.

Mass, real-time self-reported data opens the doors to these types of data streams and that is extremely critical when trying to get a handle on how to best set management rules for a given species in a given region.

For example, in 2017 MyFishCount anglers reported very low use of descending devices or venting tools in shallow water (less than 5%), yet a very high (over 90%) in deeper water. Without the opportunity to self-report behavior like this, Councils have no way of estimating how many anglers are taking extra measures to help ensure fish survive release. And when you are managing ‘data poor’ species such as red snapper, any uncertainty in the modeling usually translates to less access.

Still, with all indicators pointing in a very positive direction, there is a lot of work to be done, and it is going to take time. “Managing expectations across the board is hard,” says Dr. Collier. Fishermen, scientists, managers and the industry all want this issue solved.

It is going to take some time, but the more anglers that get involved now, the faster we can improve the system and expand the functional uses. This type of data is not yet ready to answer questions like overall effort or fish abundance – researchers first need to understand just how this information represents the fishing community at large. But the mindset has changed greatly over the past couple years, from ‘the data is no good’ to ‘we must understand and measure biases in data, then account for those biases.’ This is an extremely encouraging trend.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation is working with The American Sportfishing Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a host of other conservation and fishing industry groups, state and federal agencies to explore ways to better integrate self-reported data the use of technology to improve fisheries management.

Management is going to happen whether the data improves or not. So getting involved and reporting through iAngler now, no matter where you are, is a very important step for recreational anglers. It not only allows you to contribute immediately to a brighter fishing future, but also to keep tabs on how the technology is changing fishing behavior and management so you can help shape the direction in the future.

 

Brett Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of the Snook and Gamefish Foundation. He is also a contributing editor to Florida Sportsman Magazine, and a special education instructor in the Palm Beach County school system for where he promotes an academic curriculum through environmentalism and resource conservation. Fitzgerald is an avid guitar player, fly tyer, photographer and fisherman.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

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The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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